Food Strike! What can I do when my child won’t eat anything anymore?

“What can I do to help little Sally eat? She used to eat everything, but now she hardly eats anything at all.” I call this a food strike, and it’s very common. But kids are smart, they won’t let themselves starve. The way you handle it as a parent can either encourage unhealthy eating or healthy eating.

Eat it or wear it.

This question always reminds me of the Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, one of my favorite books growing up.

The younger brother in the book, Fudge, refuses to eat. After many failed trials of bribing and forcing food, his father finally loses patience and says “eat it or wear it.”

Needless to say, Fudge ends up with the bowl of cereal on his head and goes around for days saying “eat it or wear it!”

I would not advise this approach.

When is a food strike a real concern?

Most of the time picky eating is a normal phase. Sometimes it’s simply that toddlers and young children don’t need as many calories because they’re not growing as fast as during infancy. Or it could be that they’re filling up with empty calories due to inappropriate snacking.

Of course there are some instances that are cause for concern.

Red Flags include:
  • Recurrent or persistent illness
  • Frequent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Food allergies
  • Very limited food types over an extended period of time
  • Problems swallowing or choking
  • Falling off growth curve
  • Sensory issues (trouble with textures, tastes, smells, and more)
  • Anxiety about eating or around foods
  • Body image problems

There is a great series of posts covering picky eating on a dietitian’s blog. Some articles are authored by a nutrition therapist. I will include some of my favorites below, but you can find them all on the site.

If you notice one or more of the red flags above, be sure to talk with your child’s pediatrician.

Encouraging healthy eating

If hungry, kids will eat. Don’t let them fill up on things that aren’t giving a nutritious balance. Even just milk all day can be harmful because it lacks many vitamins and minerals. A little milk with other foods is better!

Healthy food choices

Offer veggies, fruits, cheese, nuts, etc at scheduled snack times. Think of snacks as mini-meals. If kids are offered healthy foods at meals and snacks, they will eat them when they’re hungry.

Limit pre-packaged foods

Many prepackaged foods are preferred over fruits, vegetables, dairy products, nuts, and other healthier options.

If kids have a choice between cucumbers and hummus or a bag of chips, what do you think they’ll pick?

Healthy drinks

Limit drinks other than water and milk.

Drinks fill kids up and don’t offer balanced nutrition.

Limit milk to no more than 24 ounces per 24 hours.

Too much is overwhelming

Put only a small amount of each food on the plate. It might be overwhelming to have a full plate.

Different personality types can even respond differently to different plate sizes. See Children’s Personalities & Bowl Bias: Extravert and Introvert Children Are Not Equally Influenced by Plate Size!

Turn off the tv and put down the screens

Have a dinner conversation with the family. This not only sets up healthy eating habits, but also healthy family dynamics. Teens who eat with their families are less likely to have risky behaviors!

Set a good example!

Talk about how much you are enjoying the healthy foods at the table. (Not how healthy they are, but rather how good they taste.)

Keep foods separate on the plate

Kids might eat a food if it’s not touching another but refuse it if it’s contaminated.

Scheduled eating

Set a time for meals and stick to it. If your child doesn’t eat, clear the table.

When they complain of being hungry, don’t be condescending. Simply say, “I know how you feel. I’m hungry too when I don’t eat. Dinner is coming up soon. I’m sure you’ll be ready!” Don’t offer filler foods. Keep the discussion calm and without blame or judgement.

Kids are smart, they’ll pick up on the fact that they need to eat at meal time or be hungry.  They won’t starve to death!

Hide healthy foods

Puree a can of beets into spaghetti sauce. It makes a cool color without changing the flavor much at all.

Blend carrots, spinach, kale, or cauliflower into smoothies. I’ve even used frozen peas when there was nothing else. Strawberries, bananas, kiwi, and other fruits are much more flavorful than many veggies and kids tend to like their tastes. If your kids balk at the color, try to match the fruit and vegetable colors to hide the vegetable.

Puree onions, carrots, zucchini, spinach, and other vegetables in recipes rather than chopping them… kids won’t pick them out!

With all of these hidden foods, chances are they won’t even know they’re there.

Try foods in different forms

Frozen peas are crunchy– maybe they don’t like the squishy texture of cooked peas.

Raw broccoli is much different in taste and texture than cooked broccoli.

Many kids love cheese over vegetables or foods dunked in ketchup or yogurt.

It’s fun to eat with fingers for a change. Let them get messy!

Try cutting things into pieces and serve with toothpicks. Everything’s more fun on a stick!

Cut sandwiches with a large cookie cutter for fun shapes.

Use small cookie cutters for bite sized sandwiches or fruit pieces.

Take a look at Pinterest to find ideas on how to make foods fun if you really have a lot of time on your hands.

Rewards?

Try not to use food as a reward. This can set up unhealthy eating habits.

Don’t reward for eating. Most kids will get the intrinsic reward of satiety. They don’t need stickers or dessert for eating a meal.

Praise small steps

If kids try a new food (whether they like it or not) praise the fact that they tried!

Set realistic expectations 

Don’t expect kids to eat as much as infants/toddlers or teens/adults. Calorie needs go down when not in growth spurts. Just make the nutrition needs balance.

Don’t worry as much about volume as variety of healthy foods! Parents can decide what kids eat, but kids should decide how much to eat.

Most kids don’t need supplemental meals in a can (Pediasure and other brands) ~ they are getting the nutrition and calories they need, there is just an imbalance of perception of what they need.

I always prefer a healthy, active, thin child over a child who is overweight and not active (and often undernourished due to poor quality foods).

Will they get enough vitamins?

Vitamin supplement use and need is debated. It’s very difficult to study vitamin supplements. Baseline diet variations could make a big difference as to whether or not the supplement is needed. The time that needs to be studied is very long, because many health issues develop over many years. This means we need to wait a long time to see results and there’s a bigger potential that study participants are lost to follow up.

Vitamin D is one vitamin that I believe should be supplemented by all. Very few foods have vitamin D. Milk and a few other foods have been supplemented, but that alone will not give sufficient levels. Sunlight is a great way to raise vitamin D levels. But sunlight availability is unreliable and amounts needed vary based on skin type and quality of the light. Not to mention that sunlight can damage our skin.

In general I think it’s a good idea to give a multivitamin with iron if kids aren’t eating well. I prefer for them to get nutrients from foods, but if they refuse, then there’s no need for them to become deficient in nutrients. Iron deficiency actually causes anorexia, which increases the problem by not eating well!

If your family uses vitamins, be sure to lock them up as if they’re medications so kids don’t accidentally ingest too much.

Last thoughts

Most kids grow well during their picky eating and food strike phases. Just be patient and aware of any red flags that need to be evaluated.

If you are concerned, schedule an appointment to discuss foods, growth, nutrition, and concerns. Bring a typical food log of foods and drinks (with approximate volumes) for at least one week. Your physician can either identify a concern and develop a plan of action or reassure you that your child is normal!

Food strike! What do you do when your child stops eating?Resources:

How much food should I eat? (KidsHealth.org)

Choose My Plate 

How to Handle Picky Eaters (Zero to Three)

Distracted Eating

We all do it sometimes. We grab a snack and plop down on the couch to watch a movie. Before we know it the whole thing is gone. We only meant to eat some of it, but downed it in one sitting. That is distracted eating at it’s finest. It exemplifies the problem of eating without intention. Not eating because of hunger. Not even eating healthy foods usually. Just eating because it’s there.

What happened to sitting around the table and eating as a family without the tv or cell phones?

What is distracted eating?

I see many kids who always have distracted eating. Parents often worry that they’re not eating enough, but they’re typically getting too many unhealthy foods.

Distracted eating is eating when your mind is elsewhere. It’s the opposite of intentional eating, where we enjoy our meal and make smart choices about what and how much we eat.

It occurs when kids are distracted by a television or video game while eating. When any of us eat in front of the screen, we don’t focus on what goes into our mouth.

Or when parents allow kids to carry food around the house all day and take a bite here and there.

It can happen when any of us eat because it’s there and we aren’t listening to our body’s hunger cues.

Dream feeding

The youngest distracted eaters might fit into another category all together, but they certainly aren’t intentionally eating. These are the babies who parents “dream feed” – basically feed them while they’re sleeping.

This can be because parents think they don’t eat as much as they should when they’re awake. Or maybe parents want to get one more feed in before they go to bed so baby will let them sleep.

I know many parents rely on it, but I will never recommend it for many reasons.

  • It can disrupt their normal sleep cycles if you feed during periods of deep sleep.
  • Dream feeds also feed a baby who might not be hungry or need to eat. It’s hard to know when to stop.
  • After the first 4-6 months most babies don’t need to eat at night, but they are trained to eat at that time.
  • Once they get teeth it can increase the risk of cavities if they eat without brushing teeth before returning to sleep.
  • There are also risks of choking, though if they’re being held, it won’t go unrecognized. A parent can use CPR techniques to help them.

Constant snacking

As kids move into the toddler years, they often become picky with foods and eat small volumes. This is normal.

Parents need to offer healthy foods and feed small frequent meals. Think of snacks as mini meals so you will offer healthy foods – and no, goldfish crackers are not healthy foods. Young children tend to eat about six small meals a day. Each meal offer either a fruit or a vegetable and a protein to help ensure your child gets enough of these food groups daily.

Unfortunately, some parents solve the “problem” of kids not eating a lot at meal times by allowing them to carry around food all hours of the day. This might be cereal, crackers, milk, or whatever the favorite food of the week is.

This allows the child to snack all day, which means they’re never hungry, so they don’t eat at meal times. Parents will think it’s better than eating nothing, and even think that since it’s cereal or milk it’s healthy.

But it’s not.

Risks of constant snacking

  • Snack foods are usually highly processed and have little nutrition.
  • Constantly nibbling doesn’t allow the body to learn hunger cues.
  • Nibbling throughout the day doesn’t allow saliva to clean teeth between feedings, which increases the risk of cavities.
  • If kids drink excessive milk they are at risk of severe malnutrition. Parents argue that milk is healthy, but they are thinking of mother’s milk or formula for infants. Cow’s milk has protein, calcium, and other nutrients, but it is not a complete meal substitute. I have seen children need blood transfusions due to severe iron deficiency anemia from excessive milk intake. Blood transfusions. It can be that bad. Yes, your child might like milk. And he might refuse to eat at meal time. But if you keep giving milk he will never get hungry enough to eat the food offered.

Feed while watching tv

Other parents realize that kids will eat more if they feed the child, especially if the child is watching tv. This is wrong on many levels.

  • Once kids are able to feed themselves, it is a great skill to use. They work on fine motor skills when self feeding.
  • When offered healthy options, kids will eat when hungry and stop when full. When parents do the feeding, they keep pushing foods until the plate is empty. Many parents have an unrealistic expectation of how much food a child should eat and overfeed the child.
  • If a child is watching tv while eating, the focus is on the screen, not the food. Again, the child then doesn’t listen to hunger and satiety cues.

Self feeding is an important skill.

I see several kids each year who will be going to full day school for the first time and parents worry that they won’t be able to eat lunch because they never self feed. Many of these kids are overweight because they’ve been overfed for years yet the parents often think the child doesn’t eat enough.

Beyond the first birthday, most toddlers should be able to self feed. Many infants can do so even earlier. They don’t need a lot of teeth to eat small pieces of foods. Of course hard, round, chewy foods should be avoided for all young children, but most foods can be safely given to young kids at the table.

Don’t wait until your child is school aged to realize they’re behind on this important skill!

Family Meals

Eating together as a family is one of the best things you can do to raise healthy and independent children. As long as you use the time wisely.

If families eat while watching television or playing on smart phones or tablets, no one is connecting during the meal. No one is really enjoying the food or the conversation.

There are many studies that show the more often families eat together the less likely kids will develop obesity, get depressed, do drugs, smoke, and consider suicide.

Kids who eat with their families are more likely to eat healthy foods, do well in school, delay having sex, and have stronger family ties.

Help stop the habit of mindless eating.

Encourage eating at the table as a family as much as possible.

Offer healthy food choices and let everyone decide how much of each thing to eat.

If you worry that your child isn’t eating adequately, talk to your pediatrician.

We all do it sometimes. We grab a snack and plop down on the couch to watch a movie. Before we know it the whole thing is gone. We only meant to eat some of it, but downed it in one sitting. That is distracted eating at it's finest. It exemplifies the problem of eating without intention. Not because of hunger. Not even healthy foods typically. Just eating because it's there.

Resources:

MyPlate offers portion sizes for children, tips on healthy foods, activities for kids to learn about nutrition, and more.

If you’re a Pinterest fan, check out my Nutritional Sites and Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables and Other Healthy Stuff

Nutrition.gov has several resources for healthy eating.

Stanford Introduction to Food and Health looks very interesting. I haven’t taken the free online course yet, but another pediatrician friend highly recommends it.

Learn to be mindful with eating in 6 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating.