Reframing Refusal: What do you do when your child rejects food?

July 8, 2020

Posted in: Feeding, Feeding Tube Weaning

When your child flat out refuses to eat or eats very little it can make you worry about their energy, growth, sleep and health.  While this worry is completely normal it is helpful to keep in mind that it is also completely normal for a child to reject what is offered.  Here are some key points to help you make sense of it all so you can focus on enjoying family mealtimes and kick that worry to the curb.  

Why might your child refuse? 

  • Autonomy: Refusing food is a way for your child to build their autonomy and learn independence around food and mealtimes. This is a normal and necessary part of early childhood. Strong opinions form and for the first time we start to see children express their autonomy and reject what we parents have offered in terms of activities, food and clothing.   While this can be an especially challenging transition for parents, it is completely normal and is can’t be skipped or avoided.  Learning to voice their opinions and develop a sense of self will serve them well as they grow.  
  • Hunger: Your kiddo may not be hungry when you are serving certain meals or snacks. This doesn’t always seem to match what our grown-up expectations or hunger cycles dictate. Every body is different.  We know that kids learn to self-regulate, or get enough for what their bodies need, over time. When children learn to listen to their bodies and regulate how much they eat at each meal it is linked to better health later in life 
  • Safety: Some children may have had a scary experience with food in the past, which makes the refusal appropriate. Choking, vomiting, eating hot foods, or aspiration can cause kids to put up the stop sign for foods they associate with these things. We want kids to stay away from things that feel unsafe, so allowing your child to refuse is an important part of building comfort around that food. 
  • Fear and Uncertainty: It is normal for kids to be afraid of something that is new, whether it is a new taste, texture, or smell. If you’re serving a new food, you may see a refusal the first few times you offer it, and that’s okay. Children build comfort with food and all things over time. 

What do you do about refusal? 

  • Maybe Nothing: Take a step back and look at WHY your kid is refusing. If it’s for any of the reasons above, it may be best to ignore the refusal and focus on other aspects of the mealtime. Talk about your day, eat your own food, and enjoy your time together! 
  • Stay in Your Lane: The Division of Responsibility by Ellyn Satter defines the parent and child’s roles at mealtimes. It essentially dictates that parents are responsible for what, when and where food is offered and children are responsible for deciding if they will eat and, if so, how much. 
  • Don’t Pressure: As tempting as it might be, when your child refuses, do not offer more or add pressure to the situation. Pressure can be subtle, so stay away from reminding, asking for a certain number of bites, or trying to convince kids to try something.  Less is more here! 
  • Make a variety of foods available: Offer a preferred food when you’re giving a less preferred or new food. This will help build your child’s comfort and know that there is always a safe food they can feel comfortable eating. Even if they aren’t eating certain foods make sure they still get to see those foods on the table or on your plate. 
  • Model healthy eating and body positivity: Make sure your child sees you eating in a way that models the kind of choices and habits you want them to develop later.  This is one of the most important and impactful things we do for our children’s nutrition and health.  It’s also really important that our children hear us talk about our own bodies in loving and accepting ways so can the diet talk and self-deprecation around the kids. 

By reframing refusal, it will help you AND your child get to a happy and healthy relationship with food!