What’s behind “I don’t like that food”?

Heather Gray//March 21, 2023

What’s behind “I don’t like that food”?

Heather Gray//March 21, 2023

I don’t like that!  

I have heard these words so many times I think my brain has stopped processing them. No matter what meal I have prepared, I hear these words from at least one child.  I am sure you have, too.  What I have learned, at least with my children, is that “I don’t like that!” rarely means they don’t actually like the food.    

It could mean, I don’t want to eat that today. It makes me feel bad. 

I’m not hungry. 

I’m sick. 

I’m tired. 

I hate school. 

Or, I want a puppy.   

 Honestly, children’s ability to express what they mean is so poor that we, as adults, have to assume they don’t really mean what they are saying.  And we have to work extra hard at figuring out what they intend before we can decide how to best parent in “the meal situation.” Even the most well intended parenting will fall short if we have overlooked the real problem.    

Take me for example, until I became an adult, I thought I hated all dinner foods. Especially chicken and mashed potatoes. My grandmother was the only one who would accommodate my “likes,” as good grandmothers do, and made my potatoes without mashing them. It was amazing.  Fast forward 15 years and I found out I was allergic to milk. The mashed potatoes had milk in them, every single chicken dish my mom made had milk in it. Ughhh!  Casseroles! Every time I ate, I felt sick. And not because I didn’t like it, but because I was allergic. I couldn’t articulate the real problem. But my grandmother didn’t care how obstinate I was about food, she made me “special food.”  And for that I am grateful.  

So when your child screams, “I don’t like that!” after you have taken every precaution to avoid onions, vegetables and seasoning that could possibly be considered spicy, and are left with what is at best a mediocre dinner that YOU actually hate, take a breath, put down the plate before you throw it, and ask, “what is really going on here?”  

Is your child willing to eat yogurt instead? Or some other healthy alternative? 

If so, you can rule out: 

not hungry 

too tired 


wants a puppy  

If they aren’t willing, what can they say about the dinner or the alternative you offered? Is it too hot, too cold, does it taste bad?  Do they suggest candy? Or other snacks? Do they want to skip dinner altogether?  On one occasion, my daughter refused to eat dinner, again. I was out of patience and quite starving myself, when I realized she had a fever!  

Whatever is going on, don’t make it about you. The refusal to eat is rarely a personal attack against you as a parent or your skills as a chef. Many times these arguments have deeper roots, which is the tantrumming, complaining child.    

Here are a few ways parents can make dinner time more enjoyable for everyone. If you hear the words, “I don’t like that!”…   

  1. Don’t freak out and force your kid to eat something they don’t want. It will only end up with you being more frustrated and more exhausted even if you “win” that battle.  And whether you win or lose, there will be another battle tomorrow.
  2. Try not to yell/make food interactions contentious. Ultimately, we want our kids to enjoy eating and their time with family.
  3. Have a plan.  Your child doesn’t want the roast beef you spent all day making.  OK, let them grab a yogurt or make their own sandwich. Offering alternates is OK, good even!  Just don’t let the alternates consume you. Offering a PB&J sandwich isn’t any extra work and the alternatives shouldn’t be as appealing as a real dinner. 
  4. Ask questions and be patient. Remember to be firm, clear and consistent, because sometimes kids are just being defiant and it is about control. But also, leave room for grace, lots of grace. You don’t want to create an eating problem by making the dinner table a battlefield, when all your child wanted was a puppy.   
  5. Lastly, be creative. Think of ways meal times can be fun. When making a shopping list ask your kids what they want to eat. They may try to sneak in “ice cream for dinner,” but you will quickly see they do know what they should be eating. And if they suggest it, they will be more likely to consume  it.    

Be aware that there are some kids who truly do not like certain foods. But with my kids, the likes and dislikes changed from day to day and I could not predict if they would eat or not. Last week spaghetti was great! This week it is the grossest food they ever laid eyes on. It is exhausting. A true dislike of a food won’t change, it will remain consistent and should be easy to identify.  

The good news is, if this is a behavioral issue and you remain consistent, the behaviors will start to go away. There is only so much yogurt a child wants before they give up and eat the steak. My daughter, who has been difficult at every meal, has now become my best eater and enjoys more variety than anyone else in the house. The bad news is, she passed her dinner defiance down to her sister.    

And so, the cycle begins again.