How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse Everything

Family Time Meal Time Parenting Tips

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No mom out there can be happy when her child isn’t eating well. During these times, we worry constantly if our child is getting enough nutrition and if not eating enough will stunt his growth. Which leaves us frantically trying to figure out how to get a child to eat when they refuse anything and everything you put in front of them.

Related: Common Toddler Eating Problems

As a parent, it’s easy to jump to the worst conclusion when your kid won’t eat. So you try everything you can think of to get them to eat – even just a little.

You try to coax them into eating saying, “Just one little bite,” or “Mmm, look mommy eats it. It’s so yummy!”

You try offering numerous different foods in different settings. You try bribing them. “If you eat just a couple bites, we’ll go to the park to play.”

Sound familiar?

You might even threaten to take away their favorite toy or their play time. But NOTHING seems to work.

If this is where you are, don’t give up just yet.

Since parenting three kiddos myself (and having a 4 year old picky eater on my hands now), I have learned a few things that could help ease your mind.

I even have some tips to share with you that will help encourage your child to eat.

But first, let’s discuss the burning question that brought you here.

Why Is My Child Not Eating Well?

There are many reasons your child might be refusing to eat. So let’s narrow down what could be the cause by reviewing some of the most common scenarios of children refusing to eat or not eating enough.

How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse

“Help, My Child Won’t Eat!”

5 Common Issues & Tips to Encourage Your Child to Eat

1. My Child Only Eats Junk Food

So, all your kid wants to eat is cookies, popsicles, chips or Poptarts, huh? You try to convince him that strawberries taste so much better than the cookies, but it’s just not working.

Do you really have reason to be concerned?

The truth – kids need to eat healthy foods to get the nutrients their bodies need. They’re growing and learning at a fast pace.

So, yes, it can be a serious concern when your child always reaches for the cookies, crackers or Little Debbie cakes and never any of the good stuff.

Things like fruits, veggies and protein rich foods, such as peanut butter or lean meats, are essential to their health and development.

That being said, as long as your child is growing according to the growth chart and expectations set by his pediatrician, you shouldn’t stress about it.

However, knowing that your child is lacking in proper nutrition is a hard pill to swallow.

Things you can do to encourage proper nutrition:
  • Keep less junk food in the house. If it’s not there, he can’t eat it.
  • Try new fruits and veggies that can be given at snack time.
  • Provide more meals in smaller proportion throughout the day.
  • Spend more time being active with your child.
  • Encourage your child to drink more water.

2. Child Refusing to Eat at School

There have been many times my children have come home from school starving, or at least that’s how they act. I would always ask why they couldn’t wait just a little longer for supper to be ready before raiding the cabinets.

The reply would always be, “The school lunch was gross today!”

There was also an instance when a teacher called to discuss her concerns about my daughter’s eating habits at school. The teacher was afraid that she wasn’t getting enough to eat. She would always empty a full plate at the end of lunch.

This was very concerning to me as well. The teacher suggested that we pack lunch and snacks at home and send to school.

This is the best thing she could have suggested, as there was a big improvement in her focus and energy at school.

However, these instances might not be the case for you. There are many other reasons why your child might not be eating well at school. Here are a few:

  • School lunches are too short, and your child doesn’t have adequate time to finish eating.
  • Snacks are provided before lunch, so your child isn’t hungry when lunch time rolls around.
  • Recess is right after lunch. Your child is focused on getting outside instead of eating.
  • Your child is distracted by the noise in the cafeteria and classmates clowning around.

Whatever the reason is that your child isn’t eating at school, it’s a nagging worry for you.

Here’s how to help your child eat better at school:
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about lunch and snack time routines.
  • Speak to your child about why she’s not eating at lunch.
  • Pack your child’s lunch to ensure he’s getting something he likes.
  • Send a lighter snack to school so his tummy will be less full at lunch.

3. Children Refusing to Eat Dinner

This one is a real struggle at my house almost daily. By the time the kids get home from school and daycare, they act like they haven’t eaten all day. They will snack until they’re full.

When dinner is ready, it will be just my husband and myself eating and a lot of leftovers going into the fridge.

Snacking before dinner is just one reason your child might be pushing away his dinner plate. Let’s review a few more:

Is My Child a Picky Eater?

Does your child tell you he doesn’t like the food you cook? If so, you could have a picky eater on your hands.

As your little one transitions into toddler-hood, you’ll notice a change in appetite. It’s normal. He will begin to have a preference. And you’ll notice he wants to make his own choices.

This could mean he eats the same food for a solid week. Or, this could mean he eats (what seems like) 20 small meals a day. Either way, don’t stress out just yet.

He might also be bored with eating the same meals on routine. Maybe he needs something new on his palate.

How to encourage your child to try new things:
  • Stand your ground and do not give in when your child asks for junk.
  • Let your child help choose recipes for dinner before grocery shopping.
  • Make sure he’s good and hungry before offering new foods.
  • Add a little something new to a dish you know he already enjoys.

Medical Issues

If your child is refusing to eat dinner and you notice other signs like weight loss, fatigue and irritability, these could be signs of an illness.

When kids are sick, as with most anyone, their appetites decrease. Something as simple as a cold could affect how much your child eats.

If you are concerned your child is dealing with something more serious than picky eating or a small decrease in appetite, it’s best to reach out to your child’s primary care provider.

He’s Distracted

If your child is avoiding food it could be due to distractions such as video games, his tablet or the television that was left on in the living room.

These sorts of electronic entertainment can be addictive to kids, almost to the point you have to pry their fingers off the game.

If this is happening with your child, it could be that it’s hard for him to transition from game mode to real life events.

How to keep your child’s attention at dinner time:
  • Turn off all electronics, even the television.
  • Get on an evening routine and stick to it.
  • Encourage your child to help with meal prep.
  • Make dinner at the table interesting and fun by asking about his day.

She’s Too Tired to Eat

After a long day full of playing and learning, she just might be too tired to eat. If she is irritable, easily cries, or is continuously rubbing her eyes and yawning, this is probably the reason she won’t eat.

It’s not that she doesn’t want food. She is just too physically tired to put it in her mouth.

What you should do if she’s falling asleep before dinner:
  • Move mealtime up to an earlier hour.
  • Make sure she’s getting an adequate nap during the day.
  • Keep her involved by talking to her about something that excites her.

4. Child Not Eating After Illness

If your child has been sick, especially with a stomach bug, it is normal for it to take some time for their appetite to come back. Even if it was just a cold, it could take some time for the taste buds to return to normal.

Don’t stress yourself out. Just make sure your little one is drinking plenty of fluids and urinating often.

How to encourage your child to eat after an illness:
  • Start slow. Your child’s stomach isn’t used to a lot of food at one time.
  • Offer his favorite foods. The ones you know he can’t refuse.
  • Start off with small portions so he doesn’t get overwhelmed.
  • Remember to push liquids to prevent dehydration.

5. Toddler Refusing to Eat Anything but Milk

When an infant is transitioning into toddler-hood, going from a bottle to a sippy cup, and from drinking milk all day to replacing it with more water, juice and whole foods can be difficult.

He’s grown accustomed to the milk, and it probably gives him comfort to walk around with the bottle or cup tucked under his arm or in his mouth.

Here’s what you can do to replace the milk with whole foods:
  • Keep track of how much milk your child is drinking during the day.
  • Start by replacing one cup of milk with a small snack.
  • Make him eat some of his food before offering something to drink.
  • Try different foods until you find more things that interest him.

Should You Force Your Child to Eat?

This is a tough one. As a parent freaked out and scared that your child is losing weight because he won’t eat the right foods,or anything at all, your first instinct is to force him to eat.

BUT…this could be a bad way to approach it.

Yes, he needs to eat. But forcing your child to eat, especially something that doesn’t taste good to him, can turn him off food even more.

You definitely don’t want to cause your child to have food anxiety.

Before completely freaking out, try new foods and be as patient as possible.

Sending Child to Bed Without Dinner

It’s frustrating when you have cooked a meal fit for a king and your child pushes the plate away and turns his nose up – demanding he isn’t eating it.

In some instances it might seem to be a power struggle. He wants it his way and isn’t scared to let it be known. On the other hand, it could be that he is truly turned off by the taste or smell of the food.

So what do you do when your child refuses to eat what you have prepared?

Of course, you don’t want to give in and let him think he’s won. But letting your child go to bed hungry isn’t the best solution.

The thing is, your child needs to eat dinner. The last full meal was probably lunch. And if you make him wait til morning, that could be 16+ hours since his last meal.

This is what you should do:

  • Let your child eat until he’s full. Don’t force a huge meal on him.
  • Talk to your child in a caring way to find out why he’s refusing.
  • Try making healthy versions of the foods you know he likes.
  • Get him involved in preparing dinner by letting him be your sous chef.
  • Have a second healthy option on hand in case he doesn’t like the meal.

Sometimes Mealtime is a Battlefield

Whatever the reason is that your child isn’t eating, it’s weighing down on you. You just want him to be healthy.

Related: Common Signs of Mommy Burnout

I hope these explanations and tips for how to get a child to eat when they refuse will help you help your child improve his eating habits.

Give it time. Try new foods. And be as patient as possible.

And remember to speak to your child’s pediatrician or family doctor if your concerns continue.


Encouraging Your Child to Eat & Avoiding Mealtime Struggles

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