What to do When Your Child Won’t Eat (5 Tips)
When it comes to raising an adventurous eater, what you say can make a huge difference in boosting their confidence, setting boundaries, and promoting a positive mealtime environment. Learn our top 5 verbal strategies to help your child try new foods.
Medically reviewed and cowritten by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).
Language that Encourages Positive Mealtimes
How many times have you asked your child “do you want a bite of (insert new food that either too green/slimy/squishy/crunchy/chewy/etc)?” only to be met with a resounding “NOOOO!!!!!”?
Too many times to count? Yeah, me too. Every time I introduced my child to a new food because I was so sure that they’d love it, I was met with immediate resistance. Sound familiar?
Then I started learning some tricks and tips that really started to help me understand why exactly what we say (and how we say it) at mealtime matters. And you know what? Mealtimes started to change for the better. So did my kid’s overall eating habits.
Was it the magic bullet that made my child finally love anything and everything? Of course not. However, I did notice that learning how to re-phrase or ask questions differently really did help my child start to feel less pressured, more interested, and more confident when coming to the dinner table.
Verbal Strategies to Help Your Child Try New Foods
Knowing what to say in the moment, especially when your child is on the verge of a meltdown over a new food on their plate can feel quite overwhelming. So having a script or “cheat sheet” with strategies to use can be particularly helpful.
Here are some phrases and questions that can help ease stress and just might encourage your picky eater to try a new food:
1. “You can…”
By flipping around the typical ask of “Can you?” with a statement like “You can…” we instantly take off the pressure and stress of your child feeling like they’ll be a failure if they can’t do something you’ve suggested and instead we fill their mind with the idea that they are completely capable of interacting with a food in some way, even if it’s a very small way.
“You can take a small scoop or a medium scoop of casserole.”
“You can cover it up with your napkin if you’re not ready to try it.”
“You can see what it smells like.”
2. Give 2 Choices
Want to hear “NO!” a whole lot less? Then stop asking yes/no questions where ‘no’ can easily be the answer, such as “do you want to try some brussels sprouts?” Instead, we’re going to piggy back on the previous tip of “You Can” + give a directive that has two options for an answer (and either of which you’re okay with hearing the response).
For example, you’re going to re-phrase asking the question “Do you want a bite of broccoli?” to “You can put a piece of broccoli on your plate or in a bowl.” or “You can choose to try those potatoes with gravy or without gravy.”
3. It’s okay to spit it out/take it out if you’re not sure yet.
Imagine you’re traveling to a country you’ve never been to before, having to eat food you know nothing about. Let’s say you’ve been given a plate of something that looks just, well, questionable (at least in your culture). Wouldn’t you feel better if you knew you could take that food back out of your mouth, just in case you didn’t like it?
Our kids sometimes feel that in order to please us, (and maybe to get us off their backs about trying something new) taking a bite and choking it down is only way to go. And maybe this works a few times. But eventually, they realize that the uncomfortableness of not being allowed to take something back out isn’t worth the effort to try it. So, they start to flat out refuse.
We want to teach our kids that it’s okay to have another exit strategy for a food, if they’re not sure about it yet. So make sure to have a napkin handy at meals and remind your child that it’s okay to spit a food back out of their mouth if they need to. You can model this yourself even. And remember getting food into the mouth is still a great learning experience for how that food smells, feels, tastes even if it doesn’t end up getting chewed and swallowed.
4. Describe the foods you’re eating.
This one might seem almost too simple, but oddly enough, using language that’s focused on teaching your child about the sensory aspects of the food (ie. color, size, shape, sound, etc) and the mechanics of the food (i.e. how it breaks apart/moves in your mouth) is helpful for a couple of reasons.
First, it helps your child understand as much about the food as possible, and what will happen to the food once it’s in the mouth, BEFORE it makes its way into your child’s mouth. Secondly, it helps your child start to make connections as to how this food is similar to a food they already know and like. Both are helpful for decreasing anxiety around trying new foods, which picky eaters often have a lot of.
“Ooh, look! When I crunch this snap pea, it’s loud like a carrot.”
“Does it crush into a powder or squish into mush?”
“This kiwi feels fuzzy on the outside, kind of like the outside of those peaches we had last week.”
5. Use “Do” language (instead of “don’t)
When we say “do” language, we’re talking about a specific rule or direction that helps your child understand the exact behavior you expect. “Do” language tells your child what to do, rather than saying “no,” “stop,” or “don’t,” which are more negative instructions.
By avoiding “don’t” language, we’re avoiding power struggles. And getting into power struggles are what interrupts eating. Using “don’t” language or demanding a child do something in a negative tone can also send a child into “fight or flight” mode, which increases adrenaline. And do you know what increased adrenaline does? It decreases our appetite.
Instead of “Stop throwing,” say “Food stays on the plate. If you don’t want it, put it here.”
Instead of “Don’t stand on your chair,” say “We sit on our bottoms in the chair.”
Instead of “No screaming,” say “Use an inside voice. If something is bothering you, tell me in an inside voice.”
Tips and Tricks
- Be mindful that asking too many questions about foods can be counterproductive. The most common question parents seem to ask starts with, “can you…” which can easily be answered with “no.” It also implies a lack of confidence on our part as to whether the child really can try a food.
- For younger children, giving a new food a silly name can help them try a food and take the stress off of a meal. For example, raspberries can be “elf hats” or tomato soup can be “Christmas dipping sauce”. The point is, it doesn’t have to make sense, but it might just peak their interest in learning about a food.
- For older kids who are having a hard time with a new food, you can try asking them “What would you change about this (food)?” This helps give your child a sense of control and helps them problem solve exactly what it is that they aren’t sure about yet. Maybe they could try the food with a favorite dip, mixing it with another food, using more/less seasoning, having bites cut up smaller, etc.
Frequently Asked Questions
First, know that there could be many possible reasons why a child refuses a food (learned behaviors, poor oral motor skills, sensory difficulties, reflux, etc.) – so especially if your child seems very selective and is refusing many foods or entire food groups, it would be helpful to rule out any underlying causes for this.
You can start by having a discussion with your child’s doctor about a referral to a feeding therapist (typically an occupational therapist or a speech therapist who specializes in feeding). Your doctor may also recommend additional referrals to other healthcare providers, depending on your child’s needs.
When your child asks for preferred foods over and over, it can turn into a power struggle very quickly if you choose to engage. It’s best to keep responses short and specific, such as “I hear you. You really like bread sticks. We’re having meatloaf and garlic toast tonight. We can have bread sticks this weekend with dinner.” Let them know when the next opportunity to have that food might be. Or if your child is older, you can even sit down and have them help plan some of their favorite foods on a weekly menu.
Just like learning how to ride a bike, tie their shoes, or write their name, learning how to eat a variety of foods is a process. It takes time. Although you can approach this many different ways, depending on your child’s age and needs, it’s helpful to respond in a way that helps them understand that there’s always room for growth. Some common phrases you can use are “You’re still learning about it.” Or “It sounds like you’re not sure about it yet.”