When kids won’t eat, there’s always an underlying reason. Understanding why kids refuse to eat anything you offer, or when they don’t want to eat, is the key to helping your child move forward.
Ironically, when kids won’t eat, it’s not always because they don’t like the food that’s being offered. There can be other reasons.
“Why won’t my child eat?” asked Debbie.
“I’m at my wits end. Every night, my little guy barely touches the meal.” She described how, night after night, getting her child to eat would ruin the family meal.
“It’s a real struggle!” she exclaims.
When I dug in a little further, I learned that Debbie’s son was getting a lot of pressure at the table to try new foods, especially because he had several food allergies and Debbie was afraid his diet was too narrow.
Why Won’t My Child Eat?
We hear so much about child obesity and kids who overeat. But what about the parent who’s asking about a child who doesn’t eat enough? Or the kid who is refusing food?
When your child refuses to eat, 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.
As a childhood nutrition expert, I’ve worked with many picky eaters in my day. In my experience, when your child isn’t eating it’s important to understand the root of the problem. It will help you solve it.
Whether it’s a physical condition, a behavioral tendency, or something that can be modified in your child’s eating environment, there are several common reasons why kids won’t eat.
In this article, you’ll learn of 12 potential reasons your child isn’t eating, and what you can do about it.
- Your Child’s Growth is Slowing Down
- Your Child is a Picky Eater
- Your Child Experiences Pressure to Eat at the Table
- Your Child has a Food Allergy
- Your Child has Super Sensitive Taste Buds
- Your Child is Sensitive to Texture
- Your Child is on a Food Jag
- Your Child is Filling Up on Snacks
- Your Child may be a Disordered Eater
- Your Child has Too Many Distractions
- Your Child is Too Tired to Eat
- Your Child is Sick
1. Your Child’s Growth is on a Plateau
At about age two or three, a toddler’s growth slows down, and his appetite follows. It’s no coincidence that this is right around the time that picky eating begins.
Although it’s concerning, it’s pretty common for young children, especially toddlers.
Read more: Help! My Toddler Won’t Eat
But let’s talk about kids. School-age kids are steady growers and their appetite stays fairly predictable. A drop in appetite may happen after your child has a short spurt in growth. This happens for some children. They are steady growers and eaters, then they ramp up their appetite for a few days, then taper off.
Although this can be disconcerting, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s just how some children grow. Remember, appetite often follows what’s going on with growth.
2. Your Child is a Picky Eater
It’s increasingly common for older kids to be picky eaters. In fact, more and more kids have a condition called ARFID, or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
These kids are certainly choosy with food. They often won’t eat vegetables and may refuse to try anything new.
Food neophobia, or a fear of new food, is a common characteristic of picky eating. Food jags, or eating the same food day after day, is another hallmark and we see these characteristics in the older picky eater as well.
Picky kids can also be sensitive to the appearance, smell or overall sensory experience of unfamiliar food. These characteristics of food may cause an aversion or disgust. If you suspect you’ve got a child who is sensitive to the texture, flavor or appearance of food, be sure to explore this further.
My article, Does My Child Have ARFID? sorts out in more detail what’s going on with older picky eaters.
Picky eating may drag on if you force your child to eat, bribe him with dessert, or take away privileges (or food).
Of course you don’t want to do that! In the end it doesn’t work anyway.
I explore a more positive way to feed picky eaters in my book, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods.
3. Your Child Experiences Pressure to Eat at the Table
As I mentioned, forcing your child to eat or laying on the pressure to try or taste food doesn’t work. In fact, it often backfires.
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 foods. and more likely to eat poorly and less healthfully. Pressuring kids to eat may cause early fullness and even shut down their appetite.
Let’s digest that.
The more you ask, remind or demand your child to eat, the less he does.
Alternatively, pressure to eat may cause different results: encouraging children to eat beyond their appetite, and perhaps too much.
How does that happen?
That child who is compliant and does what he’s asked may eat more than his internal body cues are telling him to. Doing this over and over can teach children to overeat.
If your child isn’t eating, take a step back and assess whether encouraging him to eat is working or making things worse.
Any kind of pressure, even celebratory remarks like, “Yay! I knew you could do it!” 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. There are several food allergies that are common in children. We call them the Big 8: milk, soy, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, fish and shellfish.
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.
Poor eating is a real risk in this situation.
Be sure to work with a nutrition professional if your child has food allergies so that you can make sure he’s getting all the nutrition he needs to grow well.
5. Your Child is Sensitive to Flavor
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 highly offensive because they taste it more intensively.
Super-tasters have more taste buds on the tongue, and they may be more sensitive to the chemical components of food, especially those of bitter and sour flavors.
If this is true with your child, it can result in selective eating, especially with vegetables.
6. Your Child is Sensitive to Texture
When I hear a child is not eating, I am suspicious of texture aversion. If your child is leery of foods that are mushy, wet or slippery, she may be exhibiting signs of sensory sensitivity.
Picky eaters who tend to eat bland foods or all white foods may also be sensitive to the appearance or smell of food. This can be the case in children with ADHD or autism.
Having a sensitivity to certain food characteristics can limit the diet, leading to poor eating and nutrition.
You may need to work with a feeding specialist or nutritionist who can help your child branch out to new foods and learn to tolerate those textures.
7. Your Child is on a Food Jag
Is your child eating the same things day after day? Loving a handful of foods? Your hot dog loving preschooler may be on a food jag, getting stuck on a few favorite foods.
This can look 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 you’ve turned into a short-order cook, offering only the foods your kid will eat, or enjoys eating, then you’re enabling the food jag.
Instead, you’ll want to keep offering a variety of foods even if your child doesn’t want to eat it. Think of it this way: If your child refuses to eat broccoli, and thus, you never bring it to the table, your child will never come around to liking it because he’s not seeing it enough.
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 may be curtailing her appetite for mealtime.
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 shift the balance of the diet and interfere with eating.
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
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. This encourages a mindful approach to eating and helps kids tune in to their appetite, eating the right amounts for their body’s needs.
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 kid who is naturally tired at the end of the day.
(I’ve got one kid who needs a nap everyday and she’s in her 20’s!).
The good news is most children are good at making up the difference in their food consumption when one meal is less than stellar. They just increase their eating at the next meal or snack.
12. Your Child is Sick
When kids are ill, they are often eating less. 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.
My Child Won’t Eat and Is Losing Weight
If you have a child who won’t eat and is losing weight, you’ll want to pay more attention to the nutrition you are providing him. In my experience, this is one of the most stressful challenges for parents.
Instead of hovering and pushing your kid to eat, you’ll have to take a balanced approach to this delicate situation.
It’s a good idea to check in with your doctor if your efforts to help aren’t making a difference.
Children need to gain and grow during childhood. If poor eating is causing your child to lose weight, seek professional help.
More Help for Kids Who Won’t Eat
Feeling stuck with your child’s eating? Want to help your child try new foods? If your child won’t eat and your find yourself caught up in a negative cycle of feeding, I’ve got the perfect resource for you!
Try New Food will help you, step-by-step, set up a positive environment to help your child taste new foods, even if it seems you’ll never get your child to eat. You’ll even get new foods for picky kids of all ages.
If your older child isn’t eating because he’s a picky eater, read this article for more help.
And, read this article if you’ve got a baby who refuses to eat.
For more resources, classes, workshops and books on child nutrition and feeding kids, head over to The Nourished Child.
Listen to The Nourished Child Podcast
I’ve got several podcast episodes on picky eating that can help you more!
This article was updated on September 13, 2020.