How To Get A Child To Eat When They Refuse

Getting kids to eat shouldn’t be a problem.  But getting kids to eat and behave in a civilized manner at the dinner table is an altogether bigger issue.  All too often mealtime can become a battlefield when you have little kids.  Like many other areas of daily life, getting a child to eat is an activity where young children begin to exercise their desire for independence.  It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that you can’t make them eat.  And once they get that part figured out, they also pick up on the fact that what they eat, how much they eat, and when they eat, is something that their parents worry about.  Bingo – a battle in the making!

By creating rules and routines around and during mealtimes, you can take control of that potential battlefield so that mealtime can be something to enjoy.  As a parent, it’s up to you to show your child how to eat.  It’s also your job to put the right food in front of them.

Between the ages of one and a half and two and a half, a toddler is perfectly capable of eating what the rest of the family is eating, as long as it’s mashed or cut up in small bites.  He’s also able to feed himself using a spoon and a sippy cup.  So this is a good time to begin to establish some routines and rules about mealtime.

  • Keep snacks to a minimum – mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Children who are allowed to graze all day long are going to find mealtime difficult.  Period!
  • Offer your child meals at regular times. Whenever possible, it’s important to have set times for meals.  Remember that toddlers have very little sense of time, and transitions are difficult for them.  Give a warning when it’s getting near lunch or dinner time.  Create a routine of what happens just before mealtime.  For example, let’s pick up our toys, let’s wash our hands, let’s set the table – all of this ‘routine’ will help them make that transition.
  • Keep portions small, and introduce a wide variety of foods at an early age.  You may notice that your child eats well at some times but not at others, or that she has a better appetite at lunch than she does at dinner.  If this is the case, adjust.  As long as you’re offering a balanced diet that includes all the main food groups, chances are she’s getting what she needs even if she only eats one good meal a day and picks at her food the rest of the time.  Don’t try to force your child to eat, and definitely, don’t offer choices.  When a child refuses to eat, and the parent begins to offer choices of something they know their child will eat, the food war has begun.  If you resist the temptation to offer something else, your child will learn to eat what you offer.   Believe me, as long as you have kept snacks to a minimum your child will eat if she’s hungry.  Don’t allow your children to write their own menus.  And at the same time, respect the fact that even as little kids, we all have different likes and dislikes.  Offer a wide variety of healthy, tasty foods.  Your child’s taste buds will continue to change as they grow, so from time to time, re-introduce foods they may have disliked at one time or another.
  • Don’t offer milk or juice too close to mealtime, or with meals.  Offer water when possible, or a glass of milk after she has finished her dinner.  Filling up on milk too close to mealtime or during lunch or dinner will affect her appetite.
  • Expect your child to sit at the table. Do not let them take their food and eat it somewhere else.  A child who bounces in and out of her seat, who runs off with her food to eat it someplace else, or who gets down halfway through a meal with her mouth full and disappears under the table is trying to test your limits.  Many parents are afraid to introduce any form of discipline during mealtimes because they are so focused on getting their kids to eat that they turn a blind eye to unacceptable behavior.  Insisting that basic rules, like sitting at the table, are followed, might result in a period where mealtimes get worse before they get better, but it’s much better to go through that short period than it is to set yourself up for a life of mealtime battles.  Be realistic though when it comes to how long you expect your child to sit at the table.  Fifteen minutes is about as long as you can expect most children under the age of five to stay at the table.
  • Offer lots of praise and encouragement for behaving well, but NOT for eating a lot.  Having a second helping should not be associated with behaving well in your child’s mind.  And don’t discipline your child for not eating.  Discipline your child at mealtime only for unacceptable behavior such as hitting, throwing food, or refusing to sit at the table – never for not eating.
  • Families should try to eat together at least once a day.  If that isn’t possible, and you need to feed your child beforehand, sit at the table with them.  You’ll be re-enforcing the ‘social’ part of a meal this way, and it’s an ideal time to start to teach them manners.  Children should be taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  Mealtimes should be a fun and sociable family time together.

Getting kids to eat and behave well at the table doesn’t have to be a battle. Most of the difficulties that parents and kids experience at mealtime can be avoided by sticking to these basic guidelines.  By not allowing food to become a battleground, by having realistic expectations about the type and quantity of food your child will eat, by making it clear what the rules are and consistently enforcing them, you can teach your kids that mealtime is not only a time to nourish their bodies, but a wonderful, social experience to be enjoyed.

Refusal To Eat

Picky eating is common for many children between the ages of 2 to 5 years, and it is a common concern for parents. A child may eat only a certain type of food or refuse foods based on their color or texture. They may also play at the table and not want to eat. Don’t worry if your child is a picky eater.

As long as your child has plenty of energy, is at a healthy weight, and is growing properly, he or she is most likely eating enough to be healthy. If you have concerns about your child’s growth or eating behavior, talk to his or her doctor.


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