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What to do when our child refuses a meal or item served

What happens if your toddler refuses a meal? Is it our job to get them to eat something? Should we change meal times to accommodate their appetite?

What to do when our child refuses a meal or item served

Written by: Jessica Diamond, MPH, RDN

What happens if your toddler refuses a meal? Is it our job to get them to eat something? Should we change meal times to accommodate their appetite?

So many of you come with questions like these, and the answer may sound wild, but believe it or not, you shouldn’t judge a meal by how much is consumed.

In a lot of instances, parents know what’s best for their kids, but when it comes to food consumed, our kids actually know what is best for them. As adults, we make the menu, but they are in charge of how much or how little they eat. 

Let’s work off the premise that kids intuitively know how much food to eat and talk about meal refusal. It’s best to measure a kid’s food intake over the course of the week because their appetite can change so much from day-to-day as they grow and develop. So, it could be totally normal that your kid eats just a few bites at a meal or even nothing at all. Maybe they had a bigger breakfast or maybe they are so excited about the toy they were playing with and can’t wait to play again. No matter the reason, when they say they are done, simply ask them to check in with your belly: “Are you all done? Ok, the next meal (or snack) isn’t going to be until XX o’clock.”

Sometimes, our kids will communicate non-verbally that they are not hungry. Maybe they are throwing their food or playing for a prolonged period of time, showing no interest in the meal. Maybe they’ve asked for a second helping but then don’t touch it. Or maybe they won’t sit down for the meal, saying something like, “No lunch.” These are all signs that they likely are done. 

In situations like these, we want to make sure our kids know when the next meal is so they can make an informed decision about whether to eat. It’s only fair that we give them all the facts! So say something like, “I see you’re not wanting lunch right now. Take a moment to calm your body and check in with your belly to make sure you’re all done because the next meal isn’t until XX o’clock.” 

Here are a few things to avoid when your child refuses a meal. They are all so tempting to do, but trust us when we say that, in the long run, they will backfire and lead to more of the behavior you don’t want:

  • It’s important to minimize distractions during mealtimes, since we want our kids to be super in tune with their body, rather than the TV or tablet nearby. 
  • Don’t bribe your child to get them to eat. It may work for this one meal, but it will eventually backfire: when we reward (or punish) for eating, our child learns to eat based on our approval, rather than based on their hunger cues. 
  • Don’t turn into a short-order cook! When you let them refuse the meal you’ve prepared and then make them what they asked for, they will learn that they can get you to change the menu and/or they will appreciate the comfort of their favorite food and eat it even if they aren’t hungry. 

We all want our kids to be nourished and have a healthy relationship with food, so these are just a few things to consider when raising an independent and intuitive eater. 

And one caveat: this is for typically-developing kids, and some kids with disabilities need different feeding strategies as part of feeding therapy. So remember, every kid and situation is different!

If you want to learn more, check out:

If you have a baby, take our Feeding your Baby Solids Course. It covers ALL the topics, answers questions you didn’t even know you had, and it’s all broken down into short, easy to understand videos for you to watch on your own time and at your own pace, even while doing the dishes. And will help you THRIVE when feeding your little one! For babies 3+ months old. We cannot recommend it enough!