The Dinner Challenge: The Way We Squashed Dinnertime Whining

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There is a special level of frustration that hits when your kids won’t eat what you’ve made them for dinner. Especially when you know it is something that they would like if they would just try it. The daily whining, crying, “gagging” (I think it was fake), at dinnertime was ruining our nights, and my husband and I just couldn’t take it anymore!

I’m almost embarrassed to list all of the different tactics we tried with our boys. Let’s just say that none of them worked. They were getting too old to be this picky and we had to make a change.

Enter: “The Dinner Challenge” (A very non-creative title for a chart system to reward them for changing their picky behavior)

Here’s how it worked. I created a sticker chart for each of my boys with seven days on it. If they ate their dinner without whining, complaining, or crying, they received a sticker for that day. If they whined or cried or didn’t eat the small portion they were served, they didn’t get a sticker and they went back to Day 0. If they made it through all seven days, they received a little toy that was sitting at the top of the refrigerator. The toys that they were rewarded with were something they were obsessed with at the time, so it was a great motivator. We did four weeks of the Dinner Challenge and they received a toy after each completed week. This was a legit challenge and it was not easy, but our boys needed some tough love.

There are a few components to this that I think made it successful:

  1. I didn’t push them totally outside of their comfort zone. I tried to think of foods that I know they like and expanded on that. They like bacon for breakfast, so I made BLT’s one night. They like hot dogs, so I made kielbasa and veggies. They like buttered noodles so I made baked ziti. They don’t mind rice, so I made fried rice with veggies.
  2. At the end of every dinner, I asked for their opinion. “How would you rate this dinner?” – and they gave me a thumbs up, down, or to the side. If they both gave it a thumbs up, we’d call it a “Winner Dinner” and write it on a list on our refrigerator. If they gave it a thumb to the side, we’d still write it down and we would revisit that dinner at another time. I think asking for their opinion is an important part of this – it lets them know that you value their opinion and want to make something that they enjoy.
  3. While the challenge was tough, we’d always use a lot of positive reinforcement while they were eating and congratulate them for being brave, trying new things, and being a big kid.
  4. I used this challenge to push the limits a little. I knew that they were really motivated by the prizes they would win. Because of this, a couple of nights I made something I knew would be a real challenge because I thought there was a chance they might love it! This was my opportunity to introduce new dinners to them that I knew my husband and I like. We tried Cuban picadillo, enchiladas, and coconut curry. They didn’t love them, but they also didn’t throw a fit about trying them. And to me, that was a huge win.

My kids were also picky eaters at restaurants, so one of the nights we did a “Restaurant Challenge”. They had to choose something off of the kids’ menu, order it themselves and eat it. It seems simple, but it was a challenge for my kids and they rocked it. Eating out at restaurants is SO much more enjoyable now. And it only took one night of the “Restaurant Challenge” to crack this code.

One day my husband added a “Breakfast Challenge” and made them try scrambled eggs again. They used to gobble up eggs when they were babies and then of course they “hated” them. Well, this challenge made them try scrambled eggs again, and guess what? They love them!

My kids are NOT perfect eaters now. They still have their nights where they are afraid to try what we are eating, but I do think that this challenge drastically changed how they view trying new things. They say things like “I don’t know if I’ll like it, but I’ll try it!” now, which is really all I wanted.

Here are a couple of our “Winner Dinners” that we eat frequently now:

  • Baked Taquitos (I use leftover taco meat or make them vegetarian with beans. I also chop up a bunch of spinach to mix in there and they never know.)
  • My kids devour these baked chicken meatballs. We eat them with spaghetti, or I use them as the protein in build-your-own bowls
  • This is one of the easiest, most delicious dinners: crockpot tikka masala. My older kid doesn’t love the chicken in it, so I make sure to add chickpeas too. My youngest scoops rice and the tikka masala onto a piece of naan and devours it. I add frozen peas to the crockpot too and they eat them right up.
  • Crockpot Picadillo. This one might be hard for a lot of kids with the olives, but the one thing my kids are weirdly not picky about is olives!
  • Baked Ziti with sausage and spinach.
  • Of course tacos, breakfast for dinner, and build-your-own bowls are always in regular rotation too.

Now when my kids request a specific dinner that’s not buttered noodles, I make a big deal out of saying “Of course! I’d love to make that for you. It makes me so happy to know that you like that dinner.” We get to eat dinners as a family now that everyone (for the most part) enjoys.

If you’ve got picky eaters as I did, this might be worth trying with your kids! Good luck!

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this! My older 2 eat everything I make, but my youngest has been quite challenging with dinner time. He is so picky and doesn’t ever want to try anything new. This is a great idea and I am going to use it!

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