What do you do when your child is refusing to eat or to try new foods?
When your efforts to introduce solid food to your baby are met with closed mouths and turned heads or your determination to feed your toddler healthy dinners are met with screams of ‘yuck’ and overturned plates.
If food refusal is an ongoing issue – not a symptom of illness, teething or other health issues – there are some things you can do to help encourage your child to try new foods.
Here are some tips for when your baby or child refuses to eat or try new foods.
8 tips for coping with food refusal in babies and children
Eat when they’re happy
Choosing the best time of day to eat can make a huge difference. If you’re starting your baby on solid food it is important to make sure they’re ready to start solid food and that you’re offering it when they’re happy – not tired or too hungry (after a nap and their regular milk feed).
Same goes for older children – if your toddler is overtired and overstimulated at the end of the day they won’t feel like sitting at the table to eat and they especially won’t be interested in tasting new things. Try making dinnertime an hour earlier to see whether it makes a difference.
Be guided by standard portion sizes
Remember that babies and small children don’t need to eat that much. In fact you might be surprised at the amounts recommended for children as part of a healthy balanced diet. For example, according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines toddlers (aged 1-2 years) should aim to eat:
- Vegetables – 2-3 serves a day – eg. 1 cup of steamed vegetables AND half a medium potato.
- Fruit – 1/2 a serve each day – eg. half a medium-sized banana OR a plum
- Grain – 4 serves a day – eg. cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta with dinner
- Meat/Eggs/Legumes – eg. 1 serve a day – an egg for breakfast and half a serve of meat with dinner.
- Dairy products – eg. 1-1.5 serves a day – half a serve of yoghurt and 1 slice of cheese
When starting your baby on solid food you’ll only be aiming for a teaspoon or two at first, and some babies won’t be terribly interested at first. At this early stage they are just learning how to eat, so it is important to start small and be patient.
Understand that it’s a normal phase for toddlers
It might help to remember that it’s normal for toddlers to go through a fussy stage. And most will eventually grow out of it. It is not something you are doing wrong! Fear of new food is actually an inbuilt survival mechanism – it is in our best interest to be cautious of new foods to lower our risk of being poisoned!
Sometimes, as parents, we just have to understand that this is a normal phase and, while there are things you can do to help, the situation will change with time. Of course, if you’re genuinely worried that your child’s diet is inadequate and they may have a nutritional deficiency, talk to a medical professional.
Try and try again
Exposure is the key to getting your child to accept new foods. After a while they won’t be new anymore! Experts say babies need to try new foods up to 12 times before they will like them. So keep introducing new foods and keep offering food they’ve rejected in the past. One day they will like them!
If you’re struggling with a baby who isn’t interested in starting solids, wait a few of days or so then try again.
Don’t be tempted to offer replacement meals
You won’t be doing yourself or your child any favours by offering to cook their favourite food after they have refused to eat the dinner you’ve made. Or by only cooking the same favourite food over and over again without attempting to add variety to their diet. If they know you’ll heat up some chicken nuggets or let them fill up on toast then why would they attempt to try anything new?
Instead, put their meal in the fridge and if they complain of hunger later tell them their dinner is still there and they can eat that. Maybe they still won’t, but they won’t starve either.
Involve them in food preparation
Young children might be more inclined to eat food if they’re involved in creating it. Grow some beans and let them eat them raw after picking (and washing) them! Take them shopping and get them to pick a new fruit to try. Or get them to help you when you’re cooking, kids who help mash some potato might also like to eat some straight off the masher when they’re done (even those who won’t eat it when it is on their plate!).
Model healthy eating yourself and eat as a family
When you cook and eat a balanced diet yourself you are establishing what your child will think of as ‘normal eating’. If you want them to eat a variety of nutritious foods, you have to as well. Make sure everyone sits down for dinner at the same time, when possible, so your child can watch and interact with adults and older children as they eat. Dinnertime is not just about eating, it’s an important time to relax and connect as a family.
Even babies starting solids can sit at the table in their high chair at family meal times. You might prefer, if they’re just starting solid food, to feed them properly when you have more time but they can still join the family at dinner time too. A child who doesn’t seem very interested in starting solids will benefit from watching adults and older children – they’ll be more relaxed and might surprise you by wanting to eat food from your plate.
Reward them for trying new foods
A reward chart is a good idea for a child who needs extra incentive to try new foods. Make it simple – a sticker for each new food they try – with a larger reward at the end. Find a non-food reward such as a colouring book or a tub of play dough so you don’t send them mixed messages about what they’re eating. We have a range of free reward charts for children that you can download and print.