5 Classic Mealtime Messages that Create Picky Eaters

2-3 Years

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 her 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. These proper food parenting tips help you swap outdated sayings for smart messages and healthy habits. 


"Just a few more bites"

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 he eats 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 his next scheduled meal or snack, and he’ll learn to eat what his body needs.


"If you want dessert, clean your plate"

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 his body needs, but when a treat is on the line, he’ll ignore his fullness signals. Sweets shouldn’t be forbidden, but 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.   


"If you’re good, we’ll get ice cream"

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 use food to cope with his emotions.

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


"Finish your veggies and you’ll get a treat"

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 his body grow up strong, not because he gets to watch TV or have dessert in return.

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


"I’ll fix you something else"

When parents say: “You don’t want 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.”