Kids who refuse to eat can drive their parents nuts. Learn how to get a child to eat when they refuse.
One of the challenges I see in my work is picky eating. When a kid is refusing to eat it can be a real stressor on families. From typical toddler food jags to serious, chronic food selectivity in older kids, and everything in between, when a child refuses to eat anything, things can get stressful.
When you have kids that don’t eat, it’s natural to think they’re underweight, thin, or not growing. Yet, I’ve seen children who are perceived to be not eating and who are normal weight, or even, heavy.
So let’s address the first order of business: Your perception of what’s going on when your kid is refusing to eat.
Kids That Don’t Eat: Is It a Real Problem?
More than once, I’ve had parents tell me their child “doesn’t eat anything,” yet the growth chart indicates they’re gaining weight at a normal pace or at an accelerated rate.
Obviously, the child is eating enough to grow (and sometimes may be eating more than needed). However, they may not be getting the nutrients they need to be well-nourished.
Sometimes, there is a disconnect between how much the parents think their child should eat, and what is normal and appropriate for the child’s age. Remember, young children eat small volumes of food compared to kids and adults.
Bowlfuls of food for baby, or medium-size portions of different food groups at one sitting for the toddler may overdo it and exceed their nutritional requirements.
If your child isn’t eating, do a quick check of his growth chart and refer to the food portions that are appropriate for his age.
(Note: Babies, toddlers and kids should be supported during eating so they self-regulate their food consumption. That is, eating until they are satisfied, and stopping when they’re full.)
Should You Try to Get a Toddler to Eat?
Let’s talk about how to get your child to eat. I know that you might feel like it’s your job to get your child to eat food, but I want you to know it’s not.
Let me repeat:
It’s not your job to get your child to eat.
But, there are important aspects around feeding your child that are part of your job. Here’s what you’re responsible for:
- Setting up a positive environment at mealtime so that your child enjoys coming to the table (or highchair).
- Creating eating opportunities several times each day, based on your child’s age, so that he can meet his appetite and nutritional needs.
- Selecting, cooking and assembling a well-balanced meal that is tasty and has eye-appeal.
- Helping your child eat if he truly needs it, but simultaneously be hands off and let your child explore food on his own.
- Respecting your child when he says he’s done (and end the meal).
After that, you’re done. It’s all up to your child to do the job of eating at that point.
Refusing to Eat: A Rite of Passage for Young Children
Saying “no” is an act of independence for many children. A way to differentiate themselves, have a voice, and initiate their autonomy. Each child, I believe, has the right to say no. And that goes for eating food, too.
In toddlers, refusing to eat is considered a normal part of their developmental progression. It’s how they separate from their caregivers.
The push-pull nature of developing children is to refuse and push away, then come back in for security. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it’s normal.
As a mom of young adults and teens, I can tell you, this push and pull goes on throughout childhood, and well into adolescence.
They need you, then they don’t, then they do again.
When you know this, you will be less frustrated and more able to take food refusal and erratic eating in stride.
You Cannot Make a Child Eat
Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink?”
The same goes with children. You can bring them to the table, but you cannot make them eat.
Well, not in a healthy, nurturing, and empowering way.
Of course, some parents will try to make their kids eat. They think it’s their job to do so. (re-read your job above, if needed).
They will entice them with dessert, or some other reward. They will plead, beg, and nag them until they take a bite.
Some will even threaten and punish their child just to get one bit of food into them.
Let’s just pause here and think for a minute. What is the end result of all these tactics? One bite of food into that little body?
And, at what cost?
To win at the job of feeding? To ensure your child is nourished? To get her to participate in the meal? Respect you?
I can assure you that one bite of food will not make a big dent in the nourishment of your child, nor will making your child eat create more respect for you (or for the food).
What making your child eat may do, however, is erode the trust he has in you as an unconditionally loving and supportive human being (ahem, a parent), while potentially damaging or delaying his developing relationship with food (and you).
Do I sound dramatic? Probably.
The ramifications of making your child eat can be.
How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse
I know it can be really frustrating when your child won’t eat, and it can be stressful. If your child is underweight, you probably think about her eating all the time.
You can’t help yourself.
If your child won’t eat, yet otherwise he is “normal,” you may be perplexed. Same with the child who is picky and heavy or on a weight gain trend. Curiously perplexing.
What to Do When a Child Refuses to Eat
When a child isn’t eating, my advice may sound familiar, but it’s meant to calm you and give you some actionable steps. Here I go:
1. Have Loads of Patience with Your Child’s Eating
For many young children, this “not eating” phase will pass. For young children, food fear, food jags, and an unwillingness to try new food is time-limited.
If you do your job (above), your child will be better able to do his job (eat) and move through this phase on his own.
If you interfere by using pressure, rewards, punishment or other ways to get your child to eat, you are likely to incur a delay or a standstill in this area (ie, poor eating) for much longer.
2. Use Good Food Parenting for the Long Run
You can love your child and set limits. You can love your child and say no to his food requests.
The point here is that you need to keep your eye on the long term goal: raising a healthy child who navigates food and eating with confidence and ease. This is done, in part, when you stick to your job, feed well, and allow your child the autonomy to figure things out (in the context of structure).
While the short term goal of getting your child to eat today is tempting, you must recognize that it can be a trap. A trap that can send you down the road of frustration and negative interactions, which can damage your child’s autonomy and relationship with food in the long run.
3. Use Structure and Systems to Make Feeding Easier
I couldn’t have successfully fed my four kids without structure and systems. The structure I used included routine timing of meals and snacks, a regular place where meals and snacks were served, and a menu that was largely decided by me.
[If this is foreign to you, I encourage you to enroll in my program, The Nourished Child Blueprint. It details all of this so you know what to feed, how to do it, and the other habits you need to have in place to raise a healthy child.]
I used a food system that worked for our family. Mostly nutritious foods, but definitely some leeway for sweets and treats. My system wasn’t just around food. I also had a system for bedtime, nap time, activity, and for how each day would unfold.
Kids do very well with structure and systems. It anchors their day so they can expect and predict what will happen as the day goes on. This offers them security. When you have a good system and structure in place, you will be more comfortable with being flexible. This goes for food, too.
4. Set Limits to Maintain Your Structure and Systems
I meet many parents who are worried about what limits or boundaries may do to their children. Their fear? Saying no to their child.
They get caught up in how their child will react to limitations and this dissuades them from changing what isn’t working to a more structured plan that will better suit their child’s development.
It sounds like you’re telling me to let my child go to bed hungry.
It sounds like I will become the food police when I say no to a hungry child.
It seems like closing the kitchen is actually restrictive.
Of course, changing the way you feed your child can be scary. But when a child refuses to eat, that’s his right and his choice. It may reflect a lack of appetite due to slowed growth or a large previous meal, or it may be due to pickiness or other reasons. However, by moving to a routine structure with meals and snacks, you are supporting your child’s appetite regulation.
Setting limits around food and eating support your structure and system. Meals and snacks are opportunities to eat, not “have-to” times to eat.
Children learn by trial and error to make the most of their eating opportunities, rather than learn that they can eat at any time.
Here’s another way to look at it: do you set limits around bedtime? My guess is yes. Are there times when the routine gets off? Probably. Do you make an attempt to get back on the routine or do you stay with the looser schedule that may not suit the best interests of your child?
Setting limits or boundaries around food and eating is the same as setting a routine around bedtime, saying no to late nights, and yes to staying on a schedule that supports your child.
5. Let it Go & Let it Flow
So if your child is refusing to eat what you’re serving, don’t despair. Take a step back and assess the situation.
Is your child in the picky eating phase where it’s typical for this behavior?
If so, ride it out. And don’t make feeding mistakes that may prolong picky eating or make it worse.
Is your child losing weight and dropping foods from his diet without adding them back?
If so, seek out an evaluation by a nutrition professional or a feeding therapist. Figure out how to help your child resume his normal growth, and whether eating is a real issue that needs professional intervention.
I’ve got an article and resource on extreme picky eating here:
Is your child actually growing well and demonstrating age-appropriate behavior?
If so, maybe you need to ease up on the worry about eating and lean into cultivating the positive behaviors you want to see from your child. Meltdowns about getting food, negative behavior at the table, and demanding tendencies may be a sign that you need to flex your parenting muscle a little bit more.
Need more help with Feeding Kids?
Check out my workshops, classes and guidebooks to help you parent and feed your child better.
Do you like podcasts? Sometimes hearing someone talk you through a problem or a typical behavior can help tremendously. Subscribe to my show, The Nourished Child podcast, and get an episode every two weeks on a variety of different topics related to child nutrition. I even have several on the topic of picky eating!
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