Tired of Preparing a Separate Meal for Your Picky Eater? How to End Short Order Cooking

The truth is that most parents want to stop preparing a separate meal for their picky eater.  They just don’t know how.

If you’re like the parents I work with, this situation feels like your only option. Your picky eater refuses to eat other foods and you’re left with the daily duty of preparing one of an ever-shrinking list of accepted foods.  

You are probably reading this with a bit of skepticism and pretty sure that this approach isn’t going to work for YOUR very stubborn child, and is more than your frayed meal time nerves can handle.

I’ve been in your shoes and used these techniques with my own picky eater.  It is possible to end the ritual of making a separate meal for your picky eater. 

In this article, I explain both why short order cooking is reinforcing the behavior you want to stop and what to do instead.   


Why Preparing a Separate Meal Contributes to Picky Eating

It’s easy to view preparing a separate meal as a solution to the challenge of a picky eater, but in reality it is contributing to the problem. 

Puts Child in Control of Meals

When you fall into short order cooking, your child is in the driver’s seat and is calling the shots when it comes to what he is going to eat. A common mistake many parents make is asking their child questions like “what do you want to have for dinner?”

One of the the most important feeding principles is called the division of responsibility. It clearly defines your role as the parent at meals.  Your responsibilities are to decide when, what and where meals will occur. Your child decides if and how much to eat.  

These clearly defined roles are easy to lose sight of especially when you are stuck in a rut of preparing a separate meal. However, this simple concept used in combination with the strategies I’ll cover in the next section will allow you to serve a single, family meal.

Limits Exposure to New Foods

If you can count the number of accepted dinner options on one hand, you’re not alone. If that number seems to be shrinking and foods that your child used to eat are now snubbed, you have firsthand experience with the effects of food jags. 

In my experience, many children continue to develop a more narrow range of accepted foods and parents often come to me desperate to expand the number of foods their child will eat. 

One of the key factors in getting your child to eat new foods is being exposed to new foods. When you have a picky eater and have fallen into the short order cooking rut, exposure to new foods has been shoved aside and your child has little or no opportunity to expand his food choices.   


How to End Short Order Cooking

If you are ready to stop serving a separate meal and remove your short order cook apron, use this approach to plan and serve a single, family meal.

Serve a Preferred Food at Each Meal

The essential element to transition from short order cook to family meal maven is using preferred foods as an anchor at meals. A preferred food is one your child eats 50% of the time when it is served. Each meal (or snack) should include a preferred food.

Start by writing down all of your child’s preferred foods. If this is a very short list or is primarily items like chips or snack foods, don’t worry, this approach will still work for you. Once you have a list of all preferred foods, you then include one with each meal.

This means that you may be serving potato chips with dinner. Your child is welcome to take as much of this food as any other foods served at the meal. You’re probably thinking that your child is only going to eat potato chips for dinner. That might happen, but with consistency and exposure, your child will surprise you. Avoid the urge to pressure your child to try foods.  We’ll talk next about how and why to serve meals family style.


Serve Meals Family Style

If you feel like family style meals is a bit old-fashioned, you might be right, but it’s also a tried and true method. With family style meals, each member of the family serves their own food taking some of each of the food served.

Family style meals provide exposure to non-preferred foods. It isn’t an expectation that your child eat all foods from his plate, but just the simple act of looking at the food, using a serving utensil and having the food in his immediate area at meals are hugely beneficial to help your child try new foods.

When your meals include a preferred food but also provide exposure to new foods in a low pressure way, you will be surprised at how quickly your child might start blurting out statements like “do you think I would like ___?” You can nonchalantly respond, “I don’t know, but I can think of a way to find out.”

Set Reasonable Expectations

Your meals don’t need to look like they are cut from the pages of a gourmet magazine to be nutritious. When you are feeding a family, it is more important that your meals are functional.  

It may be necessary to serve food deconstructed so with toppings and ingredients being added by each member of the family. Divided plates or even a separate plate for non-preferred foods might help the transition. 

Getting in the routine of planning and preparing a family meal can feel daunting. Keeping the menu simple and leveraging preferred foods can help to make sticking with the change easier. 


If you are tired of preparing a separate meal for your picky eater, frustrated by the shrinking list of accepted foods and worried about if your child is getting enough essential nutrients, it’s time to stop being a short order cook.

By leveraging the foods your child prefers and always including one at meals, serving foods family style, you can create the needed exposure to new foods that will help your child try new foods.


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