How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse | Six Reasons for Refusal

how to get a child to eat when they refuse

I am sure each one of you who are reading this has been in a situation when you wonder how you get a picky child to eat. Most kids show reluctance to eat occasionally, however, for some parents, mealtime is a time when they literally want to bang their heads against a wall.

It is very frustrating when you cook something new with tremendous efforts and expect your child to love it but they simply reject it. It is even worse if your child refuses to eat something that they always liked.

As a result, parents end up questioning their child’s paediatrician and a family dietician how to get a child to eat when they refuse. We have a few solutions for you here; but first we need to understand why kids are picky eaters.

Six Reasons Why are Kids Picky Eaters (And How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse)

Since infancy, the one thing your child has been taking control of is feeding himself. Once he grows up to be a toddler, he knows he is in-charge of what he eats. Realizing this behaviour, parents usually ask their paediatrician – ‘should you force your child to eat?’

However, we all know that is absolutely not possible. You cannot force a baby or a toddler to do something that he doesn’t want to. Nevertheless, we can still work on the root cause of the problem of picky eating. For this, we first need to understand why kids are picky eaters.

1. Medical Problems:

As adults, it is common for kids not to eat when they are sick. We usually encounter parents who have babies or toddlers not eating when they are sick. Children mostly refuse to eat when they have a problem of teething, acid reflux (even if it wasn’t diagnosed when they were infants), constipation, worms in the stomach, or not feeling well.

However, most parents do not understand the health problems of kids because either their kids are not big enough to put into words how they are feeling or they have been feeling this way for too long now and don’t even realize that they are suffering from a disease.

How to Deal With This:

If you feel that your child has simply no reason for not eating, do consult your child’s nutritionist, as the underlying issue can be bigger than you think. Problems like teething and constipation are generally phases and might not need proper treatment always. However, if you feel, your child is constipated on most days, do talk to his paediatrician.

A doctor can easily treat issues like acid reflux, worms in stomach, flu, or fever with proper medications. However, if your child is always tired during his mealtime, you need to look out for reasons for his fatigue and correct them.

2. Not Hungry:

Adults too are not hungry on some days. There might be numerous reasons for it. However, kids spend a lot of their energy actively. Children, especially toddlers, are always running around, mostly without any purpose. Thus, they are bound to spend all their acquired energy and hence should feel hungry.

However, we usually hear parents say ‘my child won’t eat anything but junk food’ or ‘my child loves snacks more than his dinner’. This problem arises usually when kids intake a lot of snacks or drinks around the mealtime.


Discourage your child from snacking just before his mealtime. Do not keep a bowl full of snacks or munchies on the dining table. Do not let your child drink a lot of water or juices just before his lunch or dinner.

These munchies and drinks make your child’s smaller stomachs feel full and thus your child is not hungry during his mealtime.

Although, parents are the right people to decide WHAT to buy for groceries; however, when children are taken out for shopping, they feel that they get to choose what they are going to eat. This makes them more interested in eating what they have for their meals.

Moreover, if you involve your child in the process of cooking the dinner, your child will feel more involved in the food-preparing process. Scientifically speaking, your child’s hunger hormones get released when they are with the food for a longer time. Therefore, the problem of not being hungry during the mealtime is resolved.

3. Preferences:

We all have preferences in eating, even though we know the health benefits of various foods. While buying groceries, we usually buy our favorite vegetables and fruits more than others. Similarly, kids by the age of two or two and a half have preferences too.

How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse Eating Anything Except Their Preferred Foods:

There is no way out you can change your child’s food preferences overnight. However, you can surely try different recipes to cook the most hated broccoli or spinach to make your child eat it.

For example, if your child doesn’t like the way you cooked the spinach curry, try feeding him bread (chapati) made from whole wheat flour that is kneaded with spinach leaves.

There might not always be many options to try different ways to cook something. In that case, explain your child about the benefits of the vegetable and provide him with a variety of other things along with it. Do not forget to reward your child with one of his favourite foods to eat.

Do not stop feeding your child that vegetable ever. Aim to teach your child gradually that every food that we eat does not always taste good but our bodies need the nutrition that it provides.

4. Distractions:

TV, iPads, and mobile phones are potential distractions of the contemporary world. Kids tend to watch flashy screens during their mealtime and parents to give in to their stubbornness because screens are probably the only option left to make your kids be seated in place for a long time.

While a toddler is watching his favorite show or playing a game, his most, if not all, of the attention is on the screen. Thus, the child ends up either overeating or under-eating. Playing with toys or siblings is equally harmful to the child.

The next complaint that arises from this habit is ‘toddler will eat only if I feed him’. This is obvious because the child is too busy to pay any attention to his hunger or the food. Sometimes, toddlers even forget to chew the food that is in their mouth because they are completely engrossed in their screen.

Distraction in the form of screen time is also one of the main reasons why your teenager refuses to eat with family. Teenagers have a world of their own where they prefer to live like adults and that is why they tend to move away from their parents emotionally. 

What You Can Do:

Avoid any distraction during the mealtime. This will also mean to cut down on your own TV or screen time during the family mealtime. As discussed above, let the mealtime become family bonding time.

Seat your children away from each other comfortably in their own chairs to avoid any distraction between the children themselves. Ensure that no family members, including the children, have any iPad or mobile phones as disturbances.

Involve your children in the conversations that can benefit their mental and emotional growth. Talk to your teenagers like adults. Discuss your problems or challenges with them. This way, you not only help your toddler or teenager develop a healthy eating habit but also develop a bond that is going to last forever. 

5. Pressure:

Most of the toddlers go through phases of picky eating or a week or two of the reluctance of eating anything but junk. However, if we, as parents, force them or pressurize them to eat whatever we have cooked, kids gradually start taking mealtime as stress.

We might not say to our kids directly to eat healthy, but they still sense that pressure and anxiety in our actions. We might be hovering over them continuously, spoon-feeding them, focussing on the kid’s meal more than on ourselves, or keeping the kid’s mealtime different from ours to monitor the child’s diet.

All these actions signal our kids as a time of stress and do not let them enjoy their food and mealtime.

How to Fix This:

If your child knows how to hold a spoon and put it in his mouth, let him feed himself. Provide him with a variety of foods in small amounts and let him eat what he likes at his own pace. 

Let your kid enjoy his meal as much as you like to enjoy yours. Make mealtime as a family bonding time. Consider your child as just another member on the table and not someone who needs attention all the time.

Engage in some healthy and happy conversation with the whole family and make your mealtime a family-bonding time rather than a get-the-child-eat time.

6. Reluctance for Some Textures:

Most parents do not understand or even consider this problem. However, babies and toddlers do have a special sensory system that causes food aversions by them.

This means that if a kid sees something new that smells, looks, feels or tastes different from what he has already experienced, he is most likely to refuse to eat it. For example, most toddlers refuse or spit out soft foods because they can hardly feel them in their mouth. Some of them also tend to over-stuff their mouths with such food just to FEEL it. Such kids prefer crispy or crunchy foods.

As adults, our sensory systems have adjusted to almost all of the foods in our culture. However, you might shudder even while thinking of something like screeching your nail over a black board. This is the same feeling that kids have when they encounter a new texture of food.

You know your child is refusing to eat due to his sensory issues when you find yourself saying – ‘my child is scared to eat’. Children usually refuse even to touch something they find in a weird texture.

How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse to Eat Certain Textures:

The ultimate help you can extend to your child is by desensitizing their sensory system. You will have to take baby steps in this journey. Make them aware of the different textures of food by letting them interact with the food, even if that results in a mess.

Allow your child brush his teeth on his own. Encourage him to brush his tongue gently, especially the sides, and the inside of the cheeks. You can also use a vibrating toothbrush for him.

Make small changes in the foods that your child prefers and slowly make their texture similar to the ones your child refuses. Remember to go through this process very slowly as any hurry might make your kid hate the food he loves.

About Kavi Ranjan

How to Get a Child to Eat When They Refuse | Six Reasons for RefusalHi, I'm Kavi Ranjan. An Entrepreneur, Investor, and an Activity Explorer. Having conducted various kids activity and experiential programs in the past, I am sharing my knowledge and experiences for better experiential experiences for young minds

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