Ezra,  Motherhood

Bite for bite: a dinnertime strategy for picky eaters

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Post updated March 2018: We have been struggling to get our second child, Little Brother, to eat now that he’s reached toddlerhood. As a baby, he would shovel in food and there was almost nothing he wouldn’t eat. Now he’s become a picky eater, turning up his nose at everything, saying, “Dis really don’t taste good.” He also really struggles with not chewing completely and getting food lodged in his throat. If we give him too much (meat especially) in a short timespan, he will end up gagging and throwing up his entire dinner! It’s been incredibly frustrating.

I tried this strategy (which worked well with our older child – you can read more about that below) with our younger child, and tonight it worked like a charm. I got him to eat several bites of roast beef and roasted potato, rewarding him with bites of baby food in between. I hope this strategy works for you as well!

Bite for bite: a dinnertime strategy for picky eaters | how to get your kids to eat when they refuse to open their mouth | dinner with kids | picky toddlers

The methodology behind this trick for picky eaters:

We came up with this strategy when our 4-year-old son was going through a therapeutic intervention program for behavioral, emotional, and attention-deficit problems. {Read his story.}

One challenge that we were having before he was enrolled in this program was that incentives didn’t seem to make any difference in his behavior. We have since learned that the way we reward him needed to change to better suit his limited attention span.

In the past, our attempts at incentives have been too arbitrary or long-term, rather than right in the moment where he can process it. We would reward for bigger tasks (such as “get dressed”) rather than small tasks (such as “put your underware on”). We have adjusted our use of incentives and also started using a lot more “if-then” statements to help our son focus on the things we need him to do. Constantly showing him “what will happen” (i.e. what’s coming next) helps to ease his anxiety and comply to simple instructions.

When it comes to eating, often his knee-jerk reaction is to refuse food, regardless of whether or not he actually likes the food (and he can tolerate just about anything). We have started to apply this strategy of smaller, more focused incentives for completing smaller tasks at the dinner table.

Use this when:

  • Your kids refuse to eat
  • You have a child with a limited attention span
  • Your child has a knee-jerk refusal reaction to food that’s not related to any sort of diagnosable feeding disorder
  • Your child dawdles at the dinner table
  • You want your child to eat more food, more variety, or less desirable foods that have been challenging in the past
LB eating a bite of roast beef

The trick: 

Rather than giving an incentive such as desert for eating dinner, reward bite-for-bite with foods that are desirable to the picky eater but are still healthy and within the realm of acceptable dinner (or lunch) choices, kept out of the child’s reach. We normally use fruit or yogurt.

For every bite of undesirable food the child eats, the child gets a bit of desirable food.

Note: This takes a lot of time and patience.

LB eating “reward” bites of yogurt

This bite for bite “trick” for picky eaters really is that simple. One bite of desired food as a reward for every bite of non-desired food. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

LB eating roasted potatoes


  • Bonnie DeZelar

    Excellent idea! Ya know, in this culture of instant gratification it makes total sense to do it that way! And the ADD and younger kid makes it smart, too. 🙂 Thanks Aprille for the tip!

  • Stacey Jordan

    I like this idea, wonder if this would work for my 10 year old? Getting her to try anything new is impossible and if she does most of the time she will act like she is choking on it and spit it out.

  • jannawhearty

    Forget kids, Im going to try this on my husband. He wont try anything new (he still does the choking/spitting out routine) and his response to my joining weight watchers was actually – and this is a direct quote – “Well, &*$%, now Im going to have to eat vegetable”.

  • stacy

    So, I tried this technique out with my 3 yr old who is the pickiest eater I have ever seen. It’s working soooo well!!! She’s trying new foods and even feeding herself. Who would have thought. So glad you shared this.

  • momssmallvictories

    Its great that you found a way to help him and get him to eat more fruit and yogurt. I used to have to do this on a lesser degree with my youngest. Though I would trade him a chip for several bites. Thanks for sharing with #SmallVictoriesSundayLinkup. Hope you link up again this week.

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