What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Eat

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What’s wrong with my four-year old that he doesn’t want to eat dinner?

MOLLY: This question was submitted from a Mom in Roscommon, Ireland. She added that her son eats big breakfasts and lunches but refuses to eat dinner.

She reports that she avoids giving him a big snack before dinner but even so, when it comes to dinner time, he just won’t eat.

“He say’s he’s hungry but then ends going to bed without eating and sleeps 11 to 12 hours. He has a slight build and can’t afford to lose any weight.”

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): This is a very interesting dynamic that is going on in this family. I think that this mom should pay close attention to what her son is telling her: that he’s had enough food.

If he didn’t sleep after rejecting dinner, or he wants food later in the evening after dinner has been cleared, than it’s a different ballgame. But it sounds like he’s getting enough food during the day and is not necessarily up for a big dinner. I think it is likely he is listening to his own body and what it needs.

MOLLY: I think what she could also do is talk with him and maybe they could make dinner together. She could get him involved in the meal by asking him what he wants to eat for dinner. Maybe it’s that he’s doesn’t like what she’s making.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, that’s the other factor that needs to be considered: maybe whatever she’s making doesn’t appeal to him. It didn’t sound like her son had expressed anything in particular about the food itself, but I think those are good ideas to try.

I don’t really believe in pushing or forcing food on a child if he’s not hungry. It would be another matter altogether if he were hungry later in the evening and wanted a snack that was not what was served for dinner, or if he was waking in the night from hunger.  This sounds like she’s most worried that he’s simply not eating enough to sustain his body mass.

MOLLY: Well, that’s a long time for a four-year old to go without food… from lunchtime until the following morning!

DR. RUTHERFORD: Some people’s metabolisms do better eating larger meals earlier in the day and less at night. Maybe this is how this child feels.

MOLLY: If it were my child, I would advise her to let him a healthy snack after lunch and then to try to get him involved with what they’re going to have for dinner. He could help her with the grocery shopping or the cooking.

Maybe this sounds too American, but she could try offering more kid-oriented foods like chicken fingers or hot dogs. Maybe she can try to make eating dinner more fun for him to eat like finger foods that he can dip into a sauce? My kids love dipping their chicken into ketchup or mayonnaise, for example, or carrots into hummus. I even get my kids to eat kale by allowing them dip the leaves in maple syrup!

DR. RUTHERFORD: I agree those are really good things to try and see how he responds. Giving him a voice in the matter will offer him some sense of power and and the challenge to learn what appeals to him.

She could also offer a reward for eating dinner. A tempting treat for dessert can provide a lot of incentive for a four-year old to eat the dinner that leads to that. She should remember to be consistent in offering the dessert only as a reward for eating the dinner he is served. Other children in the family should be treated the same way.

Further, I would insist that the child sit at the dinner table with the family whether or not he eats the meal. Research shows that there is much value to having family meals together in terms of bonding and community, and as a member of the family he should not be excused from the ritual. Perhaps the sight and smells of the foods others are eating will entice him to eat dinner and remind him that he is indeed hungry after all.

Finally, she may want to examine the dynamics of the dinner table environment itself. Is it unpleasant for the child to sit with the family because of bickering or strict rules? Perhaps she can make some modifications to make the family dinner a more enjoyable time for everyone in the family. Is he looking for attention by refusing to eat dinner? Then she should try to look for the root of the problem psychologically.

MOLLY: Do you think there could be long-term effects from his behavior and the way his parents deal with it?

DR. RUTHERFORD: If they penalize him for not eating dinner, then yes, that could breed resentment that could set them up for more rebellion in his teen years. However, if they look upon this compassionately and maintain their bonds, then this will likely be just a passing phase that the family will tell stories about in later years.

The Dinner Table Battle: When Kids Won’t Eat What Mom Cooks

How do I get my whole family to eat what I serve for dinner?

MOLLY: The reader added that she has five kids and whatever it is she makes, one of them complains and refuses to eat it. She’s stopped cooking and now grabs pre-made foods. How does she get to a place where her kids will eat what she serves?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): She basically has to start from scratch now. She has to sit her five children down for a family conference and say: “Things are not going well at dinnertime in this household. This is not good for anybody, so this is the way we’re going to do it from now on: I’m going to cook a regular meal at dinnertime for everybody.  And everybody has to take at least 3 bites from each of the foods before they say if they are going to eat it or not. If you decide that you don’t want to eat what is served, then you’ll have to wait until the next morning at breakfast to have food. We have too many people here to do it any differently.”

And then she has to stick with it to the letter. So when the first child looks at dinner and says, “I don’t want that,” she needs to say to the child, in a very calm way: “The rule in the family is that you have to try three bites of each food that is served. If you still don’t want it after that, you don’t have to eat it. You can just eat the other food on the table for dinner because I’m not making anything special for anybody. I cannot do that anymore. We have a large family and there is a lot of food on the table, so if you can’t find anything you like you’ll just have to wait until breakfast to eat.”

She needs to do this in a very calm and very consistent way.

MOLLY: We have the same problem where my 5-year old daughter will only eat a little bit of her dinner but then, after she goes to bed, she’ll get up and come downstairs complaining that she’s hungry.

MOM: That’s not a good pattern.

MOLLY: I tell her the kitchen is “Closed,” but it’s often a discussion between my husband and me and he’s a softie –she tugs at his heart strings. He doesn’t want her to go to bed hungry.

MOM: The kitchen is closed is the right way to respond, and if she goes to bed hungry one night then she’ll get the message that she has to eat dinner when it is served. Sometimes children use this as a ploy in order to stay up later. Of course, as a parent you feel for your kid and you want her to have something to eat and not feel hunger, but she needs to get the message that the way to avoid this feeling is to eat her dinner.

Remember that the kitchen is closed, and you’re so sorry she’s hungry but tomorrow night maybe she’ll eat more dinner.

MOLLY: Elizabeth (my older sister) suggested that you say “You eat what the chef makes.” This way the kids also think about the fact that you’re cooking their meals and it is work for you. I’ve found that works sometimes too.

MOM: One thing I should clarify: while I don’t think it’s possible for this mom with five kids to sit down and as a family decide what’s going to be for dinner each night, I don’t think she should serve unappealing foods like boiled onions or foods that kids don’t often eat. Which I’m sure she doesn’t. What I mean is, you want to ease your way into this with kids and feed them acceptable kinds of foods that they like or can learn to like.

You can serve foods they already like, of course, but don’t make additional peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for kids as an alternative. You need to decide that you don’t make extra food above and beyond the meal you are serving. The idea that you eat what you are served is a basic component of mealtime manners.

Do you experience this at your house? Comment below if you’ve had success using other strategies to help ease the tension at dinner time. Or Contact Us if you have a parenting question you’d like to see addressed.