Many parents can relate to the frustration of having a child refuse to eat anything. It may start off small, with them turning up their nose at the “wrong” kind of chicken or the “stinky” broccoli.
Then the next thing you know you’re making the same three items for every meal and wondering if your toddler can actually survive on buttered noodles, crackers, and apple slices.
Before falling into a pattern of mealtime battles or simply serving cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, keep in mind that refusing to eat is a common childhood behavior. And in most cases, it isn’t due to anything major but instead caused by totally normal things like:
- personal preference (confession: we don’t always enjoy cauliflower, either — though its benefits are undeniable)
- lack of hunger
- reluctance to try something new
- common childhood illnesses (like a sore throat or tummy ache)
- an off day (we all have ’em)
However, occasionally more serious issues are at hand. And even if not, you don’t want a phase to turn into a lifelong habit. So it’s important to understand why your little one may refuse to eat, as well as ways to encourage a healthy relationship with food.
Is it just picky eating?
When a child refuses to eat, the first thing many parents do is label the child a picky eater. But it’s important to know what this label actually means and that it’s not the only reason why kids stop eating.
A picky eater is typically a person who refuses to eat certain types of foods or only wants to eat the same foods over and over.
While the rest of the family enjoys a variety of foods at a meal, they might only want chicken nuggets or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In many cases, their refusal has a lot to do with preference.
On the other hand, in addition to limited preferences, you may notice other issues, such as gagging or difficulty swallowing or chewing with certain foods. While this is uncommon, it could be a clue that your child isn’t just being stubborn. There could be an underlying issue at hand, which we’ll get into later.
Whatever the issue, you shouldn’t try to force a child to eat. But it’s not on you to become a short-order cook, either. A better approach is to try to include at least one of their healthy preferred foods at each meal while also offering other foods.
You can allow them to eat (or put) only what they like on the plate. They might brush aside the rice and broccoli, but happily eat the chicken. The key is to have a variety of foods available and keep things positive.
Set up for success at mealtime
Here are a few ideas that might encourage your picky eater to enjoy sitting down to the table for a meal — while sampling a variety of foods.
Limit mealtime distractions
Allowing tablets, smartphones, and TV watching during mealtimes can cause a kid to lose all interest in eating. While it might seem like a way to keep them quiet and busy, it’s better to restrict the use of electronic devices and other distractions while eating. You can model this by putting your own cell phone away, too!
With the focus on food, conversation, and family bonding, it might be easier for your child to eat. Also, make sure the eating area is relaxed and that everyone has space to enjoy their meal. Use a booster or find a chair that fits your child appropriately so that they’re comfortable at the table.
Serve appropriate food portions
Maybe the problem isn’t that your child refuses to eat, but rather they refuse to eat all the food on their plate. Remember, children don’t need as much food as adults. So if you put too much on their plates, they might not finish. This is not because they’re being difficult, but because they’re full.
Try putting a smaller portion in front of your little one. They can always ask for a second helping.
Remember, too, that they might not be hungry in the first place. Children, especially young ones, can have big swings in their appetites over the course of a day or even over days to weeks. It’s not necessary for a child to eat at every meal.
Don’t schedule mealtimes too close to bedtime
Getting a sleepy, restless child to sit down and eat can be a challenge. So don’t schedule meals too close to bedtime or too soon before or after an activity. If this means multiple meals to work with everyone’s schedule, that’s okay.
Eliminate mealtime stress
Forcing, pressuring, or yelling at a child to eat doesn’t help the situation. Once they become upset or start crying, any chance of them eating goes out the window. So while you may want to encourage eating, don’t put too much pressure on them.
Involve your child in food preparation
Though many young children like the same foods day after day, variety can add excitement to a meal. If you find yourself serving the same type of food over and over — maybe even because your child requested that food in the first place — it’s possible that changing things up can help.
Allow your child to help you choose new foods to try. Encourage them to help with planning, shopping, and food preparation. If they help prepare the meal, they might be more excited to eat.
Reduce non-mealtime foods and drinks
Some children refuse to eat when they’ve had too many snacks or drinks during the day. They have smaller stomachs, so it doesn’t take much for them to become full. And if a child doesn’t feel hungry at mealtime, they’re less likely to eat.
So while you don’t want to deny your child food in the event of true hunger, you may want to discourage easy snacking — say, a bowl of munchies out on the table — that can lead to mindless eating and too-full tummies by dinner time.
Understand your child’s eating style
Depending on your child’s eating style, they may require more or less food at different times of the day. So while your child might refuse to eat at dinner, they may eat plenty for breakfast or lunch.
Is the problem a sensory issue?
To be clear, most of the things that might cause a young child to refuse food are completely — and perhaps frustratingly — normal. Welcome to parenthood.
But there are some issues that are quite rare, but more concerning when they occur.
For example, rarely, some children also refuse to eat because they have sensory issues with food. This is quite different from having a picky eater. Whereas a picky eater may not like a food, eating this food item doesn’t cause sensory overload.
Children with sensory issues may be sensitive to certain textures or colors of food. These issues vary from child to child. For example, if a child can only tolerate soft foods, they may gag when eating anything with a crunchy texture.
If your child is diagnosed with a sensory issue affecting their ability to eat, addressing this may involve understanding your child and introducing foods that appeal to their senses. So if your child can’t handle green foods, but is okay with orange or yellow food, you might add more sweet potatoes and carrots to the menu.
Some children also benefit from feeding therapy, which can help them develop healthier feeding patterns and behavior. This type of therapy can help those who have difficulty chewing, swallowing, or eating certain textures, and address other problems related to food.
Is the problem an oral motor skill issue?
If your young child has feeding difficulties, the problem might be an oral motor skills issue or trouble with the mechanics of eating. (Again, this is much more rare than simply “picky eating,” but some children do experience it.)
With an oral motor skill issue, your child may do a lot of coughing, choking, or gagging while eating. This can cause food-related stress or anxiety, and if your child stops eating, it could lead to nutritional deficiencies in the long run. Feeding therapy may also help your child overcome this issue.
Is the problem pain related?
If refusal to eat is a relatively new problem, the issue could be something that makes eating painful. This is more likely if your child has other signs of illness such as fever or diarrhea. Rather than become frustrated with your child, ask questions (if they’re old enough to answer) to get to the root of the problem.
Some issues that can make eating painful include:
- sore throat
- acid reflux
Some children may also refuse to eat if they’re having other issues, too. Constipation can make your child’s stomach feel bloated, which could affect their appetite.
Or, your child may have a food allergy or sensitivity and experience mouth, stomach, or gas pain after eating a particular food. As a result, they may begin to associate food with pain and refuse items.
Is the problem behavioral?
Kids can be stubborn just to be stubborn. (Take a deep breath and remind yourself: This isn’t necessarily a bad trait and could even be useful later on.)
But sometimes there are deeper things going on. Has your child experienced a major change recently? Maybe the family has moved to a new house or city, or maybe a loved one or pet has died. Some children lose their appetite and stop eating because of a stressful situation.
The good news is that refusal to eat in these situations is usually temporary. Talking to your child about the situation and offering reassurance can help them feel better.
Keep in mind, too, that a child may stop eating as a way to exert some control in their life. But meals don’t have to be a power struggle between parent and child.
If you sense the underlying issue is control, serve at least one food that your child will eat, and don’t make a big deal about not cleaning their plate. The more you insist that they eat, the more they may refuse to eat.
Is it an eating disorder?
Eating disorders can develop in children. One rare type that can affect a child is avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. This is when food refusal and limiting become so extreme that a child has nutritional and energy deficiencies.
Children with this disorder have trouble maintaining healthy growth and their food avoidance affects other areas of their lives such as school and relationships.
Some older children may also struggle with bulimia or anorexia. Possible signs of an eating disorder can include:
- dizziness and fainting
- low body temperature
- extreme weight loss
- irregular menstrual periods
- slow growth
- brittle nails
- hair loss
If you suspect an eating disorder, talk to your child and bring these concerns to the attention of their doctor.
Refusing to eat is a common parenting challenge. In fact, it’s often practically a rite of passage during the toddler years. This can cause much anxiety for parents, but it’s usually normal and often temporary and eventually resolves on its own. (Phew.)
But while picky eating or the normal ups and downs of a child’s appetite can be the root issue, it’s not always the only cause. Depending on how long the problem continues and what other symptoms a child has, it might actually be caused by another issue that should be addressed.
Finding ways to address food refusal in a positive way can help resolve the problem and lead to happier mealtimes, but if you suspect underlying issues beyond the norm, talk to your child’s pediatrician.