“My child won’t eat,” said Debbie. “I’m at my wits end. Every night, my little guy barely touches the meal.” She describes how night after night, getting her child to eat ruins the meal.
“It’s a real struggle!” she exclaims.
What do you do when your child won’t eat dinner? When your child won’t eat vegetables? When you have a child who won’t eat meat?
When your child refuses to eat anything, it can be extremely frustrating. If your child is refusing food, it can leave you angry, full of despair, and even hopeless.
I don’t want you to feel that way. At. All.
While we hear a lot about child overweight and kids who overeat, we are often left wondering what’s behind the child who won’t eat or who is refusing food.
In this article, you’ll learn why your child isn’t eating, and what you can do about it.
As a childhood nutrition expert, I’ve worked with many picky eaters in my day. There is always a reason your child won’t eat, and it’s not always because he doesn’t like the food that’s offered.
My Child Won’t Eat
There are many reasons why kids won’t eat. It’s not always about food. Sometimes it’s related to illness or the pressure to eat felt at the table. In my experience, when your child won’t eat it can be for a number of reasons. I’ve outlined 12 of the most common reasons kids won’t eat.
1. Your Child’s Growth is Slowing Down
Around age two or three, your toddler’s growth slows down, and his appetite follows. It’s no coincidence that this is right around the time that picky eating begins.
This may be why your child won’t eat. Although it’s concerning, it’s pretty common for young children, especially toddlers to taper off their eating.
When your child won’t eat dinner, it may be due to a low appetite and the fact that he’s been eating well earlier in the day.
This goes for school-age kids too—they are steady growers and because of this, their appetite stays fairly steady also.
2. Your Child is a Picky Eater
It’s not uncommon for toddlers to be picky eaters. In fact, toddlerhood is the age of picky eating. Being choosy with food is part of the normal developmental stage that nearly all children pass through.
Picky eaters often won’t eat vegetables and may refuse to try new food. When it comes to vegetables, young children may find them bitter and shy away from them.
They can also be sensitive to the appearance, smell or overall sensory experience of unfamiliar food and be less willing to try new food.
You can make this picky eating phase drag out by nagging your child to eat, bribing him with dessert, or taking away privileges (or food) when your child won’t eat. Of course you don’t want to do that!
3. Your Child Experiences Pressure to Eat at the Table
Research shows that children who are pushed, pressured or prompted to try new food, take another bite or finish their meal may be less willing to try new food and more likely to eat less well and less healthfully.
Alternatively, pressure to eat may cause different results: encouraging children to eat beyond their appetite, and perhaps too much.
If your child refuses to eat anything, take a step back and assess whether he’s in a picky eating phase. If so, pressuring him to eat more, try something new or take more bites may cause early fullness and shut down his appetite.
Any kind of pressure, even celebratory remarks and excessive praise can lead to the same results.
4. Your Child has a Food Allergy
Some children don’t eat well when they have a food allergy. If a child has multiple food allergies, you can bet there are many food restrictions and diet limitations, which can lead to narrowed food selections and boredom with the daily diet.
Poor eating is a real risk in this situation.
5. Your Child has Super Sensitive Taste Buds
When your child won’t eat vegetables or other foods, like meat, it may be due to highly sensitive taste buds. For some children, the taste of bitter is heightened.
Super-tasters have more taste buds on the tongue, and they may be more sensitive to the chemical components of food, especially bitter and sour flavors.
If this is true with your child, it can result in selective eating, especially with vegetables. Pushing or pressuring your child to eat veggies may worsen the situation.
6. Your Child is Sensitive to Texture
When I hear a child refuses to eat anything, I am suspicious of texture aversion. If your child is leery of certain textures, like mushy, wet or slippery foods, and avoids them, she may be exhibiting signs of sensory sensitivity.
This often shows up with a picky eaters who tend to eat bland foods or all white foods. These kiddos may also be sensitive to the appearance or smell of food.
Having a sensitivity to certain food characteristics can limit the diet, leading to that dreaded feeling of ‘my child won’t eat anything!’ and the reality of poor eating and nutrition.
7. Your Child is on a Food Jag
Is your child eating the same things day after day? Loving just a handful of foods? Your hot dog loving preschooler may be on a food jag, getting stuck on a few favorite foods.
This can appear like your child is not eating, but most likely your child is eating enough, just not the variety of food you’d like to see him eat.
If your kiddo is growing well, happy, and the two of your aren’t struggling over food, I’d bet your child is moving through a normal phase of development.
8. Your Child is Filling Up on Snacks
When your child refuses to eat, it’s time to look at the big picture. What is she eating throughout the day?
If she’s filling up on snacks, she’s filling up her belly, which can lead to eating poorly at meals.
Some kids will fill up on food-based snacks, while others will fill their bellies with juice or milk. Any of these foods and beverages can interrupt your child’s appetite for meals.
Make sure your child has plenty of opportunity to eat meals and snacks on a predictable schedule.
9. Your Child may be a Disordered Eater
If you have an older child who won’t eat, you may be dealing with a larger concern called disordered eating. When kids and teens cut back on eating, they may be trying to lose weight.
They could also be emulating their peers, experimenting, or dieting due to body dissatisfaction.
Disordered eating includes skipping meals, cutting out food groups, or dieting, and paves the way for an eating disorder.
10. Your Child has Too Many Distractions When Eating
If you’re using distraction techniques to help your child eat, they may be working against you rather than for you (or your child). Kids are easily distracted by TV or toys at the table, and this may have a negative impact on their eating.
It’s best to let your child focus on food and eating at the table—he can get back to playing or TV time later.
11. Your Child is Too Tired to Eat
When your child won’t eat dinner, it may simply be due to sheer exhaustion from a long day. Think of the young athlete who’s gone to school all day and attended sports practice afterward, or the toddler who is naturally tired at the end of the day (especially if they are weaning off of nap time!) — they can be too tired to eat.
The good news is most children are good at making up the difference in their food consumption when one meal like dinner is less than stellar. They just increase their eating at the next meal or snack.
12. Your Child is Sick
When your child is ill, she tends to eat less well. This is mainly due to a reduced appetite, which is common when any of us get sick.
Generally, illness is short-term and not a worry, as the appetite tends to comes back when your child starts to feel better.
When your child won’t eat, it’s important to figure out the WHY behind it so you can correct any potential practices that interfere with your child’s eating. If it’s a normal part of development, you can ride it out.
And that’s where it can get tricky.
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Are you struggling to get your toddler to eat? I’ve got a cheat sheet that will help you get started. Click the button below to snag my Six Step Guide.
If your child isn’t eating because he’s a picky eater, read this article for help.
Or listen to these podcast episodes on picky eating:
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: June 24, 2014
Updated on: May 9, 2019