When Your Child Refuses to Eat | 8 Tips from a Nutritionist

I hear the complaint all the time: “My kid won’t touch anything we give him!”

Maybe for you it’s not that your kiddo won’t eat anything, but instead refuses to come to the table – wants chicken nuggets instead of the tacos you’re serving, or only touches the fruit on the plate and wouldn’t touch the veggies with a 10-foot pole. Any of these scenarios sound familiar?

You’re not alone. I’ve seen one too many families suffer through bargaining and tantrums to just stay idly on the sidelines. While it’s totally normal for kiddos to start to test their independence around the ages of 2–4 and begin to be more selective about the foods they’re willing to try, picky eating doesn’t have to be the bane of your existence. Mealtimes don’t actually have to be miserable. 

Perhaps the thing we forget most often as parents is that their refusal to eat is rarely about the food itself. It could be that they’re testing out how far they can go by saying no. Or maybe they’re just not as hungry. Depending on how much they ate earlier in the day (or earlier in the week), their bodies are adjusting and they don’t have the appetite that we think they should have.

No matter what the reason, the worst thing we can do is to pressure them to eat. Think about it, if I kept nagging you to try something or to eat a little bit more, you probably would resist even more, right? Same with kids. Instead, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to approach the situation the next time your child is refusing to eat what’s on his plate and is requesting macaroni and cheese instead. (It may not be easy, but trust me, it’s effective.)

  1. Remain calm. This is probably the hardest part, to be honest. Who likes it when you’ve worked hard on a meal only to have noses get turned up to it? Definitely not me. But your child will feed (no pun intended) off of your emotion and reaction. If you start to get frustrated, your child will emulate this and become too frustrated to even eat at all. If this escalation happens often, your kiddos will start to dread coming to the table. Who can blame them? So, take a deep breath and move on to step.
  2. Acknowledge your child’s desire and restate what’s for dinner tonight. If your child is requesting macaroni and cheese, let him know that you heard him and understand his preference for something else. Simply say, “We’re not having macaroni and cheese tonight. I know it’s one of your favorite meals. Tonight we’re having tacos, though.”
  3. Reassure your child she doesn’t have to eat it. If kids feel pressured to eat something (even if it’s just two bites!), they’re likely to resist even more. They don’t feel like they have the autonomy to decide what and how much to eat. Plus, if they truly aren’t hungry, it’s forcing them to eat outside of their hunger and satiety cues. Kids are born intuitive eaters, but this type of pressure will prevent them being able to stop when satisfied in the future. You can always ask them, “What’s your tummy telling you?” to help them learn to listen to their body.
  4. Request he sits at the table with the family. Even though your child is refusing to eat, it’s polite and good manners to teach him that he can’t go off and play (this may have been his hope, because even though I can’t understand why playing with Legos could possibly be more fun than eating tacos, to kids it almost always is). Not to mention, as kids continue to sit at the table, they’re more likely to touch, play, and (gasp!) even start eating. If nothing else, the exposure to the tacos and the food at the table is still considered a win. Your response could look like this: “You don’t have to eat the tacos if you don’t want to, but you do need to sit at the table with us while the rest of us eat.”
  5. Remind her when the kitchen will be open again. As a parent, your job is to decide when and what food is offered. Stick to your guns on this one. If your child doesn’t eat at dinner, she’s probably going to come to you wanting a snack later (guaranteed!). If you hadn’t planned for a snack after dinner, though, the kitchen needs to remain closed. It’s hard, but your child won’t starve and this will help her realize she needs to eat when food is being offered. At the table, remind her, “The kitchen is going to be closed for the night after we finish dinner. It’ll open again tomorrow morning for breakfast when we have cereal and fruit.”
  6. Add his request to the menu together. It’s important that your child feels heard and, even though you decide what food you’re serving, you can still get input from your kids. This helps build ownership and lets him know that even though he can’t have the macaroni and cheese tonight, it’ll be coming later. You could say, “After dinner, let’s look at the menu and we can find a good time to have macaroni and cheese next week.”
  7. Redirect the conversation and avoid pressuring her to eat. Lastly, let it go. Once you’ve reminded your child what the family is having for dinner, told her that she needs to sit at the table but doesn’t have to eat, and she knows when the kitchen will be open again, redirect the conversation to something besides food. Taking the pressure off of eating and the food will help everyone else enjoy the meal and also may entice your picky eater to take a few bites when no one is looking.
  8. When/if he eats, give an internal happy dance only. While I know you want to jump up and down, point out that he ate the tacos and say, “See, that wasn’t that bad was it?” Don’t. Smile to yourself and keep enjoying that taco of yours, mama. But also know that even if the taco goes untouched, that’s okay, too. You just made it through a meal with no yelling and each meal from here on out will only get easier.

Kara Hoerr is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in family and childhood nutrition. She’s originally from Iowa, but has called Madison home for the past 7 years. When she’s not helping families and individuals end mealtime battles or quit diets for good, she’s usually baking or cooking in her kitchen (she started making sourdough before it was the cool thing to do pre-Covid!), running or biking on the Madison trails, or relaxing with a good book. She never expected to start her own business, but here she is with Kara Hoerr Nutrition. She offers nutrition coaching and online courses to help moms (and dads!) out at the dinner table. To learn more or to set up a free discovery call, email Kara at [email protected], or find her on Instagram.

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