Why Forcing Kids to Eat Doesn’t Work

Did you grow up with adults telling you to “clean your plate”? How about guilt tripping you into eating because there are children starving somewhere and you should appreciate what you have?

While this may be true, it’s not a very effective strategy for getting kids to be good, healthy eaters. Is it frustrating for parents to spend time preparing a meal only to have most of your child’s portion end up in the trash? Yes!! I’ve been there too (many times), and I get it.

Unfortunately telling kids to “just try it”, “take one bite”, or even “it’s so yummy, you will like it I promise!” is not as helpful as parents intend.

Before we go any further with this, let me add in here that we are all doing the best we can and that parenting is the hardest job on the planet! So if you have said these phrases in the past (and who hasn’t…?), try not to feel bad about it. You’re a human being after all and none of us are perfect. None of this advice is meant to make you feel bad or guilty about the past. Let’s move forward and think about the future!

picky eater doesn't like broccoli

Long Term Goals for Picky Eaters

If you have a picky eater, focusing on the long term should be your focus. I know it can be stressful when your child does not eat much for a meal or even a whole day. It’s best to think about what a child eats over the course of a week and not get too focused on any individual meal.

Pushing kids to try a certain food within one meal or within one day is not going to help them like that food by the end of the year. If they feel pressure to eat, they will likely resist and in the end be less likely to eat that food.

The long-term goal is to help support your child in becoming a person with a healthy, well-rounded diet and positive outlook on eating and food.

Trust and Food

In order for a child to eat well, they need to develop a sense of trust around food and whoever is feeding them. If children feel forced to eat, this can be damaging to the relationship between the feeder and child.

I have seen even very young infants decline with their interest in feeding after being force fed over the course of weeks or even days.

child with tummyache

For children to trust us when it comes to feeding them, we need to first trust them. We need to trust that they have an understanding of what they feel in their own body. They know when they are hungry and when they are full. They also know when something tastes good to them, when something tastes bad, when a texture or flavor does not feel good in their mouth, and when a certain food makes them feel uncomfortable.

Children also need to develop a sense of trust around food itself. For example, if children have gastrointestinal issues like constipation, reflux, or food sensitivities, eating may not make them feel so good. It’s hard to trust food and the eating experience if you feel bad when you eat. We can never really know what’s going on in another person’s body, so we have to trust that our kids know their own body better than we do.

Reasons Kids Don’t Eat

There are so many reasons kids may choose not to eat certain things or at certain times. Picky eaters aren’t just trying to give their parents a hard time. There are often things going on under the surface that parents may not realize.

Sensory Processing

Some children are more sensitive to taste, temperature, and texture. They may feel these sensations in their mouth more intensely than other people. They may not like strong flavors, certain textures, or demand that their food be a certain temperature.

Oral Motor Skills

Children with delayed or dysfunctional oral motor skills may struggle to eat certain foods. If they have difficulty taking a bite, they may prefer smaller pieces of food. If they have weakness and tire quickly with eating, they may prefer softer textures. Children with tongue tie may lack the tongue movements necessary for eating more challenging foods. There are many factors that impact oral motor skills.

child sticking tongue out

Gastrointestinal Issues

If children experience discomfort during or after eating, they will learn that eating hurts. It is common for children who experience gastrointestinal (GI) issues associated with eating to reduce how much or what they’re willing to eat to prevent pain.

Children can be lactose intolerant, experience constipation, or have reflux, for example. All of these issues can cause significant discomfort and cause a child to not want to eat. Even after a stomach bug, some children will be scared to eat again for quite a while.

They’re Asserting Their Independence

It’s a well-known fact that toddlers like to say “no!”. At this age they are beginning to understand their own needs and wants and they are also learning how to communicate. This is developmentally appropriate and beneficial, but it can be very hard for parents to tolerate! Just know that this is a phase and the less you fight it, the faster it will likely pass.

Best Strategies for Picky Eaters

Ok, so pressuring kids to eat doesn’t work…But what does work? Remember, the focus should remain on your end goal. The goal is not just to get your child to try grandma’s famous casserole. When you look at the bigger picture, the goal is to help create a happy, healthy eater for life.

Gently Exposing Kids to New Foods

Keep putting those non-preferred foods on their plate! A good rule to follow is to always have 1-2 foods you know they typically like on the plate and 1-2 new or non-preferred foods. That way you know they have something preferred they can fill up on, but they are still being exposed to something new.

You can’t learn to like something you never have the chance to see, smell, touch, or taste. Even if it’s just one little blueberry or piece of cauliflower, that’s good exposure. And actually, a very small amount is ideal to prevent food waste and overwhelm your child with abundance of food they don’t (yet!) like.

Bite your tongue on telling them to try what’s on their plate. Just be cool and casual about it so they don’t feel pressured.

Interact with Food in Fun and Non-Threatening Ways

toddler cutting banana with knife, interacting with new foods

Encourage your child to help with preparing food, gardening, and grocery shopping. Young kids often love using knives because it’s such a grown-up task! Nylon kid’s knives are a great option for kids over age 4. For younger kids, wooden knives and toddler butter knives both give kids great early experiences with cutting food.

Resilient Roots Kids Knife I Toddler Knife for Chopping I Rainbow Themed Kids Knifes for Real Cooking I Toddler Knives with Canvas Bag I 3.5' x 4' I Montessori Knife for 3 Year Old +

My son loves our Guidecraft Kitchen Helper stool and it’s been great for getting him more involved in food prep activities. Letting your child pour and stir while helping to prepare a meal is a fun way to get them more comfortable with a variety of foods.

toddler kitchen helper toddler tower stool

Food play is a fun way to interact with food without the pressure to eat it. Your child can fingerpaint with applesauce, stack cubes of cheese, or form a happy face out of orange slices and sliced olives. Pinterest is a great place to look for food play activities. Check out our Food Play board for some fun ideas!

toddler stringing cheerios food play activity

I know it can be hard to be cool and calm when your child is refusing to eat. As the parent you may worry about weight gain, nutrition, and their overall health.

Picky eating is normal for young children to a degree and should be temporary. If you are concerned and want more support, I would recommend taking your child to an occupational therapist for a feeding evaluation.

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