What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Eat

Frustrated when your child refuses to eat what you made for dinner? Learn how to avoid power struggles and get your kids to finally eat.

Child Refuses to EatI cooked orzo pasta for dinner—usually a family favorite—except this particular meal happened to have artichokes.

My son crinkled his nose. “I don’t want to eat it,” he said, without so much as taking a single bite.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, hoping his hunger would drive him to at least try one spoonful.

“I am,” he admitted, “but I want something else to eat.” And when I told him there was nothing else to eat but that, he proceeded to whine and collapse in his chair.

It’s the dilemma every parent faces at one point or another: What do you do when your child refuses to eat?

What to do when your child refuses to eat

This dilemma wouldn’t be so difficult if we didn’t feel hypocritical at times. After all, we don’t eat food we don’t like. Not until recently did I cook meals with eggplant simply because I didn’t like it.

You don’t want your child to hate certain foods because you make him eat them, but you also don’t want him to expect a PB&J for every meal. Bribing him to eat isn’t a sustainable way to go, either. You just want a happy family dinner with kids who eat what you set in front of them.

I totally get it. I’ve had my fair share of tantrums (both my kids’ and mine, admittedly) all because they wouldn’t eat a burrito or a soup that I had spent a lot of time cooking.

Thankfully, I’ve learned several tactics to make dinners more peaceful. I still might hear a few groans when they see a mushroom (no matter how small I chop them!), but I’ve since managed to get them to eat nearly every food I prepare. I’m confident it can help with your dinner time as well:

1. Alternate with a favorite food

Does your child insist on only eating a certain food, or would she rather skip straight to the apple instead of eating soup first?

In my home, we typically eat a main meal followed by fruits. And more often than not, the fruit is the treat for eating the main meal (or at least giving it a try). But sometimes, I can’t even get them to eat the main meal at all.

So, one tactic that works nearly every time is I have them alternate bites between the two. For every bite of the main meal, they can take a bite of a fruit. This makes eating the main meal easier since they don’t have to think about finishing the entire thing before getting to the fruit.

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2. “Take five bites”

As much as I love goat cheese, I also know that not everyone does. That’s why when my kids complained about the goat cheese in their pasta salad, I had to remind myself that everyone has their preferences. I know I wouldn’t want someone to force me to finish off a plate I found too spicy or bland.

That said, I also know that the only way to get kids to take to new tastes and flavors is to offer them over and over. Plus, I’m not exactly keen on my kids saying “no” to a meal they haven’t even tried, simply because they assume they won’t like it.

That’s why I apply the “five bites” rule: if they absolutely don’t want to finish a meal, that’s fine, but they should take at least five bites. I find that it’s a fair compromise, one where they’re not forced to finish a meal, but that they should give it a chance.

And guess what: I did this often enough that my kids now love (yes, love!) goat cheese and ask for it.

3. Offer a “close enough” food

Do you want your child to eat anything other than grilled cheese sandwiches? One trick is to offer a food “close enough” to her favorite—something similar but with a slight change.

For instance, you might offer a new type of cheese in her sandwich or use a different type of bread. You could keep her regular cheddar on white combination, but add spinach as well. Or you could make quesadillas using the same cheddar but try it on a tortilla instead of a sandwich slice.

Any time I offer my kids something new, I try to relate it to an ingredient or meal they like or at least ate before. When I made a vegetarian shepherd’s pie (with mushrooms, no less), I reminded them that they loved the other shepherd’s pie they ate a few weeks ago.

Sure, they may not have devoured it this time around, but by tying it to something they remember and love, the power struggles are fewer.

4. Give your child autonomy

“Hands on either side of the plate.”

“Sit down correctly, please.”

“Eat over the bowl so your food doesn’t fall on the ground.”

If you’re like me, you’ve said these phrases (and a whole lot more) throughout a meal. After all, this is when kids can practice table manners, hold utensils, and not make a huge mess.

But if you find your child resisting a meal, avoid giving too many directions on how to eat it. Instead, do the opposite: give him the autonomy to decide how to eat the meal (within reason, of course).

For instance, don’t fuss that he took the sandwich apart and is eating it layer by layer. Ignore the fact that he’s holding the fork with his right hand and the knife in the left. And if you’re worried about the mess, practice preventative measures: use a place mat on the table and a splat mat on the ground (plus lots of napkins and rags).

That way, his attention is simply on eating without constant corrections tainting the experience. As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:

“Autonomy is the power and the opportunity to decide for oneself how to do something. No micromanaging, luring with rewards, or threatening to do things a certain way.

It’s letting kids determine for themselves how they want to do it. Figuring out what works, and what doesn’t. Letting it go if they don’t do it exactly the way we’d have done it, even if it means they make mistakes.

Mistakes are, after all, our best teachers.”

Learn more about the importance of giving your child autonomy.

How to Encourage Table Manners in Kids

5. Encourage your child to participate

I got all three kids to eat couscous with roasted vegetables, all without a fight. How? I had them cook the meal with me.

One was the “main chef” who chopped and poured. His twin brother was the “fetcher” and would grab the ingredients from the refrigerator and wash them as needed. Meanwhile, their older brother set the table, complete with napkins and cups. A meal that might have been met with resistance was suddenly a feast eaten with gusto.

Your child can also participate by shopping at the farmers’ market, planting vegetables, or helping you plan meals for the week.

6. Offer a variety of food

Instead of preparing a “kids menu,” cook a healthy meal, then serve it with something you know your kids will enjoy. For my kids, that’s fruit. They eat their main meal first—at least try a few bites—along with their fruit.

Not only should each meal have a variety, but your meals should be different too. Don’t just make soup and pasta every day. Include different types of meals, such as seafood, quiche, and pizza in your weekly meal plans.

7. Don’t make dessert or junk food a reward

Have you told your kids, “Finish your plate before you get ice cream and cookies”?

Seems reasonable since they’ll be motivated to finish their main meal. The downside? They see dessert and junk food as the desirable food and everything else the means to get there.

So yes, highlight the rarity of a slice of cake or the chips they’ll get to eat. These are, after all, the special treats that they are (or should be!).

But at the same time, celebrate the main meals too. For instance, say with gusto, “We’re having roasted veggies tonight!” and they’ll pick up on your excitement.

8. Grow your own food

Growing your own food—in whatever scale you can—is a fantastic way to tie an activity into the healthy meals your kids eat. Just like cooking meals, growing a garden of food gives them more motivation to eat, considering the effort and love taken to grow the ingredients.

They get to plant seeds or starters in the soil, watch them grow over time, and eat them in their meals.

Start small, from herbs in a window box to vegetables grown in pots along your balcony. Once you get the hang of it, branch out, especially if you have the space in the yard. You can even dedicate a raised bed just for the kids to plant whatever vegetables they like.

9. Offer food multiple times

Just because your child was ready to splat that spinach soup on the floor the first time you offered it to him, don’t get discouraged and cross spinach off your list just yet. Include the ingredient in another meal or even serve the same soup a few weeks down the line.

I assumed my toddler would forever refuse rice, cheese, and eggs because he didn’t like them on the first try. Instead, every time I happened to have that food, I would offer him a bit until he eventually took to all three.

What to do if your child still refuses to eat

As we all know, there isn’t a magic wand we wave that morphs kids into willing eaters overnight. Instead, the tips above are habits we do over time that eventually sets the stage for eating a variety of food.

In the meantime, what do you do when you’re at a standstill and your child doesn’t want to eat the meal in front of her? Take a look at these tips:

1. Don’t make a different meal

If your child refuses to eat the spaghetti that everyone else is eating, then that’s her choice. Making a separate meal just for her only confirms her theories that she shouldn’t eat what everyone else is eating, and sets the stage for more of the same.

2. Have your child continue to sit at the table

Sometimes, a child refuses to eat because she’d rather do something else or go back to the activity she’d been doing before you called her for dinner.

Fair enough, but make it a rule that she has to continue sitting at the table until everyone is finished with dinner (even if she refuses to eat). That way, she knows there’s a time to eat and a time to play. Plus, she might take a bite or two if all she can do is sit in front of it.

3. Save and re-offer your child’s dinner

If your child decides not to eat dinner, don’t toss her food yet. Instead, save it in case she decides she’s hungry between now and bedtime.

Let her know, “I’ll leave your bowl right here. That way, if you get hungry later on, you can still eat it.” This avoids you having to make her a different meal or offer a snack because she’s hungry.

4. Remember, you control what your kids eat

I’ve met kids who will only eat dairy products, rice, chicken nuggets, or plain pasta. It looks like it’s their choice, but in reality, they weren’t the ones going to the store to buy those ingredients.

Yes, we all have our strange preferences. I don’t like olives and spices all that much, even though the rest of my family enjoys them. Your child’s appetite may not be the same as yours, and many kids also have sensory sensitivities we need to accommodate.

Still, if your kids are only eating a certain food, then it goes back to your choices. After all, they’re not buying their own box of pasta and boiling it on the stovetop. To encourage a wider palette, offer the food you want them to eat and less of the ones you’d rather they don’t.

We’re the adults who buy and make the food we offer. Our kids not eating healthy food starts with looking at how we’re contributing to that.


Power struggles often happen over the dinner table, especially when your child refuses to eat. Still, it’s not hopeless—you truly can help your picky eater take to more food.

Start by alternating a food he likes with a new one you’d like to introduce. If he’s adamant about not eating it, have him at least take five bites. Offer similar meals to the ones he loves, so he has less to resist if it’s close enough.

Give him the autonomy to decide how to eat the meal instead of fussing over him. Encourage him to participate in the meal-preparing process, from planning to shopping to cooking.

And finally, refer to the three steps above on what to do in the middle of a standstill if he absolutely refuses to eat.

I may not have convinced my son to eat the artichokes in his orzo pasta that night, but I can now say he’ll eat it, all without the whining and groaning.

Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab your copy of the 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child below—at no cost to you:

5 Tips to Raising a Strong Willed Child

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