5 Mealtime Messages that Create Picky Eaters

They’ve been handed down through the generations…those classic parent phrases we tell our kids at mealtime. “Take a few more bites.” “Clean your plate.” When our parents said them to us, their intentions were good, but some of those messages make it harder for your child to regulate their own hunger and fullness cues. Worse, they can lead to picky eating, overeating, tantrums and other eating struggles.

Instead of following in our parents' footsteps, we have the opportunity to positively impact our children's relationship with food for life. Swap outdated sayings for smart messages and healthy habits. 

unhappy child

When parents say: “You didn’t eat enough of your meal. Take a few more bites and you can leave the table.”

Your child thinks: “I feel full, but Mom says I should eat more. I’ll go along with it so I can go play.” Or “I don’t want to, so I’ll have a tantrum!”

The problem: Trying to control how much they eat can lead to overeating or a power struggle.

Try this instead: Ask, “Did you get enough to eat? Remember, we won’t eat again until snack time.” Make sure you only offer water until their next scheduled meal or snack, and they'll learn to eat what their body needs.

mom and grandmom eating with child

When parents say: “If you eat all your dinner, you may have dessert.”

Your child thinks: “I’m full, but if I eat more food, I can have ... more food, and it’s dessert!”

The problem: Your child instinctively knows how much food their body needs, but when a treat is on the line, they’ll ignore their fullness signals. Sweets shouldn’t be forbidden, but they can be limited to once or twice a week (such as at birthday parties or after Sunday dinner).

Try this instead: When it’s treat time, give one serving to everyone, regardless of what or how much your child chose to eat from the balanced meal you provided.

mom at checkout with son grabbing candy

When parents say: “If you are good at the store, we can get ice cream on the way home.”

Your child thinks: “I deserve sweets every time I behave in public!”

The problem: While it might work in the short term, you’re creating a long-term bad habit that’s really hard to break. Bribing with sweets teaches your child to expect them for good behavior and to use food as a way to cope with their emotions.

Try this instead: Check out our entire section on handling tantrums without food.

family eating with distractions

When parents say: “You can play with my phone if you eat your broccoli.”

Your child thinks: “If I eat these yucky vegetables, I’ll be rewarded … I should always get a reward when I eat those gross veggies!”

The problem: Rewarding with screen time, treats, toys or other things reinforces the idea that veggies taste bad, so you need a reward to eat them. You want your child to learn to eat vegetables because they taste good and help their body grow up strong, not because they get to watch TV or have dessert in return.

Try this instead: Check out our tips on getting your kids to try veggies.

mom with picky eater

When parents say: “You don’t want the chicken? I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich.”

Your child thinks: “Great! Mom will always make me whatever I want. I don’t ever have to try anything else.”

The problem: You don’t need to spend time as a short-order cook, and it can lead to picky eating.

Try this instead: Make one, balanced meal for the entire family. Say, “We’re having chicken for dinner tonight. We can have peanut butter and jelly for lunch one day this week.”