There’s nothing quite like spending time prepping, cooking, and serving a meal, only to have your child turn his nose up to it and push his plate away. Ugh, I’ve been there so many times and know how frustrating it feels. What I’ve learned though, is not to take it personally (which is hard) and that there are several common reasons why this happens.
Here are the most common reasons why your child is refusing to eat at meals, and what to do about it:
If a child feels any amount of pressure to eat or senses that you as the parent are anxious at mealtimes, she will likely back off and not eat. Toddlers and young kids sense pressure, even if it’s not as direct as “eat your peas!” If you focus too much on what and how much she’s eating during a meal, instead of allowing her to simply be another eater at the table (while you focus on your own meal), she will back right off. Perhaps you push food closer to her, watch her every move, hover over her, continually take uneaten food off of her tray and replace it with new food, talk about her lack of eating, or try to spoon-feed her–these are all forms of indirect pressure.
How to fix this: Let your toddler self-feed and eat at her own pace at meals, provide lots of food variety at meals in manageable amounts, and let her be in charge of whether and how much she eats.Try your best not to hover over your child. I know–it’s hard not to when she’s hardly touching her food. Sit back and engage in conversations with the whole family, including your child. If you can think about mealtime moreso as family bonding time than “get my kid to eat time”, your child won’t feel as pressured and will be more open to trying new or previously rejected foods.
We know from research that kids eat better when they have a hand in helping with shopping, preparing, cooking or serving their meal. That’s why it’s important to include kids in meal prep–even getting them to mix together ingredients or set the table can help. And even though parents should ultimately be in charge of the “what’s” of feeding, kids might feel as though they have no control over what they’re fed if parents don’t include them in choosing foods once in a while. They may grow bored of what you serve them, or perhaps they don’t like the way that their foods are placed on their plate.
Here's how to fix it: We know it’s important to set healthy boundaries and meet your responsibility of “what, when and where” but it’s also ok to let your kids be a part of this, especially when it comes to the “what’s”. There are a few ways to include your kids in the meal process. And they all have something in common: you’re giving your kids structured choice. Structured choice is key when it comes to feeding kids. It gives them some say and makes them feel as though they have a bit of control, but it allows you to still ultimately be in control.
Some of these strategies will work better for younger kids and some with older kids.
Shopping: Bring them shopping and ask them what they want to try from each section. Give them 2-3 choices in each section of the grocery store. You could say some- thing like “do you want to try kiwis, cutie oranges or blackberries this week?”. Or if you’re shopping for cereal, you could say “do you want to try cheerios, shreddies or oatmeal squares this week?”
Meal or snack planning: Let your child help with plan- ning out the week’s meals or even just what they’ll have for a snack that afternoon. If meal planning, you could say “on Wednesday, we’re going to have salmon. What would you like to have with it? Rice, quinoa or pasta? And what about veggies... we could have roasted asparagus, caesar salad or raw veggies and dip. Which ones would you like?”
If it’s snack time, you could ask your child “would you like yogurt with a pear or a banana muffin and cheese?” and let them decide.
Preparing: You could say “it’s time to help me make din- ner now” and ask your child if they’d like to rinse fruits and veggies, mix ingredients in a bowl or set the table. Let them decide which would be most fun (or they could do more than one!).
I realize that involving your child in meal planning, preparing and cooking can make the process longer and maybe a bit more frustrating. But the benefits are huge and it’s worth it. Patience is key.
I’m like any parent and get stuck in “food ruts” where I serve the same thing over and over again. Translation: major kid boredom. Here’s an example: after my third baby was born last Fall, I felt as though I was in survival mode for a few months (I still do sometimes) and sent my son to school with the same snack pretty much every day. A healthy granola bar, cheese or yogurt and a piece of fruit. Yep, the same thing over and over again. I was basically sleep walking in the morning when I was getting my two older kids ready for the day, so I felt like it was a win that I was even remembering to pack my son’s snack! Anyways, he started coming home with most of his snack uneaten not just once, but pretty much every day. In my sleep-deprived state, I didn’t realize that he could be growing tired of his snack, even though he used to love it.
How I fixed it: I asked him why he wasn’t eating his snack and he said “I don’t know, I just don’t like it any more”. I then asked him if he was bored of it and he replied “yes I’m bored of it”. We then came up with a few new and different snack option for him together and I try to rotate through 3 or 4 of them so that he doesn’t get bored. We get bored of certain foods and so do our kids. This is usually an easy challenge to overcome.
We now know that toddlers’ and kids’ appetites can be unpredictable and erratic at the best of times. After the age of two, growth slows and stabilizes which means that toddlers aren’t as hungry as they used to be. We’ve talked about kids having “hungry days” and “full days” and that could mean that one day, your child out-eats everyone at the table, and another day he doesn’t eat much at all at his dinner. As long as you’re maintaining your feeding roles and staying consistent with mealtime boundaries, your child should be in charge of whether and how much he eats. It is possible that your child is simply not physically hungry when a meal is served (for whatever reason) and that’s ok.
How to fix it: Try to accept “I’m just not hungry” as an acceptable answer, and remind your child that the kitchen will be closed after mealtime.
Allowing your kids to watch TV, watch an iPad, or play with toys at the table is a recipe for distraction. Screen distractions can work in two ways (both of which are negative in my mind). When a child is watching a show or playing a game on an iPad while eating, he is focusing most, if not ALL, of his attention on the show he’s watch- ing or game he’s playing. There is no attention left for eating his meal, let alone listening to his tummy. With a screen in front of them, kids will can easily under or over-eat because they’re just not paying attention. Young kids have a hard enough time focusing on their meal with minimal distractions let alone a big shiny moving screen in front of them. The same goes for toys and playing with siblings at the table.
How to fix it: Set healthy boundaries by not allowing screens or toys at the table while eating. Seat kids strategically so that they can’t touch each other. Also, put a footstool under your child’s chair so that they feel as though their feet are steady and stable (this could poten- tially be another distraction).
Some kids are turned off of a meal simply because the portion that they’ve been served is too large and over- whelming. This was never a problem with my oldest son, but is definitely a problem with my daughter. I used to serve her the same amount that I served my son (this was a mindless habit that I got into), but then after many meal rejections, realized that I was serving her too much. We were wasting food and my daughter was overwhelmed with the portions that I was offering.
How I fixed it: When I cut her portions down (by more than one half!), she started eating her meals again and sometimes even asked for more. I served her less of everything, but still made sure that she was getting a nice balanced meal. I realized that I am like his too–if I’m served too large of a portion of any food, I immediately become turned off and don’t eat as much.
If your child isn’t feeling well, it’s unlikely that he or she will eat well at a meal. This is often the first sign that an illness is coming on. In this case, make sure that you keep your child hydrated, and offer easy-to-digest foods such as white rice, banana, white bread, soda crackers, popsicles, soup and apple sauce until his/her appetite returns.
How to handle it: Offer foods often when your child is sick but don’t push them–fluids are most important. If you’re noticing that your child isn’t interested in eating and is acting a bit “off”, unusually tired or lethargic, this could be the case.
Your child could also be having digestive troubles (such as constipation or acid reflux) which can make it uncomfortable to eat. If you suspect that this is the problem, focus more on higher fibre whole grains, fruits and veggies and lots of fluids (constipation) and steer clear from high acid foods such as tomatoes and citrus fruits, and spicy foods (acid reflux). If these issues persist, talk to your child’s doctor or a paediatric dietitian for further help.
Between-meal-milk-drinking can have a satiating effect. Milk contains fat as well as protein—two nutrients that make kids feel full.
How to fix it: Toddlers and children should be offered no more than 500mL (two cups) of milk per day. Try offering half a cup at each meal (or right after), which leaves room for another half cup before bedtime if that is part of your routine. Water should be the only fluid offered between meals for hydration.
Juice contains excess calories and sugar that children don’t need – it fills them up with little nutritional value. Did you know that a 250 mL (1 cup) juice box contains six teaspoons of sugar? If your children drink juice, limit it to no more than 125 mL (1/2 cup) per day and water it down (and offer at meals with food).
Kids who “graze” between meals often, or snack randomly throughout the day may come to the table feeling too full to eat. their meal. This is why it is so important to establish structure around snack times.
How to fix it: There should be a designated snack time where one or two foods of the parent’s choosing (such as yogurt and fruit or cheese and crackers) are offered, rather than snacking being a ran- dom free-for-all in between meals. Toddlers and young kids need to be given the chance to build an appetite for meals, otherwise, they won’t eat much and it will be harder for them to learn self-regulation. This not only disrupts family mealtimes, but can also affect a child’s nutritional intake and overall relationship with food over time.
It is very possible that your toddler or young child is simply too tired to eat. After a long day of playing, daycare, preschool, kindergarten etc. some kids just don’t have the energy to bring fork to mouth. If you’re finding that your child is fussy, easy to cry, rubbing his or her eyes, or otherwise showing signs of “hitting a wall”, that’s probably what’s happening.
How to fix it: Encourage him/her to fill their tummies before bed as best as they can, and remind them that there is no more food until morning. If they don’t eat much, know that they’ll make up for it at some point the next day or during that week, so there’s not too much to worry about.
If you’re finding that your child is tired regularly at dinner however, it might mean that they need an afternoon nap (or morning nap–my daughter does much better with this). You may also want to consider having an earlier dinner. We got into the bad habit of eating dinner at 6:30pm or later and noticed that dinnertime was a disaster every night. We decided to move it to 5pm and it made a world of difference.
If this was helpful, check out my Facebook page, where I post daily tips, advice and recipes for kids and parents!