How to get a child to eat when they refuse
Wondering how to get toddlers to eat?
Before I had children I naively assumed that if parents ate healthy foods then their kids would too.
Then I had Léo who, since the day he was born, has pretty much set about disproving EVERYTHING I thought I knew about raising kids.
Initially I thought I’d cracked it. He ate anything I offered him. I admit, I felt a little smug.
Not long after his first birthday though he stopped eating so many of his old favorites and point blank refused to even touch almost everything I put in front of him.
Having a toddler who suddenly starts refusing foods or seriously restricts their diet can be stressful for parents.
The last thing we want is for our kids to sense the anxiety we have surrounding their eating habits.
That said it can also be pretty difficult to be cool about it…especially if you’ve been brought up to “clear your plate before leaving the table”.
It’s reassuring to know that picky eating is typical in toddlers. It’s just that some will be more sensitive to different textures, tastes and smells than others.
Infact, almost half of all children go through a fussy eating phase during their first few years.
What we now call “fussy eating” was actually what kept our ancestors alive!
They had a preference for sweet and fatty foods as they were great way of storing energy for times when food was scarce.
Unfamiliar foods would have been avoided incase they were poisonous.
However, we have a lot more safe, tasty food to choose from than our ancestors did so this survival instinct is kind of useless.
So, how do you encourage a fussy toddler to eat?
You actually need to do very little.
I know you’re probably looking for the suggestion that will magically have your toddler eating vegetables by Friday BUT the truth is there isn’t one.
I have lots of suggestions that have helped my children but the reality is that your child probably just needs time.
So, what can we do to encourage our toddlers to eat?
How to get toddlers to eat:
1. Remove all pressure
Mealtimes should be as relaxed and enjoyable as possible.
Remove all pressure you place on your kids and on yourself.
I know it’s super frustrating when you’ve slaved in the kitchen and no-one will eat but try not to take it personally.
Serve the meal, enjoy your food, chat and clear up.
Don’t spend your mealtime debating with your toddler about what constitutes a mouthful. It’s much more valuable that they see you enjoying your food.
2. Child decides what and how much to eat.
As parents it is our responsibility to offer nutritious foods but we can’t force our child to eat them.
In our house we have a meal plan (albeit a flexible one).
Food is served at the dinner table usually in bowls and we all help ourselves. We still offer previously refused foods but we don’t force, bribe or even draw much attention to it at all.
Evidence shows that this method may help encourage healthy choices on the long term.
Parents who cooked nutritious meals and allowed their children to decide what and how much they wanted to eat actually ate more healthily 3 years later.
This method avoids any pressure and allows children to feel in control. It works particularly well with my strong willed four year old!
3. Get kids involved
Get your little ones to ‘help’ with food preparation as much as possible:
- Take them grocery shopping,
- Visit a farmers market,
- Grow at home,
- Visit a pick your own,
- Cook together.
4. Eat outside
Working with children over the years, I’ve noticed that some children feel more relaxed eating outdoors.
Pack up a picnic to take to the park or dine in the garden.
It may help your child to relax and the change may be enough to break habits if your child is ready.
5. Role play
My biggest toddler will not eat anything visibly green on his dinner plate but Léo the herbivore dinosaur has nibbled swiss chard, sugar snap peas and lettuce straight from the garden!
6. Mix new and old
When introducing unfamiliar foods it can help to put a few familiar foods on the plate too.
So if I was going to serve a veggie pie I’d add some boiled potatoes as I know my son loves them.
He probably won’t eat the pie but having it on the plate is all part of the process.
7. Don’t compare
I try so so hard to never compare my children but still the other day my eldest told somebody that Bastien (his 2 year old brother) tried everything but he didn’t.
During conversations like this it can help to add the word “yet”.
“You don’t want to taste everything yet? That’s OK.”
We use the same technique in our free printable growth mindset activities for kids.
Simply adding that little word implies that his decision isn’t fixed and that he can change it when he’s ready.
The most important thing to remember is that kids are all different. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another.
Relax and enjoy mealtimes again.
If your child’s eating is concerning you then you should seek medical advice.
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