How to help navigate child food refusal

Has your child started to say they “don’t like” foods they’ve eaten before? Are you always making alternative meals for your child after they’ve refused what you’ve served? Do mealtimes feel like a battle in your house? If you’re struggling with your child’s food refusal, then you’re in the right place. Keep on reading for our 10 top tips to help navigate food refusal!

What do we mean when we say ‘food refusal’?

Your child may be uninterested in new foods or may now be refusing to eat a food they previously enjoyed (it could even be a food they literally ate yesterday!). This can often lead to stressful mealtimes and concerns about whether your child is meeting their nutritional needs.

Why does my child refuse food?

Firstly, it is important to recognise that food refusal is a common behaviour in children. You are not alone and have not failed as a parent/caregiver to be experiencing this! It’s natural that your child will want to exert their independence as they get older and food refusal may be a manifestation of this. So, please do not panic! You can overcome your child’s food refusal. At Nutrition 4 Kids NI, we are here to offer reassurance and share some helpful advice. Whilst you can’t control how your child responds to certain foods, you can control how you respond.

What can I do to help improve food acceptance and liking?

  1. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Despite potential temptations to give up, be conscious that it can take MANY exposures for a child to accept a food (potentially 20-30 exposures!). Don’t assume that they’ll never eat that food again. Gradually increase your child’s exposure to various foods.

2. Change the way you serve food. This is one of Dr Kirsty’s favourite recommendations – check out the Nutrition 4 Kids NI social media pages for visual inspiration! You can incorporate fun shapes by using cookie cutters, add a novelty item (food picks, fun utensils), use a crinkle cutter for vegetables or serve food in ice trays. You could also try changing the cooking method. For example, instead of raw carrots, offer steamed carrots or instead of boiled potatoes try roast potatoes. Another idea is to add a dip such as houmous, guacamole, sour cream or salsa.

3. As tempting as it may be, try not to make another meal. This may teach your child that if they continue to create a fuss and refuse, there will always be an alternative. When serving meals, try to include some of their favourite familiar foods which you know they are guaranteed to eat, alongside the food they’ve previously refused.

4. Offer small portions. A large plate with big servings may be overwhelming. You could also use colourful plates with your child’s favourite character or animal.

5. Use your words. Be expressive and enthusiastic when your child tries a food they’ve been refusing (regardless of how big or small the portion is). Don’t be discouraged if they don’t finish the rest of the portion, or take one bite and leave the rest. Try to focus on the positive and recognise the small improvement.

6. Encourage your child to help with preparing food. Naturally, this will vary depending on their age, but examples include stirring, cutting, putting items in the trolley at the supermarket, adding herbs or washing vegetables. They could even help with setting the table. These tasks aim to encourage food acceptance but can also help children with reading, measuring, maths, listening, co-ordination, following instructions and teamwork.

7. Avoid threatening that your child “won’t get dessert unless they eat everything on their plate”. I’m sure this is a common phrase we’ve all heard! Perhaps you grew up being told this or maybe you’ve used this strategy in the past. This bribe can teach children to ignore their internal hunger cues and think that dessert/sweet foods are superior.

8. Role modelling by adults and other children is important. Allow your child to see you eating foods they refuse and show how much you are enjoying your meal. (This can be a challenge if you recognise yourself as a fussy eater in adulthood!)

9. Whilst this won’t apply to everyone, one reason your child may be refusing food is due to a lack of hunger. Is your child a constant grazer during the day? In this case, think about when snacks are offered and consider adjusting the timing to promote a better appetite for mealtimes. Let children know when to expect meals and snacks during the day and help them build up appropriate levels of hunger. Ideally, you want to aim for a regular eating routine. Offer three main meals and offer two to three snacks daily. One mid-morning, one mid-afternoon and one before bedtime if required. Stand firm and don’t give in to multiple requests!

10. Big changes can happen away from the dinner table. Prioritise games or play that can involve food such as role play, stories or songs about food, growing your own vegetables or visiting an allotment, messy play, colouring in and Play-Doh.

Lastly, remember that your child’s appetite and behaviour can vary from meal to meal and week to week. Try not to get discouraged or frustrated (albeit it’s completely understandable to have these feelings!) and avoid pressuring your child. Make sure that everyone involved with looking after your child (e.g. grandparents, friends, childminders etc.) are consistent about meal occasions and also implement any changes you’re making to help with food refusal.

Need more support?

Check out the Nutrition 4 Kids NI Fussy Eating online course or Feeding Toddlers webinar workshop. Dr Kirsty can also provide one-to-one consultations to establish effective personalised strategies for you and your child. More information about all of these services is available on the website.

Make sure to follow @Nutrition4kidsni on Instagram and Facebook where we regularly post lots of free content with recipes, advice and nutrition information. We love to hear from our followers so if you’ve made any of our recipes or seen success from following our tips please tag or DM us!

Written by Holly Neill (@hollyneillnutrition) and Dr Kirsty Porter

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