I think there comes a time in every person’s parenting journey when they have to figure out how to get a child to eat when they refuse.
I don’t know if I did something right in my parenting, or I just got lucky, but food and mealtimes have never been a struggle for me with my kids. My children eat all of their food groups (mostly) without coercion, and dinner is a pleasant time to make conversation as a family.
We don’t have three hour standoffs over whether or not the child will eat the broccoli. In fact, we don’t discipline them at all for not eating.
Picky eating is pretty much a non-issue in our house. They love trying new foods!
Like I said, we might have gotten lucky.
But my parents did raise me pretty well in the making-sure-I-ate-my-food department (they did ok in other areas too, but I digress), so I think those parenting strategies just kind of came to me naturally and easily.
Disclaimer: I know that there are some kids who struggle with certain disorders that make it very difficult for them to learn how to eat a variety of foods. This post is not for parents of those kids! I’m talking to the average parent with a kid who is just stubborn and doesn’t want to eat to food they’re offered.
Why Kids Should Learn to Try New Foods
Kids tend to choose a few different types of foods that they like, and resist eating anything outside of the small range of choices they’ve determined are acceptable.
On the surface, it seems a lot easier go along with this. To just feed the kids what they want. You avoid the battle, the child gets fed, and everybody’s happy, right?
A child who refuses to eat a variety of food creates so many problems:
- You wind up cooking a separate meal for them every night.
- You have to haul around food that they like so that they’ll have something to eat when you’re out.
- It’s embarrassing when they won’t eat the food when you have dinner at a friend’s home.
- The child probably won’t get a well-balanced, healthy diet.
- If they never outgrow their picky eating habits, social situations with food involved can create a lot of anxiety.
Those are some problems worth avoiding!
Make Sure That Your Picky Eater is Actually Hungry
Before you begin dinner time battles, make sure your child who is refusing to eat is actually hungry.
That means keeping snacking to a minimum.
Our girls eat such a big breakfast that we don’t even do a morning snack, so they are more than ready to eat whatever I prepare for them at lunch time.
After they wake up from their naps they get a light snack, usually just some fruit or vegetable sticks of some sort. That’s it. Honestly, I think even that afternoon snack ruins their dinner sometimes.
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense that the kid who just filled up on granola bars and gummy bears half an hour ago has no motivation whatsoever to eat that lasagna you slaved over.
He’s not hungry!
I know it’s super tempting to pass out snacks while dinner is cooking to avoid all the pre-dinner whining of hungry children. But I promise you aren’t doing yourself any favors if you want to avoid dinner time battles.
Try to find other ways to distract them, if you can. My oldest daughter went through a phase where she threw an absolute fit while I worked to get dinner on the table each night. Instead of giving in to snacks, my husband started taking her outside to play. It kept her mind off of food, and worked like a charm.
When my husband works late and can’t get home to help out, I absolutely turn on the TV for a few minutes to keep the children occupied while I cook. Guilt-free.
Do NOT Offer Alternatives to a Child Who Refuses to Eat
Since the beginning of time, our kids have never gotten an alternative to what the rest of the family was having for dinner.
Even when they were tiny babies, if I fed them spinach and they didn’t eat the spinach, I assumed they weren’t hungry and moved on with life. No filling up on peas or applesauce, or other favorite foods.
What motivation would a kid have to eat something that they don’t like when they know you’ll give them cereal in 10 minutes if they refuse to eat what you originally offered them? Being a short-order cook is a vicious cycle, and kids will continue to get more and more picky the more you cater to their whims and desires.
As a result, my kids have each gone to bed without dinner plenty of times.
Some people are shocked at this, but it’s really fine.
I’ve never had an issue with them waking up in the night because they were hungry, they just go to sleep as normal. Then they perhaps eat a larger than normal breakfast the next morning.
If they do happen to wake up hungry, you can simply offer them their plate from dinner.
So there’s no need to worry about how to get a child to eat when they refuse. You’re still a good mom even if they don’t eat.
It’s Not Your Job To Get Your Kid to Eat When They Refuse
My job as a parent is to offer a healthy variety of foods to my child at mealtimes. It’s totally up to them whether or not they decide to try a new food. If they don’t want it, that’s cool, but they aren’t getting anything else as a substitute.
There’s no need to beg, plead, or otherwise cajole a child into eating when they refuse.
There’s no need to make them sit there for three hours until they take a bite.
Just offer them what you’ve made for dinner, and leave the rest up to them.
Don’t Give Up When Your Child Refuses to Eat
If you can’t get your child to eat a certain food in a sitting, don’t let that be the end of the story. It’s wrong assume that just because they wouldn’t eat it the first time they tried it, they’ll never be willing to eat it in the future.
It can take many attempts at trying a new food before a kid will start to grow accustomed to it and start being willing to eat it. If they didn’t like it at dinner, serve the leftovers to them again at lunch the next day to give them more exposure to the food.
Make that dish again in a few weeks and repeat the process. Just keeping trying. You might be surprised one day when you look over and they’ve eaten every bite of a food they hated the first time they tried it.
Kids can learn to like any type of food.
My kids don’t like cauliflower, but I’m pretty sure that if cauliflower were the last available food on planet earth, they would eat it eventually. So we keep working on it with them, because kids can be taught to learn to like anything.
Or at least tolerate anything.
If You Really Want to Get a Child to Eat, Provide Choices
If a child refuses to eat, it might help to offer them choices.
Kids thrive when they feel like they have a little bit of control over their lives. Sometimes that desire for control results in refusing to eat at all, because that’s not something anyone can force them to do.
It can be helpful to offer your child a limited number of choices at meal times.
We don’t do this at every meal, but if it’s leftover night or if I haven’t quite decided what to make for dinner, I’ll give them the choices and let them decide what they want to eat.
Maybe they get choose between one of these kid-friendly recipes. Or they get to decide if they want ranch dressing or peanut butter to go with their carrots.
The conditions? Once they’ve decided and the food is front of them, they can’t change their mind. They made their choice, now they have to live with it.
But it’s usually a win-win for everybody. They have a say in deciding what they’re going to eat, and I still get to feed them something wholesome and healthy.
Involve Your Picky Eater in the Food Prep Process
A child who is allowed to be involved in helping to make their own food is a lot less likely to refuse it when it’s time to eat.
So let your kids get involved in the kitchen!
Sure, there’s a limit to how much they’ll be able to do. But even kids as young as 3 can help with stirring, mashing, and pouring.
As they get older, don’t be afraid to hand them a knife and let them chop vegetables under your supervision.
Kids as young as 8 can start to cook simple meals on their own!
Those are my strategies for how to get a child to eat when they refuse, for what they’re worth. What works for your family?As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Melinda worked with children for years in a professional setting before becoming a full-time stay at home mom. She currently has three young children, and enjoys sharing tips and ideas about parenting and how to manage a home with excellence. She’s been featured on Heathline and Her View From Home.