Refusal to eat

Alternative names 
Food jags; Fear of new foods

Definition
Some common childhood eating behaviors which can cause alarm in many parents include food jags, fear of new foods, and refusal to eat what’s served. A food jag is when a child will only eat one food item meal after meal.

Function
At times children’s eating habits are a way for them to explore their independence. This only marks normal psychosocial development in children.

Recommendations

If the food is nutritious and easy to prepare, continue to offer it along with a variety of other foods at each meal. Your child will usually start eating additional foods before long. Many times serving the meal before your child becomes ravenously hungry will help diffuse the situation.

Once a child has her mind set about what she wants for dinner it’s almost impossible to get her to accept an alternative food. If your child happens to go without eating much at one meal, don’t worry, she will make up for it at another meal or snack. Healthy kids regulate what they need to eat to grow properly very well without parental supervision as long as nutritious foods are provided at meals and snack times.

While specific situations are discussed below, some general recommendations are as follows:

1- Set an example by eating a variety of healthy foods.

2- Prepare meals that are pleasing to the eye, with different colors and textures.

3- Start introducing new tastes, especially green vegetables, from very early on, even at 6 months in the form of baby food.

4- Never coerce a child to eat. Mealtime should not be a time of fighting. The body was programmed to eat, children will also do so when hungry.

5- Avoid high-sugar snacks in between meals to allow children to become sufficiently hungry.

Fear of New Foods:
Fear of new foods is common in children and new foods should not be forced on a child. Many exposures are needed before a child will be brave enough to taste a new food. Continuing to offer new foods will help increase the likelihood that your child will eventually taste and maybe even like a new food.

The taste rule, “You have to at least taste each food on your plate” may work on some children, (especially if they are able to remove the offending food if they don’t like it) but with a defiant child you may start an unnecessary war. Children mimic adult behavior and if an older sibling or parent will not eat new foods or tend to complain about anything out of the ordinary, you cannot expect your child to experiment.

Try not to label your child’s eating habits. Food preferences change with time and just because Sally didn’t like carrots the first time she tried them doesn’t mean she will not like them later on. It may seem like a waste of food initially but over the long run a child who accepts a large variety of food makes meal planning and preparation easier.

Refusing to eat what is served:
Refusing to eat what is served can be a power tool for many children. Imagine the chaos when a family is sitting at the table and all of a sudden young Michael decides he wants something other than what is offered. Mother races to prepare the dish only to have it turned down and something else requested.

Some parents are so worried their child will not eat they go to great lengths to ensure their child’s food intake is adequate. Healthy children will eat enough if offered a variety of nutritious foods. If your child eats “like a bird” at one meal, he will probably make up for it at another meal or snack.

Snacks:
Providing scheduled meals and snack times is important for children. Kids need a lot of energy and with such a tiny stomach for storage, snacks are essential. Snacks do not, however, mean “treats.” Fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products should be at the top of your snack list. Some snack ideas include fruit popsicles, fruit juice, milk, vegetable sticks, fruit wedges, mixed dry cereal, pretzels, melted cheese on a tortilla or a small sandwich.

As a parent, your role in your child’s eating should be fairly simple. Provide a variety of foods at set meal and snack times and allow your child to choose foods based on his own likes, dislikes, and caloric needs. Forcing, coercing or rewarding your child with food does not usually make your child eat better and can cause behavioral problems related to food later on. These problems often linger into adulthood.

Allowing your child to be in control of her own food intake may seem hard at first, especially if you grew up with rules like; “You can’t go out to play until you clean your plate” or rewards such as; “I’ll give you ice cream if you eat your broccoli”, but it will help promote healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Gevorg A. Poghosian, Ph.D.

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