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Mealtime challenge is normal in kids,mealtime with kids can often feel like a battleground, where vegetables are the enemy and picky eating habits reign supreme. As parents, we strive to provide nutritious meals while navigating through preferences and aversions that seem to change daily. However, what if we could turn mealtime into an exciting adventure rather than a daily struggle?

Common mealtime challenges include food refusal, rejection of previously accepted foods, perception that the child has not eaten enough which in turn can lead to pressure to eat, negotiation, bribery, punishment, distractions at the table and general frustration on both sides.  As long as your child has plenty of energy and is growing well, he or she is most likely waiting enough to be healthy. 

6 strategies to deal with mealtime challenges

Managing your child’s eating habits can significantly impact their relationship with food and overall health. Here are some strategies to help guide you:

  1. Portion Control and Snacking:
    • Structure Snacking: Create a snack schedule to provide structure and predictability. This helps your child develop a sense of hunger and satiety, making them more likely to eat at mealtime.
    • Manage Portions: Serve child-sized portions and allow them to ask for more if they’re still hungry. Avoid overloading their plate to prevent overeating and food wastage.
  2. Familiar Foods:
    • Regular Family Foods: Offer foods that your family eats regularly. Familiarity can increase acceptance and enjoyment of meals.
  3. Family Meals and Role Modeling:
    • Eat Together: Share family meals whenever possible. Eating together allows your child to observe and mimic your eating habits.
    • Role Modeling: Demonstrate healthy eating behaviors. Your child is more likely to try and enjoy foods if they see you eating the same things.
      Role modelling

      Role modelling

  4. Descriptive Language:
    • Use Descriptive Terms: Describe foods with appealing sensory language (e.g., “crunchy carrots,” “sweet apples”) instead of using emotional language (e.g., “good for you” or “bad for you”).
  5. Avoiding Pressure:
    • No Pressure: Don’t pressure your child to eat. Phrases like “just have a bite” or “you need to eat your vegetables” can create negative associations with food.
    • Positive Environment: Create a positive and stress-free eating environment. Encourage them to try new foods without any pressure.
  6. Repeated Exposure:
    • Multiple Exposures: Don’t give up if your child initially rejects a food. It can take several exposures for a child to accept and enjoy new foods.
    • Involvement in Food Process: Involve your child in grocery shopping, meal preparation, and cooking. This can increase their interest and willingness to try new foods.
    • Visual Exposure: Use pictures and discussions about different foods to familiarize your child with them.

By implementing these strategies, you can help your child develop healthy eating habits and a positive relationship with food.

Why Mealtime challenges happen?

Mealtime challenges often arise due to various factors related to children’s developmental stages, family dynamics, and parental expectations. Understanding these reasons can help in addressing and managing these challenges effectively. Here are the main reasons why mealtime challenges happen:

    1. Developmental Factors:
      • Limited Attention Span: Young children naturally have shorter attention spans and can find it difficult to sit in one place for extended periods. This can lead to restlessness and distraction during meals.
      • Need for Activity: Children have a natural need to move and be active, which can make long, sedentary meal times challenging for them.
    2. Boredom During Meals:
      • Unengaging Mealtimes: Meals that are too long or not engaging enough can become boring for children. They may become restless if they aren’t stimulated or involved in the mealtime process.
      • Monotony: Eating the same foods or following the same routines without variety or excitement can lead to disinterest and restlessness.
    3. Parental Expectations:
      • High Expectations: Parents may have unrealistic expectations about how much or what their child should eat, leading to pressure and potential mealtime battles. This can create a stressful environment for the child.
    4. Variability in Appetite:
      • Fluctuating Hunger Levels: Children’s appetites can vary greatly from day to day based on growth spurts, activity levels, and overall health. This natural variability can cause concern for parents who might not understand why their child isn’t eating as much on some days.
      • Health and Mood: Illness, fatigue, and emotional state can also affect a child’s appetite and willingness to eat.
    5. Lack of Routine:
      • Inconsistent Eating Patterns: Children allowed to eat whenever and whatever they want may struggle to develop a structured eating routine. This can lead to poor eating habits and difficulties in managing hunger and satiety.
      • Unstructured Meals: Without regular meal and snack times, children may graze throughout the day, leading to decreased hunger at meal times and a lack of routine.

Make food fun!

Making food fun and engaging can significantly improve children’s willingness to try and enjoy healthy meals. Here are some strategies to stimulate their interest and cooperation during mealtimes:

  1. Bright Colors:
    • Colorful Plates: Create plates with a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. A rainbow of colors not only looks appealing but also provides a range of nutrients.
    • Food Art: Arrange the food in visually appealing ways, such as creating rainbow patterns or colorful designs.
  2. Creative Shapes:
    • Fun Shapes: Use cookie cutters to shape sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables into fun forms like stars, hearts, or animals.
    • Food Faces: Arrange food on the plate to make smiley faces or other fun designs. For example, use cucumber slices for eyes, cherry tomatoes for a nose, and bell pepper strips for a mouth.
  3. Involving Your Child in Food Preparation:
    • Inventive Snacks: Encourage your child to help prepare snacks. Pair vegetables with low-fat dressings or dips to create new, fun combinations.
    • Name Creations: Let your child name the dishes they help make. Serve dishes with a special name like “Natasha’s Snacks” or “Agnes’s Salad” to give them a sense of pride and ownership.
  4. Grocery Shopping Participation:
    • Age-Appropriate Lists: Give your child a shopping list tailored to their age:
      • Ages 3-5: Find a carrot, a potato, and an apple.
      • Ages 6-8: Find two different types of apples, two colors of tomatoes, and the biggest onion.
      • Ages 9-11: Find three fruits and veggies, and identify the names of different types of apples.
    • Treasure Hunt: Turn grocery shopping into a treasure hunt by challenging your child to find specific items.
  5. Cooking Together:
    • Interactive Cooking: Allow your child to chop (using safe tools), peel, measure, and mix ingredients. Cooking together provides hands-on experience and makes them more likely to eat what they’ve prepared.
    • Simple Recipes: Start with simple, child-friendly recipes that they can easily participate in, such as making a fruit salad, preparing vegetable sticks with dip, or assembling their own mini pizzas.
Make food fun!

Make food fun!

By incorporating these fun and engaging activities, you can make mealtime more stimulating and enjoyable for your child. This approach not only helps in developing a positive relationship with food but also fosters a sense of accomplishment and involvement in their own nutrition.

Creating a positive and engaging mealtime experience for your children can transform the way they view and enjoy food. By incorporating bright, colorful foods, using creative shapes, involving them in meal preparation, and making grocery shopping an adventure, you can make meals more appealing and fun. Remember, it’s normal for children to have fluctuating appetites and diverse tastes. Patience and consistency are key. With these strategies, you can help your child develop healthy eating habits, enjoy a variety of foods, and create positive mealtime memories that will last a lifetime.



Fussy eating and mealtime challenges. (n.d.). Feed Eat Speak – Stacey Zimmels. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

Cvetnich, L. (2022, March 12). How to Stop Your Child’s Frustrating Mealtime Behaviors. The Autism Connection.

7 ways to make food fun for your kids! (2021, April 30). The Cool Food School.

Do any of the statements below remind you of your child? Healthy Tips Picky Eaters for United States Department of Agriculture FNS-455 USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. Revised. (2012).