Research shows that some children need to be served foods as many as 15 times before they decide that they like them, and many parents struggle to encourage their children to eat healthily as a result.
It can be worrying if your child won’t eat certain foods, but it's common for toddlers in particular not to eat well for at least one meal a day and there are many reasons why this is the case.
Fears and dislikes
Everything that children do throughout their day is a learning process and trying something new can be worrying for a child. Think of how you respond to trying something new - do you feel anxious, nervous or fearful? This is how a child can feel hundreds of times a day. Even if a child has tried the food before, there may be something else that they dislike about it - the colour or texture, for example. Or they may not like the sight of foods mixing on the same plate, especially if they are foods they haven’t yet grown to like.
If you are introducing a new food, try only one new food at a time and introduce it when they are hungry. Serve it with a food you know they like, as this will help to create a positive association. Try to vary the way you prepare and present the food until you find a formula that works for your child.
Because it can take up to 15 times for a child to decide they like a food, it may help to keep a food diary to remember what foods they have tried and how often. There are some foods that your child will genuinely not like - that is ok. Simply find an alternative and try again.
Control and attention
It’s natural for children to push the boundaries. Early learning includes discovering what you can and can’t get away with. Children will often use eating times to test the limits and if they are rewarded for their bad behaviour with attention, this reinforces the action, resulting in a continuation of that behaviour. If your child is refusing to eat a certain food, throws it on the floor or cries, as hard as it may be, try to remain calm. Instead of scolding bad behaviours, reward positive ones with lots of praise and attention: when they eat a food for the first time, for example.
Adults are used to eating surrounded by distractions, but a child's focus is easily diverted. Multi-tasking isn’t their forte because they put so much attention into each individual task while they are learning. So try to maintain their focus on the task of eating. If there are distractions such as a TV screen in their line of sight, turn it off or turn your child away from the distraction.
Another reason your child may be refusing food is if they have seen others do it. Your child will learn from the role models around them, whether that’s their siblings, parents, friends or others. If you refuse certain foods, you can’t expect your child to accept them. Try eating the same foods as your child and encourage those around you to do the same.
All children are different and so different approaches will work for different children. Try some of these 10 strategies to encourage your child to eat well.
Last updated Wednesday 13 February 2019
First published on Wednesday 15 February 2017