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This trick only takes a few minutes, and you can try it tonight on your own picky eaters.

Let’s be honest: feeding kids is hard for all parents—even dietitians—and it’s something that I naively assumed got easier as kids got older. I thought that if I could conquer those first few years of feeding—introducing new foods, watching for allergies, and navigating toddler tantrums—then the rest of my meal times would be a breeze. Spoiler alert: I was wrong.

Dinner time over the past few years has pushed me closer to wanting to throw in the proverbial dish towel. My kids are 8 and 11 years old now, and though they’re not throwing temper tantrums or sippy cups it does mean they have personalities and can articulate opinions and preferences.

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Remember your toddler’s attempt to flex control by refusing to eat a food? Well, maturity doesn’t necesarily mean they grow out of this. Fights for control using foods still pop up, but are now also tangled up with moods, frustrations, and hormones.

Here are some examples of dinner time complaints that I’m talking about:

  • Sudden dislikes of once-accepted foods, as well as foods I know they still like
  • Groans or questions of “why that” when the dinner menu is shared
  • Shrugs or answers of “I don’t care” when I do ask for menu planning input

Regardless of the cause, complaints about dinner are annoying—particularly when you’re the one cooking at the end of a long day. I realized last year that I needed to step up my parenting game at meal times if I was going to survive, so I tried a trick that has ended up completely changing the dinner ambiance at our house (in a good way!)

It takes me just a few minutes, and requires minimal involvement on the kids’ part. Yet, it involves the kids and gives them just enough ownership over meals to stop them from groaning, complaining, or using food as control.

When I’m planning meals and making my weekly grocery list, I now require each child to discuss food preferences with me for the upcoming week (and by “discuss”, I mean more like provide input and answers to my questions for 30 to 90 seconds). Getting each child’s input is key, but the other essential component is how you phrase questions and, even more importantly, how you combat the “I don’t know” answers. Here’s a typical outline of how I go about it at my house.

STEP 1: Prepare yourself and your ideas.

Before I approach the kids, I find it helpful to do a little prep work. I take inventory and start my grocery list for staples and regular weekly purchases. I also think through some possible meal ideas for dinner, as well as lunch boxes, so that I am on top of my meal planning game when I bring in the kids. Because it’s easy for siblings to go along with the other one’s answers, I try to get feedback from each child individually when possible.

STEP 2: “Is there anything in particular that you’d like to have for dinner this week?”

I’ll start by asking each child this question. If my timing is good, I sometimes get answers like tacos or pasta, and I can drill down a little further to determine if that’s beef or fish, marinara or alfredo. Anything is game as long it’s within the realm of what they know I consider healthy (or healthy-ish) and can prepare. If I get off-the-wall answers, I simply tell them to try again. On a good day, I’ll get several ideas from each. Other times, I get little to no feedback.

IF no answer or constructive feedback, THEN:

That’s okay. The key is to not let them off the hook just yet because this where you are going to shift the dinner game in your favor. If they can’t tell me any dishes they’d like, then I respond by listing a few main dishes that have been received well in the past and ask if they’d would eat any of those for dinner this week (this is where my few minutes of prep can come in handy).

I can usually get confirmation of at least one dish that each kid would eat for dinner the upcoming week using this tactic. If you still aren’t getting anywhere, I will “require” an answer before they can go back to what they were doing. If you’re still not getting anywhere, another approach is to ask what basic protein foods they would eat—eggs, beans, chicken, hamburger, etc.

STEP 3: “What are two vegetables that you would eat this week?”

The next step is to have them identify side dishes. Since starchy foods aren’t usually the ones my kids complain about or are lacking, I’ve found easier to focus on vegetables or whatever food group is a challenge to get your kids to eat. Often my kids needs some options throw out to choose from like broccoli, carrots, green beans, cauliflower or salad. The end result is the same though: they respond by telling me two they are willing to eat that week. Once we’ve finished vegetables, then I usually go through the process again for fruits, and some weeks, I’ll even do it for snacks.

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IF no answer or constructive feedback, THEN:

Again, require an answer. Sometimes vegetables are the hardest area, so it’s the one area where I occasionally only get one selection from each child. Sure I’d love them to eat a variety and that will be offered to them, but my real win is that they have committed themselves to at least one vegetable.

The bottom line.

You want to walk away with each child having identified at least two entrees or protein foods, and one to two vegetables and fruits. This means that when meals are served, they’ve had a hand in the planning process. What’s on their plate is partly because of what they indicated they liked or would eat. I’ve found this gives them little room to complain—or if they do, I quickly remind them of who suggested it. A few other notes:

Notice that I started out by asking what they would “like to eat” but quickly moved to “would eat” when I got minimal feedback. I’ve found that kids tends to equate foods they “like to eat” with favorite foods, and I’m not asking that. My goal is to provide nourishment, so I want to know what healthier food options they would be willing to eat.

Expect your answers to be basic like “carrots with ranch” or “hamburger” and don’t force them for specifics. Run with their identified food preferences to then find recipes and to make a weekly menu. Also, this doesn’t mean you cater all meals to their preferences. Rather, you incorporate these foods regularly that week maybe even in a variety of dishes.   

I know, it seems to simple to work, but if you’re over the dinner time drama, give it a try. The positive changes that it’s had on our family dinners continues to surprise me. Another benefit? It’s taken a little bit of the weight of weekly meal planning off my shoulders. It’s not my fault if dinner isn’t what they wanted; we planned this together!