Kid Hacks: 6 Helps When a Child Won’t Eat

What to Do When Your Child Won't Eat, How to Make a Child Eat

Eating hindered by milk?You know one.

Or you’ve seen one.

Maybe you have one, or even were one.

It’s such a challenge to the mom, to get good, health-giving food down into picky tummies.

You wonder if this child will be damaged by such a bland diet as potatoes and milk, the only two foods he really likes.

You wonder, also; over and over—what to do, what to do.

So, here we go, The Answers You Need:

1. Is this child around four years old?

The child walking through his fourth year is typically not growing much. You know: growth spurts. We think he’s not growing because he refuses to eat, but it’s the other way around. The fourth year is tough on kids. They don’t grow, they suffer emotional fears and imagined rejections. And someone is always chasing them with more food!

The solution I’ve found very helpful is to put only one bite of everything offered at the meal on the child’s plate, and require cleaning his plate. After that allow whatever seconds he prefers. Also, keep the drink cup out of reach to be handed to him for sips, to prevent what my mom used to call “drinking your meal”.
In this way,
—the tiny bit he does eat will have some balance to it
—drinks will be used to fill gaps in the tummy after a bit of yummy solids are in place, first.

2. Is this child lacking vitamins?

Well, of course, probably, right? The thing you might not know, though, Mom, is that as a child’s digestion slows, so does the amount of nutrients in his body. But then, oh bummers, there are certain nutrients which actually boost a person’s appetite. So we find it a vicious cycle that not eating diminishes nutrition, which diminishes appetite.

The obvious solution, once you think of it, is some fun, mild vitamin made especially for kids. I’d hop on that at once, if I had a low volume/picky eater.

3. Next, have you spoiled his appetite?

What to Do When Your Child Won't Eat. How to Overcome a Picky Eater.Ooh, I do not like this question, either! However, when hunger strikes, a child can be so dramatic and we let the drama push us around. We hand off a graham cracker or something to pacify this emotional child, which makes him not hungry at mealtime, which makes him hungry before the next meal, which . . .

Solution? Okay, so just don’t allow snacking. My mom used to tell me that her mom used to tell her to take a big drink of water and put out the fire. This dilutes stomach acid, truly quenching that burning feeling we so glibly call “starving!”. So the child is hydrated but still able to summon hunger when the meal is served.

4. No offense, but really, is the food good?

If it’s not home cookin’, that could be half the problem. All that stuff we buy in a box and nuke, like Jane Jetson, isn’t really food. Oh, it says on the label that it’s food, but if we read closely, we see that probably all the non-pronounceables in the package also add some sort of flavor. The microwave definitely does something to texture, believe me. We’ve been lied to, but children are experts at sniffing out fakes . . .

For a lovely solution, try cooking, once, to see if that fixes the problem. Add a pinch of salt, and maybe a slight slick of real butter. You might be surprised!

5. Even better yet, teach your child to cook.

Cooking the food transfers pride of ownership and true appreciation to the child’s heart. I remember when our daughter prepared her first, ever, entire meal. We sat down to eat and she told me, “Now I know, Mom, why at every meal you always say, ‘It feels so good to sit down.'” Ah, the sweet sound of appreciation! And attention to the duty of complimenting the cook by eating!

Letting the child cook or even help cook is its own solution.

6. Meal planning!

The child who is taught, not only to cook, but also to meal-plan with good nutrition education in mind, will become more adventurous in food choices and acceptance, by nature. An amazing government document entitled Nutritive Value of Food is available as a pdf and allows easy research for a balanced diet, including recommended daily minimums.

I have found it a constant. It is such a joy that when a child discovers, for himself, that a food has nutritive value. He becomes more dedicated to liking it. Yes, that slight attitude change can make that much difference, enough to be a solution to it all.

Okay, there you have it!

I’ve tried all six of these tacks with my little (and not-so-little) picky ones and they all have learned to cook real food and to love when someone else does. They like almost all foods and even know how to take the “one bite” (from when they were four, haha) to show politeness. Hope you find something in this to help you down the road to raising better eaters, too!

Oh, and please add to these ideas for all of us, in the comments below, if you want! Thanks!

Published by Katharine

Katharine is a writer, speaker, women's counselor, and professional mom. Happily married over 50 years to the same gorgeous guy. She loves cooking amazing homegrown food, celebrating grandbabies, her golden-egg-laying hennies, and watching old movies with popcorn. Her writing appears at Medium, Arkansas Women Bloggers, Contently, The Testimony Train, Taste Arkansas, Only in Arkansas, and in several professional magazines and one anthology.

12 thoughts on “Kid Hacks: 6 Helps When a Child Won’t Eat

  1. Where have you been all my life? Wish I’d had that advice when my oldest was younger. He was a clever child and if it was green or yellow he didn’t like it. So clever was he in his pre-teen years he even managed to stuff his veggies in the air-conditioning vent right behind his chair in the dining room. Obviously for months. Sigh. We thought he’d learned to eat green and yellow. But his sister snitched on him. It was a dried up, ugly mess of assorted whatevers that clung to the underside of said vent. More sighs!

    He’s the top side of forty-five now and his veggie eating is still on intolerant side of picky. So follow Katharine’s counsel while there’s still time.

    1. DiAne! How I laughed at this trick! I, too, wish you’d known a trick or two back then.

      We had one child who would ask to be excused to use the bathroom during meals and…guess what! Lettuce doesn’t always flush all the way, and remains to tattle on you. I’d forgotten all about that. This child was the one who did better after studying the nutritive values.

      I’ve had all kinds. One who loved ketchup and finally learned to love tomatoes, too, by putting ketchup on them.

      Kids are just plain funny. 😀

  2. Great advice, Katharine. As a parent, it’s all too easy to undermine our own good intentions or inadvertently reinforce bad habits or be manipulated by a child being smarter than we are!
    I only played “restaurant” with one child, the one who gagged on baby food. We later learned that he has texture issues. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t eat the food, it was he couldn’t. If it wasn’t the right texture in his hand, he wouldn’t put it in his mouth. He didn’t sleep through the night until he was 11 mo. old and ate his older siblings’ peanut butter balls. (I know you aren’t supposed to give PB to children that young, but I was desperate.) I didn’t make a big deal out of his eating and he survived on little more than a peanut butter and honey sandwich and a glass of milk (about 10:30 am) each day for several years. He would sit with us at lunch and dinner and talk but not eat. Of course, he had to eat the token bites to get a token bite of dessert with everyone else. He’s now the most adventurous eater of all my children, but still doesn’t like whipped cream and other soft, fluffy foods.

    1. Wow. That was hard. So sorry you had to go through that.

      Played restaurant…funny! Never heard it called that, but yes, a good term. 🙂

      I’m glad your son survived his preferences or whatever that was, and now can eat with gusto. Eating is supposed to be such wonderful enjoyment!

      When I was little, I could not eat frosting or jello. Both made me gag. Could use a little of that going on, now. Ha!

  3. Great advice. I found that sneaking things into their food was the best way. For example, they all loved my home made pizza – so I put raw wheat germ into the sauce, and rolled the crust out onto bran instead of corn meal. They never knew and still don’t, but wonder why my stuff “stayed with them,” more than anything else they ate.

    Also – never ever give your kids soda pop. It interferes with normal appetite, and can cause a host of other problems. If you are having popcorn, or pizza, those things traditionally served with pop – substitute real orange juice – with crushed ice for the soda pop. If you make your own orange juice from frozen, you can even use seltzer water for a nice fizz.

    1. Oh, I know about hiding things in the food, but I never had trouble with them and wheat germ. They seemed to like it! 🙂

      And you are right about soda pop, and we did mix frozen juice concentrate with seltzer for them and they loved it. Their favorite was frozen lemonade mix with seltzer.

      Which also makes an amazing, serious punch for grown-up occasions! 🙂

      And here’s how to wean off cola:

  4. With one of my kids, we instituted the “Eat or don’t eat” rule. I cooked a meal, with options. They could take from all the dishes, some of the dishes, or none. But I wouldn’t make anything different than what the rest of the family was eating, and I wouldn’t beg/coax/cajole/lecture/whatever to try and get them to eat. If they chose not to eat, they didn’t get to eat until the next snack/meal. If it was a snack, they still just got apple slices, or whatever the snack was. They didn’t get to make up for a lost meal.

    I always promised myself I wouldn’t fight about food with the kids, and I don’t think we ever have…yet. I have plenty more important hills to die on. Plus, it helps that the husband and I both love to actually cook from scratch. And we are always trying new things as a family. And they get to cook.

    We like food. My picky one is still picky, but she’s 10 now, and chooses pretty wisely what she eats. 🙂

    I guess I feel like this is one area I’m doing okay in…so we just won’t talk about the rest of everything!!!

  5. Tiff, that’s an idea I never thought of! However, partly that was because my sister gave her children the choice of eating or not eating and they always barely ate anything and were totally scrawny and bereft of the joy of eating.
    However, obviously, sometimes that works! I’m so glad it worked out for you. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing this! Wish I could visit and share a meal with you! Wish it a lot! ❤

  6. What excellent advice! I’ll be sharing it. 🙂 I really appreciate you stopping by the podcast page with more excellent advice.

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