What do I do if my child was eating healthy and has now stopped?
You’ve hastily (but lovingly) prepared your 18-month-old’s favourite dinner after a long day at work. She takes one narrow-eyed look at it and says “Yuck!” before sliding the bowl as far away from her as she can reach.
“But you LOVE spaghetti!” you reply in frustration. “Remember?”
Nothing can cause a parent so much anxiety than a child who has decided that their once-upon-a-time favourite foods are off the menu. Then the next day, another favourite food gets tossed to the floor, and you have to stop yourself from crying into your coffee.
Your child who was eating a “healthy” diet is now living on carbs, dairy and (maybe) fruit!
Toddler food refusal can be a typical developmental stage in children aged around 12 months-2 years of age. It is usually preceded by what I like to call the “honeymoon” phase of starting solids, when most children happily eat most foods with curiosity and gusto in the first 6-12 months of starting solid foods. Then, often overnight, they start dropping previously eaten foods off the menu.
Why does this happen?
If you think about what is going on for little people at this stage of development, it’s quite a busy time. In the second year of life growth slows down a bit and you may notice that kids’ appetite becomes more variable, eating food one day and refusing it the next. In the second year of life they’re also becoming much more aware of their independent self and can use opportunities like eating to try this independence on for size!
Other reasons that toddlers may refuse previously eaten and enjoyed food are:
Far and away the two most frequently refused food groups are vegetables and meat (and other protein foods). If you think about it, these foods are unpredictable. Veggies have a naturaly bitter taste that kids often notice and dislike. Both veggies and meat can be prepared, cooked and served in thousands of ways and each of these ways seems like a DIFFERENT food to young children. In contrast, foods like breads, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, milk, cheese, yoghurt, crackers and biscuits are usually quite predictable, familiar, easy to eat and easy to learn to like. The natural sweetness of fruit usually makes it less likely to be tossed aside, however there are some children who get choosy with fruit in this stage too.
Food refusal in older kids isn’t as common, however it can and does happen. Usually we need to do a bit more detective work to find out the reasons why. These reasons can also be true of our younger kiddies too, in addition to the typical developmetal reasons I mention above.
A recent illness when it wasn’t pleasant or easy to eat their usual liked foods, and this continues after the illness resolves.
A food jag: the child is offered/requests the same food over and over and then one day decides they have had enough of that food and refuses to eat it at all.
Peer pressure or influence from others kids can sometimes be discouraged from eating foods by other children or adults.
An unpleasant experience such as choking on a particular food or any other event that was memorable for the wrong reasons!
What can you do about food refusal?
It may seem for a while that your child has stopped eating all the healthy foods in favour of a diet of carbs, milk and fruit.
1. Be in it for the long term
The only wise thing to do about food refusal is to keep in it for the long game. Learning to eat a wide variety of foods is a skill to be learned over time like any other and for some kids, this process can take many years.
2. Keep doing your job of feeding well
When kids begin refusing food, parents get shaky and start questioning their approach. Stick to offering a wide range of foods at meals and snack times and let yourkids pick and choose what they want to eat from this selection. Be mindful to serve at least one usually-accepted food. Let your children see you eating and enjoying food and learning from you. Don’t offer alternatives or allow kids to graze between meals on food or drink other than water.
3. Let kids do their job of eating
As much as parents and carers must keep doing the job of feeding, kids need to be supported to doing their job of eating – choosing what to eat from the selection of food that is offered, and choosing how much or whether to eat. Supporting them in this way helps kids grow to be competent eaters for life. Curious? Find out more about eating competence and Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
4. Keep your cool
Easier said than done, but trying to stay calm and not react to your child’s refusal will help.
5. Teach kids the manners you expect from the start
It’s reasonable to begin teaching very young kids and even toddlers what you expect of them at meal time. My colleague and dietitian, Kate Wengier coined the phrase “Don’t be rude to food!” as a fun response to comments like “Yuck!”. It’s OK to say "Yes, Please and No Thank You!"
Although food refusal can be a frustrating part of childhood development it doesn’t need to tie parents and carers in knots. Keep the end goal in mind, and children will work their way back around to enjoying the food that their family eats.