What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Eat

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.

ding 44 comments on “What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Eat

  1. Molly, Molly, Molly, Listen to your mom! Please don’t let your kids dip things in syrup of any kind, (syrup is just sugar, you know), And don’t make an issue of eating! If he’s not hungry, don’t force him to eat! Next thing his mom will be crying because he’s obese!
    After many years of pediatrics I have developed two rules for eating at his age is 1) Eat only at meal time, (no snacks, not even after or during soccer, baseball, or during TV – but do have water available) and 2) don’t care if they eat or not!
    I have had countless families adapt these two simple rules and not one kid suffered dehydration, or malnutrition or obesity. And after a couple of days the parents have invariable thanked me for making their days easier and happier. Put the food on the table, with or without their help, and sit down and eat. When the parents are finished, pick up the plates, That’s the end of it. If they don’t eat, they won’t starve, they’ll eat more tomorrow. If they are hungry before the next meal, tell them (one time only), “We only eat at meal time, remember?” Then close your ear “lids” and get on with what you’re doing. Don’t talk about food, eating, or try to bribe them. Over talking and over explaining has become the “American way,” and look at all the eating problems and obesity we have. Be a part of the solution!
    Thanks for hearing my view, I really like your forum and it’s format. I hate to disagree with you, so I was really glad your mom was here so I could agree with her!

    • Dr. Donahue – Of course, I loved your observations! I think we’re on the same page about eating. The thing to avoid is creating an eating disturbance which can follow people throughout their lives. In this case, perhaps we can find a happy medium.

    • Dr. Donahue,
      Thanks so much for your input. I think you’re right about over talking and over explaining. I like the idea of just putting the food on the table and then taking it away when we’re done without pushing more of one thing or the other (it’s usually “more veggies” in my house). I really appreciate your honest feedback and thanks so much for your complimentary words about our format.

  2. Hiya,
    Many thanks for your advise. I have done a lot of these, but the best thing I have done is relax myself. When I did this things fell into place better. I have a box with treats in it but it unfortunately doesn’t open unless you eat your dinner!
    This works and when he doesn’t want to eat he accepts the fact that he won’t get one.
    We are all much happier since the pressure is off and he is thriving now.
    Many thanks again and to anyone worrying about this relax they won’t starve.

  3. I have seen with my three children that they do seem to eat better/more when they have a hand in the meal. Even if it is as simple as opening the cans for me. It becomes part of the dinner conversation. They each talk about what they did to help. I have even had them help me create new recipes which they really enjoy.

  4. Sorry, food prep, actual cooking and growing the vegies themselves had no impact on her eating ( or not eating ) style. She happily took all the praise and congratulations ‘tho!

      • She’s now 12 and although she has improved a little in her choices she is still very fussy about fruit and vegies – luckily spaghetti hides a multitude of sins!!!

        Just an extra – the ‘if they don’t eat it today hand it back again tomorrow’ concept is awful. I starved for three days on a ‘family visit’ because my aunt followed this concept and no matter how often she dished up steak and kidney pie I couldn’t eat it. I also watched my daughter ‘fast’ for 2 days rather eat the dreaded vegies on advice from other mums before relenting. She doesn’t eat junk food that much, will now eat one or two items out of each category regularly and I’m able to hide a couple more in spaghetti.
        Having said all that she is healthy and active – she simply dislikes most fruit & vegies.

  5. I totally agree with Dr. Rutherford and Dr. Donahue about letting children self-regulate their eating. As long as parents give their children access to healthy food, they will eat the right amount of calories they need. Indeed, if you actually tracked a child’s calorie intake over a week or two you would find that some days your child eats more than others but overall he or she is taking in as many calories as his or her body needs. The child in question does eat well, just not at dinner time. I think this mother’s worry stems from something that is hard-wired in most of us. When our children are newborns we are totally responsible for making sure they get the proper nutrition-without it they would not survive! it is sometimes difficult to rid ourselves of the notion that we remain responsible for everything that goes into our child’s mouth-even when they are well beyond infancy or toddler-hood. A preschool aged child or older can and should make their own choices about how much they eat. I often tell parents who come to me with this issue how they would feel if they went to lunch with a friend and were told, “You didn’t eat enough of your salad. Now, just take 3 more bites or no dessert”. That usually gets a smile and they see that they cannot tell how hungry-or full-their child is.
    The one point where I am in disagreement with Dr. Rutherford is offering a dessert as a reward. This makes the sweet, gooey non-food the holy grail and the nutritious food we want them to eat the “yucky” stuff they have to eat to get to the “good” food. Instead, I suggest to parents that they treat food neutrally. Dessert does not have to be a part of every meal; there are times when a child will have sweets, at a birthday party or Halloween. However, when parents deny dessert as a punishment or offer it as a reward they are imbuing the very foods they really don’t want their child to eat with a special mystique.

    • Susan – I actually think you might be right about the desert issue. When I raised my own children, we hardly ever had desert, and I was brought up with rare desert. I suppose as a last resort, desert might be an incentive, but I really think we have to be careful about too much emphasis on eating unless there is a big problem going on.

  6. Depends on what other junk food YOU buy from the supermarket. Stop buying ALL junk food, crisps, soda drinks, sweets and cookies to name a few. My youngest son didn’t eat at midday and I left him. Also young children should not be given a CHOICE. Just put it in front of them and if they refuse to eat, hand it back tomorrow. They soon get the message. Tell them that wasting food by throwing uneaten food away is terrible. Or place food in your plate and allow them to eat from that. Don’t worry neither will die from each other’s “germs”. Never allow a young child to eat sweet stuff before a meal and only offer occasionally when they have “earned” it after eating about 2 – 3 meals – completely. Maybe Tamara I should write that book for younger children…….

  7. We encourage parents to involve the kids in grocery shopping choices (giving them 2 healthy options to choose from) and to have them help in the kitchen. Our clients report back that having their kids help (wash veggies, cut fruit, mixing, basic cooking) has made a definite difference in their child’s interest at the dinner table.

    Personally, I ask for help in the kitchen from my teens as a way to gather them and have casual “catch up” time with them as we cook together. If there is something specific we need to chat about, it’s a more relaxed conversation because we’re also busy with dinner prep. It’s amazing what you can find out during these chats!

  8. There is something missing in this story…I want to know, what they serve for dinner, lunch and breakfast.

    • Anna – I don’t know what they serve for meals. But the Mom followed up and wrote that she has relaxed about the food issue, and things seem to be going better. Perhaps it’s more about psychology than the actual food served.

  9. Absolutely! I’ve written on this subject several times. My 6y/o daughter can be a picky eater, but I discovered very early (around three years) that anytime she helped me prepare dinner, she was enthusiastic about trying everything and, typically, once she tried it, she liked it.

    Currently, we’re working on a project together, where she picks a country on our world map, and then we study that country, choose a popular recipe, and cook it together. I’ve been blogging on it for a few months now on my personal blog (www.justperry.com) and have found that it has opened up my daughter’s willingness to try new foods even more.

    So yes, I’d encourage any parent of a picky-eater to involve their children in the cooking process. Not only might it solve the issue at hand, but you’re taking a big step towards encouraging self-sufficiency and a broader acceptance of trying new things.

    • Chef Perry – I love your ideas about picking a country and preparing food typically found there! There’s lots of advantages to doing this – widening the food range as well as learning about other people and how they do things. This is a wonderful thing to do with and for kids – you’ll make them internationalists! Nice work!

  10. I remember when my first child was born. I knew nothing and obsessed about when my baby did or didn’t eat. My mother gave me the best advice: If he’s hungry, he’ll eat. If he doesn’t eat, it’s because his body is telling him not to.

    The situation you’re describing sounds similar, because this child sleeps through the night, and from what is described, he doesn’t seem to be misbehaving or cranky because he’s hungry or has low blood sugar. In a world where too many people eat just because the food is there, this sounds like a good thing.

    As for veggies, my aunt used to insist on a ‘no thank you’ portion. You have to taste it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat any more. Something to think about.

    I like the idea of this little boy staying at the table, whether he eats or not. Family meal time is about more than just the food. Helping with food preparation is great, too. The kitchen is a place where little miracles happen: learning, sharing, singing, telling jokes, just plain being together.

    • Fern – I really like your comments. I personally just don’t push food. I think one of the key things I did when raising my children is that I didn’t dish out food to them. After all, I really didn’t know how hungry or not they were – but they knew. So I put the food in bowls on the table, and they helped themselves. There was a bit of a learning curve – eyes sometimes were bigger than stomachs – and they learned they could always have more food if they wanted it, so start with smaller helpings.

  11. Molly, love this article. Dr. Rutherford offers great advice. I tend to think maybe Mom could serve more of a snack atdinner rather than a full meal. Using the dippable suggestion you posted in the article

  12. Yes, it definitely does encourages children to eat more. My children are always excited to eat dinner every time after we finish preparing the meals. They usually ask for seconds.

  13. All great ideas but let’s remember as long as they are healthy we need not be so involved in what and how much they eat. The less psychologically loaded the issue, the better off we all are. Breathe……

  14. Years ago, when my 28 year old was a toddler, his grandmother told me, “Diahann don’t force him, he’ll eat when he’s hungry/ He’s not hungry.” I took that advice with me when i began raising my next two. Now, my youngest is so slim I asked the MD and she said, “Look at her go, somethings fueling her. Skin, hair, teeth all look healthy. She’s eat when she’s hungry.” It seems children are listening to their bodies. I guess the concern would definitely be if the child is lethargic and sick a lot

  15. Perhaps so, but who knows really. It all depends on so many variables. I would like to think so, however. Parents may try searching for easy-to-prepare recipes that children may enjoy preparing, then hope they will taste.

    I didn’t like lots of veggies when growing up, but didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t taste them and I don’t remember any clever ways my Mom attempted to get me to. She just said, “EAT”

    I love trying new things with my daughter. We are now attempting lots of smoothies, but the trick is purchasing items with nutritious gains. Now she’s preparing lots of them herself and asking me to join in — a little reverse psychology I suppose.

      • Yes, I did for that particular approach, but perhaps should have emulated her in other areas. I have a wonderful Mom, but sometimes differing approaches, best practices didn’t take precedence back when I was raised.

        Thanks for your wonderful blog.

  16. Absolutely. Not only is cooking together a fun activity, but it’s also a great way to teach our children about healthy eating habits. When we were children our mothers or caretakers prepared our meals and then we finished everything on our plates. The times have changed and nowadays families are not only faced with triple the amount of food to choose from but also less time to prepare it. A healthy lifestyle shouldn’t only be enforced on our children but rather the whole family. Cooking with our children is a great way to challenge them in selecting the healthy options to eat that evening or teaching them how to prepare the food. This one on one involvement will build their confidence in healthy food choices as children and even when they’re adults. Here a great study that further discusses the benefits of cooking with kids: http://cookingwithkids.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Qualitative-Investigation-of-the-Cooking-with-Kids-Program.pdf

    • Susan – Thank you so much for your thoughts. I’m in total agreement with you. Not only do the kids learn about healthy foods, they “own” their choices which is incredibly important. A great way to avoid eating disorders. And, on top of that, they have fun and deepen their bonding with the parent. A win-win all the way around!

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