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10 Ideas for When Your Kid Won’t Eat

You’d think all of Eva’s food allergies would be the most challenging thing about feeding her. Nope. That’s actually a micro challenge compared to the daily battle we have over not being able to READ HER MIND and know what she is/isn’t eating that day. I’ve actually had her ask for something and then, in the amount of time it took me to get it out of the fridge and heat it up, decide that she actually hates that food and never wants to eat it again.

I always said that I wouldn’t be the kind of parent who would cater to a kid like this. I don’t run a diner. I’m not a short order cook. This is your food. If you don’t want it, you don’t eat. Go ahead and starve.

Yeah, that’s all well and good before you’re a parent. And I’m not caving in and making her specially requested meals because I just can’t stand to say “no” to my toddler. I can say “no” to my toddler all day long. Can I wear this swimsuit to school? Can I play with the big scissors? Can I light the candle? Can I have a puppy? Can I put this small metal thing in my ear? “No” x 1000.

I make specially requested meals because Eva gathered that my parenting plan was “go ahead and starve” and she was all “I think I will starve and when you take me in to the pediatrician they’re going to tell you I’m at 8% of the average weight for my age and they want to feed me through my nose. Now tell me again about the house rules, MOM.”

Touché.

Kids Who Won't Eat

  1. Bribery. People who don’t bribe their children are making life harder for themselves. I consider bribery just another math lesson. Three bites of potatoes = one marshmallow. Three bites of chicken = two marshmallows and an extra story at bedtime. And so on.
  2. Have a house rule that says they have to try everything. We only require one bite, but that’s one bite of everything on the plate. Sadly, even getting Eva to eat a combined 5 bites is still about 70% more than she’ll eat without the rule.
  3. Sneak calories into beverages. When Eva goes on her occasional strike against all foods, she gets smoothies. I put bananas and honey in them to mask the fact that I also put yogurt, tofu, cottage cheese, etc. into her smoothies. I’ve even smoothied steamed cauliflower just to get them in her.
  4. Use cookie cutters. Eva will refuse foods and then turn around and eat them immediately if I use cookie cutters to chop them into shapes. This works great for slices of roast turkey or pieces of meatloaf.
  5. Use sprinkles. I have put sprinkles on everything from oatmeal to mashed potatoes to enchiladas. Whatever. You can also add food coloring to things like pasta or mashed potatoes to make them more fun.
  6. Take turns giving each other bites. Let her use your fork to feed you and then tell her that it’s your turn. (Note: be prepared to eat your food in weird combinations and/or after it’s been dipped in your milk.)
  7. Create a good eating environment. Play music. Sit with your kid. Use divided plates and only serve two bites of everything. (It’s less intimidating.) Light candles at the dinner table and reserve the privilege of blowing them out for people who clear their plates (or, in our house, eat three bites of each food item).
  8. Go for the occasional fun-to-eat meal like fondue or set out elements of the meal and let them finish the preparation (i.e. making their own tacos or adding pasta sauce and cheese to pasta).
  9. Mince and serve on crackers. I kid you not, this works on everything. Surprising hits in our house have included scrambled eggs and beef stroganoff.
  10. If desperate, allow the iPad (or some other kid-show-playing device) at the table and only let it play if they’re eating. This requires both that you sit there like a test proctor and that you bend the general recommendations for pediatric screen time, but as someone who parents a toddler known for hunger strikes that last 10+ hours, just know that this does work in a pinch. Beats that tube in the nose.
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11 Comments

  • Reply Christine

    My nephew is a picky eater too. My sister also employs the “you must try everything once” rule. Instead of sprinkles, fried onion strips go with everything. His major food groups appear to be carbs and dairy. As he’s gotten older (he’s turning 12), he eats more in volume, but not necessarily in diversity. It will be interesting to see if puberty does anything to his eating habits. Hubby can’t imagine how he can be a boy and not eat hamburgers! lol

    December 18, 2013 at 11:42 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      Oh, I can’t even imagine if we’re still doing this when Eva is 12. I might jump out a window.

      December 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm
  • Reply Hope at Disneyland

    I was a picky eater too. I went from not eating anything to now eating everything! lol So I hope Eva’s eating habits improve too. A lot of it for me was mental – like a battle of wills – who could hold out longer – me not eating or caregiver’s patience to let me eat what I DID want to eat. lol (p.s. I always win 😀 )

    December 19, 2013 at 7:02 pm
  • Reply Heather

    Oh my word – this is the same battle at my house. We have a two year old little girl (28 months to be exact) and meal time is just painful most days. I too said I would never be a short order cook, but my kiddo is also a peanut and would be content to call my bluff and just drink milk for the rest of her life and remain in the 5th percentile. Making me look like the rock star mom of the year.
    So, we have resorted to many of the same tactics – bribery being the main one. We bribe with treats (the advent calendar made December meals much easier), with getting to play with a special toy, getting to take a bath in our Jacuzzi tub, etc. But some days she just doesn’t care to be bribed and at some point we do cut our losses.
    One big issue I found is that while we are consistent at home and she apparently eats like a champ at school, she has gotten well skilled at manipulating my mother in law who watches her the days she is not at school. Kid eats cheese and soup for her and that is all. I don’t know how to fix that one since I’m not there to enforce our rules. Any suggestions on that front… send them my way. 🙂

    December 30, 2013 at 7:54 am
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      I have absolutely no helpful tips. The only thing I can say is that our kid does the exact same thing at her grandma’s house. Suddenly she only eats bananas, crackers, and sugar cereal!

      December 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm
  • Reply Ann

    My daughter is 3yrs old and her food diversity has decreased in the past 18 months. What used to be a plate full of macs with sauce, peas n carrots and applesauce has turned into graham crackers, yogurt and granola bars. She won’t sit down and even try anything new. It’s a all out war when it comes to eating the foods she used to eat like chic nuggets and Mac n cheese. Bribes do not work, I’ve taken new Christmas toys away and no iPad. She’ll eat squeezable veggies and fruit, that’s her veggie intake. I’m sad and feel like I’m tourturing her but I keep going…for now.

    January 9, 2014 at 5:28 pm
    • Reply Naomi J

      I just wanted to let you know that you are NOT ALONE! I can count on my right hand the amount of foods my 4yo will eat willingly. And now it seems like she’s getting bored with those foods too.

      She used to eat more when she was little, but just keeps getting pickier as she gets older. All the doctors say it’s normal, but I’m not so sure. I’ve tried many of these tactics but they don’t seem to work. I’ll try a few of the ones I haven’t heard of before, but we’ll see.

      Anyways, just wanted to say keep up the good fight, and I hope it gets better for you!

      September 10, 2015 at 8:58 am
  • Reply Kell

    As someone who works with children who are between the ages of 2 1/2 – 5 meal times can become quite difficult. There are children who will eat everything in sight and there are also the ones who will eat nothing. Bribery does work but for how long is the main question. Eating does become a battle of who can outlast who. This may sound horrible but I have found it to work the best. Put the food that you are serving on their plate and when they refuse tell them this is their only option. If they choose not to eat it then, that’s fine, there is always snack time or the next time they are hungry their food will be waiting to be reheated. Eventually they will eat the food you have made and either like it or not. Once they have tried it, they will most likely eat everything. For the reference I will never let a child go hungry but I will also not cater to what they want. This is the way meals were served in my house growing up and although I hated it at the time, I am grateful because it gave me an opportunity to try new foods. What stinks though is some of the foods I did not want to try, wound up trying and loved as a kid, I can no longer eat due to food allergies.

    Hopefully food appetites will change over the coming years.

    July 27, 2014 at 9:19 pm
  • Reply Kelly

    Amen to all of this. I could have written everything you said and only changed 8% to 2%. It’s such a struggle.

    October 15, 2015 at 8:16 pm
  • Reply Kelly

    Amen to all of this! I could have written just what you said only changing it to my son and 2%. It’s such a struggle.

    October 15, 2015 at 8:18 pm
  • Reply Diane Homan

    Glad to know I’m not alone. My 18 mo boy will only eat peanut butter on bread. He’s tiny and I have to explain myself to the pediatrician everytime we go. Mealtimes are a war, but I feel better reading your article and the comments. Thanks!

    April 7, 2016 at 8:46 pm
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