Anyone with experience of feeding a young child can probably relate to the following scenario:

Food is lovingly prepared (by glamorous mother of course). Food is put on the table. Child comes to the table. Child immediately says “yuk, what is that?!” or asserts that they “don’t like potatoes” despite having happily eaten them only yesterday. Or they make some kind of non-verbal gesture to signal a similarly negative opinion.

Sound familiar? If so, you’ll also be familiar with how this can make us Mums feel. On the first few occasions, we jollily jostle the child along with lots of “uuummmm”’s and “isn’t this yummy!” and, no doubt, physically ‘help’ the child to eat. And they may take a few bites. But this tactic soon wears off, leaving Mum feeling frustrated and the child annoyed at having a spoon constantly thrust in his/her face.

If this is so familiar, there must be a reason why, right? Right! Despite the feeling that this is something just your child is doing (because all of your friends’ kids seem to eat so well), refusing to eat – both new and familiar foods – is something that all children experience. It is a developmentally-predictable stage that tends to peak around the age of 2 years…just when you thought you had it all figured out! Frustrating?
Yes! Will it last? No – not if you handle it right.

Try to keep the following in mind when your child refuses to eat:

1. Have patience with new foods. It can take between 15-20 offerings before a child will be willing to put a new food in their mouths. Try not to rush this process. Keep offering the food and don’t give up before you have offered the food at least 20 times. If your child still won’t try the food, think about the way in which you are offering it. For example, carrots can be offered cooked with a meal, or raw as a snack, either cut into sticks or grated.

2. Have patience with previously liked foods too. As children become more aware of what they are eating, they may decide they are suddenly ‘not sure’ about a previously eaten colour or texture. Try not to get frustrated by this and let them re-explore the food, working on the principle above.

3. Relax the pressure. Don’t pressure your child to taste a food if they are not ready to. Coercion can lead to other problems and will have the opposite effect to that intended. Try to be objective and acknowledge when your child has made progress. For example, praise your child when they happily eat a vegetable that they previously refused, even if they eat only a small amount. Be careful not to start pressuring them to finish the entire portion.

4. Examine the evidence – How long since your child last had a snack or filling drink, such as milk? Are they really hungry?

5. Check portion sizes – Children’s tummies are smaller than adults’ and you may be serving too much food and therefore setting unrealistic expectations. For example: for a 2 year old, a palm-sized portion of strawberries would equate to three large strawberries.

6. Step back and be objective – Eating should be a pleasurable experience for your child that meets a biological need. It is not about satisfying you. Try to get satisfaction from knowing that your child has eaten as much as they desire and that they feel satisfied, rather than from having them eat an amount of food that you have defined.

7. Trust their tummies – Our bodies are very good at letting us know when we are hungry and full. However, constant interfering – by asking children to eat when they no longer want to – can disrupt this. Eating when hungry and stopping when full is a behaviour that we want to safeguard, not undermine, so try to allow your child to tell you when they are hungry and full.

8. Think outside the plate. Exposure to foods can take many forms and is not restricted to simply offering the foods in a situation where eating is the goal, for example at a meal. Rather, any contact that a child has with a food that is being refused will help to increase their familiarity with it and ultimately increase their willingness to try it. Activities that are based around learning about and growing foods, cooking, messy play, reading about or singing nursery rhymes about foods are all great ways to help introduce a food into a child’s world.

Written by: Dr Gemma Witcomb and Dr Emma Haycraft (www.childfeedingguide.co.uk)

Have you experienced this scenario? Tearing your hair out and getting frustrated with your toddler? Have you found any tips/tricks that help you? Please let us know by commenting below.