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Why won't my child eat?

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Being a parent can be exhausting! We are responsible for the mental and physical well-being of these little mouldable people and in this day and age, it is anything but easy. We wake up early to get everyone ready for their day, we wipe countless butts, we deal with sass and talkback, and barely have time (or privacy) to wipe our own butts!

We see people all over social media who seem to have it all figured out and are so well put together. They wear matching outfits every day, eat gourmet meals around their Pottery Barn dinner table while they laugh, and make paper mache sculptures of each other, all before 12 children obey and go to bed, peacefully! This may be the case for some people but for the other 98% of us, this parenting shit is hard!

We want to be good moms and dads, we want to be on the same page as our partner and work as a unit to raise well-mannered, healthy, well-rounded human beings who will hopefully make a difference in this f*cked up world. Most parents at one time or another have bought literature about or googled how to get their kids to eat or how to get their kids to sleep. These are some of the most common things parents struggle with (among millions of other things). There is so much advice out there, it is hard to know what works and what doesn’t. The two things I have found to always work, whether it be for sleep, behaviour, or eating are CONSISTENCY and PERSEVERANCE (the third thing can be wine).

I am very passionate about figuring out how children’s brains work. I have done a ton of my own research and I am fascinated when it comes to the way children eat (or don’t). I have compiled a list of a few reasons studies have shown that children have difficulties at mealtime or are refusing to eat.

Sensory Processing

Our ability to interpret touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound affects the way we interact in our environment. Eating is sensory overload for some kids. As adults, we have so many meals under our belts, along the way we may become desensitized to textures, smells, and tastes. But for kids, it can be a very overwhelming experience. Just as their little brains and bodies are developing and changing, so are their senses. We all have pet peeves or something that makes us cringe because we feel uncomfortable in a certain situation. This is your senses responding in a disapproving way. This can be happening with your picky eater when they see cheese, or smell oranges, or taste and feel broccoli.

The important part to remember here is that it is how we interact and react with our child at mealtimes that will help with these sensory processing issues. If the child is introduced to or reintroduced to a certain food in a fun, light-hearted way, the neural pathway that is created for that experience will be positive. On the flip side, if the child’s feelings are ignored and they are forced to eat something then that connection and memory will be negative and can lead to even pickier behaviour down the road. Typically if a child has sensory processing issues with food, they will not like it when their hands get messy, they will gag when smelling or eating food, or they may only like to eat certain textures of foods. If you think your child may have a sensory processing issue around food, seek advice from a medical professional and do your best to make positive neural connections at mealtime.


Sometimes a child is refusing to eat because there is something going on in their body that they don’t necessarily know how to voice. They could be dealing with allergies, irritable bowel, constipation, or acid reflux. This could be affecting how they experience eating. Other reasons could be tiredness, teething, stomach pain, or headaches. Sometimes kids don’t know how to voice what they are feeling so it is good to ask questions and let them know that talking about what they are feeling will help the situation. When kids feel safe to speak about what they are experiencing and are able to engage in a dialogue that doesn’t demand or belittle, they will be more open to guidance and resolution. In some cases, it can be phobias such as cibophobia (fear of food itself or the idea that they will become sick from foods they eat) or neophobia (fear of unfamiliar foods or trying new things) that is preventing your child from eating or trying new things. If you believe the issue is much more than just picky eating and that your child may have a medical condition associated with this problem, it is always wise to speak to a physician.


Often times, kids can be extremely anxious about eating and mealtimes. This happens more often when there are demands and restrictions at these times. If the environment is relaxed and there is little pressure (sometimes easier said than done) a child may be more willing to explore. If you were to think about what anxiety looks like for an adult, you would often think of brain fog, stomach knots, and fast heartbeat. How often do you feel like eating in these situations? Put yourself in your child’s shoes and find a way to curb anxiety at mealtime. In our household, we find that getting our boys involved in the prepping and cooking process really helps. We talk about what we are preparing and sample things we are going to cook. This takes the surprise out of what is to come. Also, if you have kids who are able to read (or have visuals for younger kids), have a meal and snack schedule up so they know what is coming. If you set a schedule and have visuals available for your child, you take the unpredictability out of the situation and make things calmer for everyone. On the shop page of my website, you can find free downloads of a snack and meal schedule that you can print out and personalize. You can also get cute dry-erase menu planning boards from @beyondmeasureboards.

This notion, for some, may be difficult. I had a woman at a market recently laugh at my product because she thought it was absurd that parents would be catering to their child’s picky behaviour. She stated that a child is to sit still and not to move a muscle until their plate is cleaned. She said it worked for her kids and it is what her grandkids would do as well. Obviously different strategies work for different people and it can be hard figuring out what works best for you and your family with all the conflicting views out there. I speak from experience when I say that demands and pressure only lead to more anxiety and selective eating.

Lack of Routine

These little snack demons will fight to see if they can get what they want and break us down to a point where we give them exactly that. I have spoken to parents who say their kid will just graze all day and won’t actually eat meals. For some people this works, however, I don’t have the time or patience to be making my children snacks all day. I set meal and snack times and outside of those times the kitchen is closed. For a few days, this was a difficult concept for my kids to grasp and there were a few meltdowns and demands for snacks. As mentioned previously, consistency and perseverance are key when setting up and sticking to a meal plan. I say stand firm, endure the fights, and be consistent with your plan! A week of hard work will be worth it when you rarely have to deal with similar battles in the future.

Sometimes using the word, ‘picky’ can be associated with perpetuating a negative behaviour. It isn’t a good idea to label a child picky but it is a good idea to help them understand why they are picky. Next time you sit down for a meal try to remember some of these reasons your child may be struggling with eating. Take deep breaths, do your best to be empathetic, get them involved, and seek professional help if necessary.

Remember; just like most growth and development, everything happens in stages. This is just another stage in your child’s life and with the right attitude and guidance, it will be over sooner than later.

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