How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals

This blog is sponsored by the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. A club all about supporting mums and dads do the very best for their children when it comes to food and feeding. 

It’s a club for members who want to learn all about how to nourish a child completely. 

We’ll provide you with the answers to your feeding problems like fussy eating and food refusal.

You’ll feel empowered with nutrition knowledge, inspired that you know what to cook, confident that you can manage mealtime behaviours effectively. Ultimately it’s about giving you the tools to grow a happy healthy eater. 

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It’s not uncommon for toddlers to suddenly start to refuse to eat foods that they once loved. Call them fussy eaters, picky eaters or food refusers, it’s all the same thing. They can refuse anything new and request the same favourites day in day out.

Would it surprise you to know that this picky eating is actually completely normal?

Why do toddlers go through a fussy eating phase?

Toddler’s appetites decrease simply because their nutritional requirements are lower, now that their massive growth spurt that they went through during infancy has slowed right down. 

What happens is they eat less as a result, they just don’t need as much food as before and so their appetite decreases.

How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist
How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Often parents get really worried by this because suddenly their toddler has become a child who as a baby would eat anything and everything, to a toddler who eats virtually nothing at all.

This can start somewhere between 10-14 months and depending upon how you respond can last throughout early childhood up to around 6 years old.

At the same time, food neophobia kicks in. This is when your toddler becomes suspicious of new foods. 

Toddlers are now more independent and are inquisitive about the world around them. It’s thought that neophobia may be an evolutionary survival mechanism to prevent these inquisitive little people from accidentally poisoning themselves by eating anything and everything they come across! 

Neophobia is a fear response and is an expected and normal part of child development. This means that toddlers may begin refusing foods that were previously accepted, or they may simply say they ‘don’t like that’ and push the food away.

There’s a lot of info in this blog, if you would like a PDF version delivered directly to your inbox, pop your details below:

How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist
How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

The most common question I’m asked by parents is ‘How do I get my toddler to eat when they refuse?’ 

The short answer is you don’t. 

When you encourage a toddler to eat repeatedly when they don’t want to, you are taking control of their eating rather than letting them be receptive to their internal hunger and fullness cues. 

This means you are taking over their ability to self regulate, something that they learned how to do really well during weaning.

As parents we want to nourish our children, there’s a really strong desire to feed them, to nurture them and help them thrive. As a result, sometimes negative feeding practices or tactics slip in. We all use them as parents to try and get our children to eat. They include praise, rewards, bribery, restriction and punishment.

Praise

Even giving your children gentle praise, saying well done for trying a new food or finishing their meal is teaching your child that you are pleased with their eating performance. 

Eating is not a performance sport. By teaching your child that eating pleases you, you are telling them that they should eat, even when they are not hungry because it makes you happy. 

If you have a strong-willed child, praising them for eating can actually turn that food into a food they begin to dislike. 

If you have a child whose temperament is a pleaser, this can lead to unwanted weight gain. Whatever temperament your child has praise can equal pressure, and pressure switches off appetite.

Rewards

Rewards can do more harm than good. Again rewarding a child for eating teaches them that you are pleased with their eating performance and that you want them to eat, ignoring their appetite cues. Research has shown that preschoolers who were offered stickers for eating their veggies, certainly ate more veg as they wanted the reward. However, those veggies went from being disliked foods to becoming hated foods. 

How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist
How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Bribery

Using food as a bribe isn’t a good idea either, the research has shown that children whose parents use bribery such as ‘you can have pudding if you eat your dinner’ grew into emotional eaters. I guess it makes sense, as the food bribe (pudding) made them feel good because they were conditioned to believe pudding was a reward. 

Restriction

Children who aren’t allowed certain foods such as sweets or chocolate often gravitate towards them at the first opportunity. We’ve all seen that child at the party who makes a bee-line for the treat table. 

What studies have shown is that the more foods are forbidden, the more appealing they become and because children are born with an innate desire for sweet and high-fat foods (it’s an evolutionary thing to help babies seek out breastmilk), they will have this biological drive to eat them. Couple this with restriction and an obsession to eat them develops. 

In the long run, this can lead to loss of appetite control, unwanted weight gain and eating in the absence of hunger.

Punishment

Can you remember as a child being punished for not eating something? I can, at school, I remember being forced to eat mince and dumplings and the minced beef was full of gristle. To this day (and I’m now 44) I cannot eat minced beef, no lasagne, no spag bol, no cottage pie etc in our house. When a child is punished for not eating a certain food, that food becomes a much-hated food. 

Negative feeding practices all lead towards your child growing up having an unhealthy relationship with food. At best you’ll have a fussy eater who regularly refuses food and may develop nutritional inadequacies as a result and at worst your child may start eating in the absence of hunger and become overweight or to deal with negative emotions.

So what should you do instead?

Perhaps the best way to describe this is by referring to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility of Feeding. She describes the parent’s role and the child’s role in the feeding relationship:

Parents role: To decide on the what (the menu), the where (the table) and the when (the routine).

Child’s role: To decide on the if (they may refuse), the how much and when to stop.

So how exactly do you do this? Here’s how:

The what

It’s your job as the parent to provide a healthy, nutritious diet for your child. This should involve meals, snacks and drinks. Have a plan. Sit down once a week and map out what you’re going to be eating and make a shopping list. It’s much better to do this than be stood by an open fridge wondering what to cook for dinner tonight and definitely better than asking your toddler what they want (they’ll always choose their favourite). Toddlers aren’t qualified to make healthy food choices. This is your role.

The where

Decide where are you going to eat and eat the vast majority of meals and snacks in that place. Sitting around the table is ideal but I know not every family has one. What’s most important is that you eat together. A rug on the floor will do just fine.

The when

Children thrive when they have a well-structured routine when it comes to meals and snacks. Having a predictable meal and snack time schedule throughout the day helps them learn how to self-regulate their food intake avoiding overeating at snack time and not getting a wide enough range of nutrients by having smaller portions at mealtimes.

But routine also offers predictability and with that comes a sense of security. It reduces their food thinking, their constant requests for snacks and their drive to help themselves to food in between meals.

Decide on a rough timetable that works best for your family. Children should have something to eat every 2.5 – 3 hours or so (teenagers can tend to go a little bit longer). It might look something like this:

        * breakfast at 7am,

        * snack at 10am,

        * lunch around 12.30pm,

        * snack around 3pm,

        * dinner around 6pm.

Design something that works for you and your family, just make a decision and aim to stick to it.

Now take a step back and trust your child.

How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist
How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Trust your child

First of all, I’m asking you to put trust in your child’s inbuilt mechanism for self-regulation. This is something that all babies are born with but gradually lose the more we ask them to eat and ignore it. 

My suggestion would be to serve meals family-style where children help themselves to the portion they think they will eat. You might be surprised to know that toddlers can do this and even weaning babies can point to food and indicate more and stop once they start having family meals. 

Of course, they will make mistakes, they will take more than they can manage, they are children after all and have 18 years of learning about how to eat with you as their teacher. Just say ‘Oops, next time maybe take a little less, you can always have second helpings’. Use it as a teaching opportunity. 

When you plate up their meals you are controlling how much they eat.

Eating together

Because you are your child’s teacher on food and nutrition, you have to eat with them. They need to see you eating the same food as them, firstly to know how it’s done (corn on the cob can be confusing if you don’t know how to get the kernels off) but also to know that it’s safe. 

Remember that neophobia phase I mentioned earlier? Seeing you eat, will teach your child that it’s OK to eat the foods they are wary of. 

And what about dessert?

It’s quite alright to set dessert out with the main course. That way there are no surprises and your child knows exactly what’s on offer. It’s fine if they want to eat the dessert first, you’ll be serving it in an appropriate portion size and so when they’re still hungry afterwards they can choose from what else is on offer.

How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist
How to get a child to eat when they refuse meals by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

But what if they still don’t eat the broccoli?

Well, that’s fine. I’d encourage you to have a side plate where a small amount of the refused food goes. That plate is just for learning and your child can ignore, look at, sniff, pick, poke, prod the food or spit out onto that plate if they choose to taste it. What you’re doing here is bringing the unfamiliar food closer so your child can learn about its sensory properties.

So there you have it, this article is just the tip of the iceberg. I teach parents to be spectacular ‘food parents’ and how to nourish their child completely inside my Happy Healthy Eaters Club. If you’d like to dive deep into food and feeding I’d be delighted to see you on the inside.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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8 Responses

  1. On principle, I like the idea of letting children help themselves to food, but there can be a lot of waste. I let mine help themselves to most foods, but when I don’t, I give little portions and insist they can always have seconds, or thirds, would that make up for not letting them do it?

    My main issue for the last year or two has been a child who is too busy living life to stay put for seconds, unless it’s a favourite. He’ll try pretty much anything, has even suggested unexpected combinations that have worked really well, but eats at full speed, then realises is still hungry, and I don’t want to extend mealtimes or let him go hungry,..

    On a different note, one thing that has helped me on occasion when I want my children to try something they are not very interested in, as we always have meals together (I’ll be sad when primary school begins), is telling them they cant have something, it’s just for adults. Nothing like the forbidden fruit! 😁

    1. Thanks for your comment, what your describing is they typical child development phase that all 2-5 year olds go through. As parents we aren’t taught this but I find that when I teach parents it all suddenly makes sense and mealtimes become much more collaborative, just simply because you know what to expect. Its something I’m going to be teaching in the Happy Healthy Eaters Club, because I think all parents need this information. Yes there is often waste, children make mistakes and thats OK, its our job as parents to teach them whats an appropriate amount of food to take. They are learning about eating all through childhood.

  2. Hi! Great information… My daughter is 3.5yrs old and absolutely picky eater.. I’m completely mad feeding her and need your help. Pls let me contact me on +91 9930750604 (India 🇮🇳)

  3. Hi Sarah, Thanks For your blog. I am seriously going insane with My 27-month old toddler. He doesnt wanna eat some of the food I give but he does certain specific food only. Whenever I give him something New, he would just brush it away by just looking (or maybe smelling it); then I end up giving the food that he likes to eat which js the same over and over again, else he wont have anything to eat. This is My dilema. And when I try to have him Sit on the table with Us, he is like all over the place (very active and can it he still) so i dont know what to do anymore. Im loosing patience ((sigh)). Any advice? Should i not give him his “Fave” food if he refuse to ear what i give or should i just in the end still give it? He likes “bread”, the toasted bruchette, and the cerelac nutri puffs and anything finger food biscuits. He wont eat chicken breast, meat, veggies ☹️. I’d appreciate in advance For your advice. Thanks.

    1. Sounds like your toddler might be ruling the roost when it comes to mealtimes, which is often how fussy eating develops into something more problematic. Yes I can help you, I run a positive food parenting masterclass inside my Happy Healthy Eaters Club and am also running a more in depth group in Feb 2022 for those who want to fast track. Details for the club are in the top bar of my website but if you are interested in the group programme, send me an email with your details sarah@childrensnutrition.co.uk

  4. Hi. Thanks for the information. But my 12 month old refuses to eat any food at all. Whether I try feeding him or offer finger foods. He was a great eater before 11 months at which point he started refusing meals here and there and eventually stopped eating all together – he’s almost 13 months. I try not to pressure and just end up focusing on his twin brother who is an okay eater. I model eating the same foods, right off his tray every meal and let him feed me what’s in his hand to show him it’s safe and tasty. I try bringing him to the table hungry (2.5 to 3hrs after a bottle) but he still refuses even though I know he’d chug a bottle of toddler formula at that point. I don’t know what to do.

    1. Ok, so I’d highly recommend a feeding assessment to find out what is going on. There are only 3 reasons children don’t eat: 1. they can’t eat due to a medical issue or haven’t learned the skills to eat yet (often seen if weaning has been interrupted), 2. They wont eat usually because of a sensory integration issue as the entire sensory system is involved in eating, 3. They are being prevented from eating which is where our food parenting practices can have the opposite effect and strong-willed children in particular, dig in their heels and refuse. I can do this assessment for you via Zoom (see my consultations page) or you can look for a local feeding therapist in your area.

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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