What to do when your child refuses to eat their meal

Let’s delve into some “common wisdom” ideas for handling fussy eating by playing a game. (BTW if you have read my post on 9 things not to say to a parent of a fussy eater, you will know why I think “common wisdom” is mostly INCORRECT when it comes to fussy eating.) The game is about seeing who was subjected to non-responsive feeding strategies as a child and what this means when our own child refuses to eat their meal. How does this change our decision of what to do when we are left standing with a plate of refused food?

Have you ever…

Hands up if you were ever re-served the exact same meal as a kid after you refused to eat it the first time around.

Hands up (or keep them up) if you were made to stay at the table until you finished your plate / or a specific food.

Hands up if you were warned about starving children in Africa that weren’t as lucky as you.

Hands up if you were excluded (or were threatened to be excluded) from dessert with your family because you didn’t eat your main meal / or a specific food.

The game could go on… yet, I’ll stop here as I think (from this small list) you have heard one of these “strategies to make them eat” at a mealtime at some point in your life. Furthermore, given that this language may have been spoken around you during YOUR formative years, it’s easy for it to accidentally come spilling out of your own mouth. So, have you thought about saying the same things to your child when they have refused to eat their dinner? We say it because we think it may have worked or because we don’t have other words in these situations (yet.) But does it work? Should you serve the same meal again after a child has refused to eat it? For example, serving last night’s roast beef with 3 bites out of it for breakfast.

What should you do when your child refuses to eat their dinner?

As a children’s nutritionist, I work with families and fussy eaters daily. My approach is responsive in nature meaning that I work with families to reduce stress about mealtimes through step-wise familiarity building. A responsive approach to feeding children focuses on the child’s ability to learn when they are hungry and full and help parents facilitate the role of provider instead of assuming a “food police” role of trying to make the child eat. And there are many ways parents can assume the role of the “food police”, from good cop, bad cop, corrupt cop or even slapstick-comedian cop. Parents do find inventive ways to “make their child eat”. Yet, research points towards taking a responsive feeding approach improves dietary variety AND fosters a positive relationship between children, their food and their body in the long run. So, when it comes to deciding whether to send a child to bed without finishing their dinner or knowing if you should just save the unwanted meal for the next eating occasion, it’s easy to see how perplexing this can be. We “know” it doesn’t feel responsive to the child’s needs to push our agenda BUT we also get advice along the lines of “that worked in my day”.

Click to read my article on knowing when to close the kitchen for the night. 7 questions to ask yourself before deciding to guiltily offer a bedtime snack and prepare you for avoiding the difficult choice in the evenings.

In order to avoid wasted time, effort and food, we naturally want to see the meal get eaten! We are all waste adverse to some extent. And having these feelings is not something you should / can easily turn off. They are deeply ingrained. We can, however, be creative and think about it in another way.

Hence, I have a few tips for when the meal has been mostly refused AND we have decided to re-purpose leftovers.

Family Style Serve

Try moving towards family style serving as much as possible. When you serve up from the middle of the table, everyone can choose what to eat to satisfy their feeding requirements AND the leftovers in the middle of the table can easily be packaged up for next time without having been touched, prodded, licked, spat in etc. My biggest tip with family style serving is to not make it too hard on yourself. Put a chopping board in the middle of the table and plonk the pots there before having the children come to the table so it is no longer burning hot. This saves dishes and empowers them to tune into the amount they want to eat. They may need help with serving at first but even if it just 3 separate tong fulls that they eat one-at-a-time, they will build the confidence to go back and get enough to fill their belly. WIN. And there will be less visual bombardment from a fully loaded plate. WIN. And they will learn to take what their body needs so you aren’t scraping a full plate of touched food into the bin at the end of the meal. Win. Win. Win

Consider Food Safety Guidelines

If food that is deemed a safety risk (like mixed textures, meal, cut up fruit / vegetables) has been in the “danger temperature zone” for over 4 hours CUMULATIVELY it needs to be discarded.  If it is has been in the “danger temperature zone” for over 2 hours it cannot be chilled for storage again and eaten at a later point in time (NB^ a GOOD point to remember for Parties / BBQ’s – do you really want to eat those prawns that have been out of the fridge during the whole party?) At risk foods generally need to be eaten within 2-3 days of refrigeration in air tight containers. (see me talking about this in the video below). For more about food safety guidelines, this is the link to more about food safety at home: https://foodsafety.asn.au/food-safety-at-home/. * Note: the danger temperature zone is when the FOOD itself is measured to be between 5oC and 60oC.

When you are deciding what to do, remember that you must serve foods that don’t pose risk to your child to get food poisoning.

Change the Presentation Next Time Around

If it looks unappealing this time, chances are when it gets reheated or stored it may look even more unappealing. So, you can think outside the box and think of another way to serve it.  Here are some suggestions to get you thinking:

  • Toasted sandwiches can take on all manner of fillings!
  • Waffles/pancakes (see my example below) are perfect repurposing vehicles for cereals, oats and fruits.
  • Left over sausages/chicken/lamb or beef could be reheated and threaded on a skewer.
  • Left over vegetables turned into bubble and squeak or fritters.
  • Unwanted yoghurt? It can be turned into frozen yoghurt bark by spreading it onto baking paper and topping with some pantry staples like sultanas, coconut or chocolate chips. Or simply turned into frozen yoghurt dots.

A new presentation can make this a new food at the next meal opportunity. And sometimes this new food may be easier to motor plan, or your child is more ready to eat at the next meal opportunity.

Only Elaborate and Get Creative with Leftovers If YOU Would Eat It!

My cautionary tale is this, only re-purpose your leftovers into a form that you would eat. Once re-purposed, you can’t go back! If you don’t like fritters, don’t turn the leftover banana and oats from brekky into banana fritters if you don’t like them. You will feel more deflated about your extra effort if even you don’t eat them. If you like smoothies, try extra milk and some frozen berries to make that instead.

Here is a video of me retelling the story of a time when I re-worked barely-tasted cereal to be part of our morning tea and using the points made above to guide my decision:

I hope this helps you feel inspired around being responsive to your child’s needs and feeling at ease with wastage. A child’s eating journey is made of of thousands of little steps and learns. What food re-purposing would you try with your child?

Have you joined our free Facebook group? Read more about our group and the frequently asked questions about picky eating here..

Please let me know your thoughts!

Scroll to top
%d bloggers like this: