Something I am asked about ALL the time when it comes to my advice on fussy eating, is what to do when a child totally refuses their meal. It’s SO common for toddlers to have their favourites and refuse to eat a meal if it’s not their favourite food. Or they might reject what they’re offered and ask for something else. It can be incredibly frustrating when this happens, and particularly worrying if your child has a low appetite or it feels like they’re constantly refusing meals.
So what should we do when our child doesn’t eat what they’re offered?
Should I offer an alternative meal when my child won’t eat?
As a general rule, I don’t advise immediately offering an alternative meal when the one you’ve made has been refused. I often talk about the concept by Ellyn Satter of the “division of responsibility” when it comes to feeding kids. This suggests that as adults, we decide WHAT and WHEN to offer food, and kids decide WHETHER and HOW MUCH to eat. That means that our job is simply to offer the meal, and it’s our kid’s job to decide whether or not they want to eat it. See more about this in my Portion Sizes resource.
There are so many things that affect a child’s appetite, such as:
- Developmental milestones
- Growth spurts
- How much they’ve eaten at the previous meal
- Change in routine
- You name it….
Sometimes, they may simply not fancy the food that’s on offer that day. And that’s ok. Provided your child has plenty of opportunity to eat throughout the day (e.g. roughly 3x meals and 2x snacks a day at predictable times), then it’s totally expected that they’re not going to gobble up a huge amount at every single meal. For more on what a toddler should eat in a day, check out my blog. Whilst there are guidelines on portion sizes for young children, ultimately every child is different and it’s important to follow their lead when it comes to their appetite.
If we are too quick to jump to offering an alternative meal when they don’t eat what they are first given, often that alternative is likely to be something we’re more certain they will actually eat – e.g. a firm favourite such as pasta or toast, for example. Over time, this can teach them that if they refuse the meal they’re offered, they can get something “better” instead.
This can also lead to the number of “accepted foods” becoming less and less because little ones learn that they can refuse something less familiar and get a firm favourite each time. This cements the familiarity of those favourites in their mind, making other meals and food options less and less acceptable to them.
It can also lead to them overriding their internal hunger cues. If they’re not eating because they’re simply not that hungry, but they’re offered a food they love and is particularly palatable, they may be more likely to eat more than they actually need or want. (How often do we, as adults, fit in pudding, even though we’re very full from dinner just because it’s ultra-palatable to us?)
Of course, we want to offer children foods they love and enjoy and it’s absolutely fine to offer their favourites regularly. However, they don’t have to have their favourite food at EVERY meal and in order to help them accept a variety of foods, they need to become familiar with lots of different foods – which means offering a variety of foods as often as we can!
What if my child refuses their meal and then immediately asks for a snack?
This is another super common behaviour that many parents come to me for. This can often happen because:
- Toddlers are pushing boundaries
- They might not have a predictable meal/snack routine
- Snack foods can sometimes be more “appealing” than their main meal
Some things you can do to help are:
- Aim to have their meals and any snacks at similar times each day – this helps children to know when to expect meals and you can say “it’s not dinner/snack time yet. It’s just 20 more minutes to wait” It’s ok if they get upset – hold the boundary and try to stick to your routine as much as possible.
- When offering snacks, make sure they’re balanced and nutrient-rich, so that they’re filling and satisfying
- Avoid offering only preferred foods as snacks e.g toast or baby crisps, so that they don’t become the default request if they’ve refused a meal
- For older children, get them involved in meal prep and planning so that they can feel part of the process and know a little more what to expect
- Offer their preferred foods regularly, along with less familiar foods, giving them plenty of opportunity to eat the foods they enjoy whilst still building familiarity with the less accepted foods, too
- Offer less familiar foods at a time of day when they usually have more appetite
What if my child ONLY wants milk?
Milk can be a really tricky area to navigate for many parents, particularly after 1 year of age when guidelines suggest that food becomes their main source of nutrition. For many little ones, milk continues to offer plenty of nutrition, as well as being a source of comfort or part of a bedtime routine, for example. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering your child milk as part of their daily routine, and there’s no need to change it if it’s working well for your family, but it is best not to offer a milk feed as an alternative to solid foods and main meals.
If you’re finding that your child is refusing meals and asking for milk, or that milk (breast, formula or dairy/dairy alternative) continues to be the main source of their intake well beyond 1 year of age, it may be worth looking at their overall intakes and their overall routine. You may first want to look at WHY your child has a strong preference for milk – it could be for a number of reasons:
- Milk is an easy source of nutrition and calories for kids
- Milk has a predictable, familiar flavour
- Drinking from a bottle is often associated with comfort
- They may be ill, teething, going through a developmental milestone
- They may be starting childcare, being away from you for longer periods or simply be looking for connection and milk may have become a source of this for them
If milk intake is something you’re looking to change, here are some things you can try:
- Have a routine around when milk is offered and try to avoid offering it outside of these times – make sure to communicate any change in routine and perhaps expect them to be a little upset at first
- If offering a bottle, switching to an open cup or straw cup can help from a dental and oral health perspective
- If you think your little one is looking for connection, try to offer plenty of opportunities outside of offering their milk for connection – e.g. reading stories together, playing, baking/cooking together, doing their favourite activity together
- Offer them other sources of comfort if necessary – e.g comforter, cuddles, stories, toys – it can take time for them to get used to and accept new forms of comfort
I know milk is a BIG topic when it comes to feeding kids, and I have plenty of resources to help. Check out my blog on milk recommendations for young children or my detailed factsheet on milk, from birth, to weaning and beyond.
I’m worried my child will wake in the night hungry if they don’t have dinner, what can I do?
Understandably, many parents are worried about how refusing a meal, particularly dinner, might impact their baby or child’s sleep. It’s important to remember that it can be normal for children to wake in the night well past the baby stage, and it can be for a number of reasons. If your child is waking in the night asking for milk, it may not necessarily mean they are actually hungry, but it could be the source of comfort they are looking for to help them settle.
As above, if your child has enough opportunities to eat throughout the day, it’s likely they will be able to eat to their appetite. It’s perfectly normal for children’s appetites to differ throughout the day, and many children have a meal where they are simply less hungry than at other times during the day.
If you ARE finding that missing meals is regularly impacting your little one’s sleep, then something you could try doing is incorporating a pre-bedtime snack into your routine. My tips for offering this would be:
- Ensure your snack is balanced to help ensure it is filling
- Avoid offering ONLY preferred foods at this snack
- Offer this snack regardless of whether they have refused a meal or not, to avoid it becoming an “incentive” if they don’t want their main meal and to ensure it becomes part of their “routine” not an alternative to dinner.
Are there times I SHOULD offer an alternative meal?
In some scenarios, offering your little one an alternative meal might be an appropriate thing to do. This might include:
- Your child is unwell and the meal you’ve offered isn’t appropriate for them (e.g difficult or painful to chew)
- Your child has feeding difficulties or is being seen by a medical professional who has given you individualised advice
- You have concerns about your child’s growth or general health
- You may have genuinely made a meal that is not particularly appetising (I’ve accidentally made food FAR too spicy before and my kids just couldn’t eat it)
And sometimes, you may just not have the energy to fight with your kids – and that’s a totally valid excuse, too. As parents, we have to pick our battles and some days, a mealtime battle just isn’t what you need. There is never one single right or wrong way to approach food refusal, and it’s important to follow what works for you.
I hope you’ve found this blog useful, for more tips on fussy eating check out my How to Cope with Fussy Eating factsheet. If you’re looking for more in-depth advice, my Fussy Eating Crash Course is a detailed session all about WHY fussy eating happens and WHAT we can do to help.
Please note, the advice given in this blog is not designed to replace or be used as medical advice. If you have concerns about your child’s health or your child has a specific medical condition, please always refer to a professional who can support you with guidance that is appropriate for your child.
Fussy Eating Course
Want to spend 90 minutes learning about fussy eating with The Baby & Child Nutritionist? This comprehensive and informative crash course will provide you with strategies to deal with all the common issues.