Child Won’t Eat Without Being Nagged

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We have a family dinner time, in which we are supposed to sit down together and eat and talk and share our day. My 4-year-old does not eat with out being nagged at and/or fed. He plays around until my husband gets upset and we both end up telling him over and over and over to eat, then I usually shovel a few bites in his mouth, with his resistance, and I call it good. My husband gets upset because I have a rule that we all sit down until everyone is finished, loosely interpreted as we all sit down until my son is done, he is pretty good about asking to be excused or stating that he is done. If he doesn't eat anything I tell him there will be nothing later to eat, no candy, no dessert etc…. Some days he will eat a few bites and ask if that is enough to get candy. Sometimes the meal isn't anything that he likes, but I always try and incorporate something that I know he does like, so he can choose what he wants to eat. I am tired of nagging and it's not working anyway and I know it is wrong to use candy as an incentive to eat, but I just don't know what to do. My question is how do you have a pleasant dinner time without nagging and feeding my 4-year-old?


Hi Melanie,

I'll start by answering your last question—by putting food on the table and then ignoring what he eats or doesn't eat. Too many parents get too involved in trying to control what and how their children eat. He has you well trained to give him a lot of undue attention. Of course, you should also eliminate candy and desserts from your home for awhile. There has been a lot of research that show that children will choose a balanced variety of food when they have the opportunity to choose and are left alone, but sugar interferes with the body's craving for good food.

The following excerpt from Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn may help you gain a better understanding of what is going on, as well as some more ideas about how to solve the problem. (This book covers just about every behavior challenge you can think of.)

Mealtime Hassles

“My kids’ table manners are atrocious. They get up and down during the meal, grab food across the table, and complain about my cooking. One of my kids is always on a diet and another one will only eat hot dogs. I thought mealtimes were supposed to be a pleasant family event?”

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

You are correct. Mealtime should nourish both the body and the soul. Too many families forget this and turn mealtime into a nightmare of corrections, nagging, threats, fighting, and individual grandstanding—if they even have a mealtime. Many families take the kids out for fast food, or everyone eats at a different time of day. In some families, the kitchen is open all day with family members grabbing snacks whenever they feel hungry. While some children seem to survive on a unhealthy diet, there is an epidemic of overweight children and adults. Quite often, instead of providing healthy choices and trusting your kids to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are not, you inadvertently interfere in this natural process. Without knowing it, you could be planting the seeds for eating disorders. We have several suggestions to make mealtime a place where your family can have a positive experience together, eat healthy foods, and enjoy each other’s company. It starts with you.


  1. At least once a day, sit down as a family and eat a meal together. Do not eat in front of the television. Adults should sit down and eat with the kids—at a table. Occasionally set the table with flowers, candles, or place mats, or eat in the dining room to create a special experience for the family.
  2. If kids know it’s okay to choose what they will or won’t eat, they are less apt to complain. Don’t try to force your child to eat anything. Do not insist on children eating everything on their plates or tasting every food. Don’t give your child a lot of undue attention if they refuse to eat something.
  3. It is normal for young children to play with their food, spill their milk, and drop food on the floor. Behavior appropriate for their ages is not misbehavior. Clean up spills, let kids finger-paint in their food, and let the dog eat what drops or put a plastic sheet under your young child. Teach your children to help you clean up the mess.
  4. Let your kids serve themselves and do not discuss what they eat or don’t eat. Simply clear their plates at the end of the meal (fifteen to twenty minutes is plenty of time).
  5. If kids complain about your cooking, tell them it’s okay not to eat what they don’t like, but it hurts the chef when people complain. With a young child, when he says, “I don’t like this,” remove his plate and say, “Okay, you don’t have to eat it.” That usually ends the complaining very quickly.
  6. Some families allow children to make themselves a sandwich or tortilla with cheese if they don’t like the meal. This is better than cooking special dishes for each child.
  7. If you think your children’s behavior has become too obnoxious, you might try deciding what you will do instead of trying to control your children. Pick up your plate and go to another room to eat.
  8. Don’t panic when your child says she is going on a diet. Wait and watch to see what really happens. She may say one thing and do another.
  9. Don’t perpetuate secrets. Let your child know that you saw her make herself throw up (or any other unhealthy behavior that you have seen). Ask what steps she will take about her eating problem and what help she needs from you.
  10. If dysfunctional eating patterns, such as anorexia nervosa (self-starvation) or bulimia (binging and purging) persist, get information from an eating disorder clinic, a dietician, or therapist about possibilities for help. This is particularly important if there is any history of addiction within the family since there can be a correlation between family history and eating disorders.
  11. If your child decides to become a vegetarian or try out any other health conscious new way of eating, ask your child how you can be supportive. Don’t make fun of your child or insist he or she eat the way you do, or treat the new habit as an eating disorder. Many vegetarians made the decision to change their eating as very young children. If you are a vegetarian and your child insists on eating meat, the same advice applies. Do not force your way of eating on your children.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Schedule your meals. (But allow snacking on healthy things -- don’t make children wait until they are overly hungry to eat.) Stress that mealtime is a time to share stories about the day, visit with each other, and share the good feelings of being together as a family.
  2. When children complain about the food, it may be time to involve them in choosing what they eat, at least one night a week. Let each child cook dinner one night a week. Even small kids can tear lettuce leaves, open a can of beans, and make a simple salad.
  3. Plan with kids what they can do to contribute. Talk about the different jobs that need to be done, such as setting the table, cooking dinner, washing the dishes, and feeding the pets.
  4. Do not bring junk foods into the house. Of course children won’t eat regular meals when they have filled up on snacks or junk foods. Especially avoid products that contain sugar. Sugar can really mess up the body’s natural craving for good foods.
  5. Provide healthy snacks. It is fine if your children don’t eat because they have filled up on cheese, carrot sticks, or other healthy snacks. Who said good food should be eaten only at mealtimes?
  6. Practice good table manners at a time other than mealtime, or choose one night a week to practice. Make it fun. Exaggerate.
  7. During a family meeting, get the whole family involved in planning ways to make mealtime enjoyable for everyone.
  8. Look at your own attitudes about weight, food, and eating patterns and what they may be suggesting to your children. Are you saying things like, “Finish everything on your plate,” and then later getting upset because your child is overweight? Do you tell your kids they can’t eat between meals, which may encourage them to binge at mealtimes? Are there other ways you are unconsciously trying to control your child’s food intake?

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that they are not going to get in trouble at the table, so they don’t have to sidetrack their parents with bad manners. The table is a fun place to be, and there are many positive ways to get attention by joining in and being part of the family. Children can learn that they can develop a taste for foods on their own schedule. They can learn that they will not be pressured to eat what they don’t want, nor will be they be given special service. Children can learn that respect is a two way street.

Parenting Pointers

  1. You can help your child learn to listen to his or her feelings and body wisdom instead of training the child to be an overeater to please you or a picky eater to defeat you. Think of how many overweight adults were members of the “Clean Plate Club” as children, and have completely lost touch with the meaning of the word “hungry.”
  2. If you see mealtime as a time to make kids eat and to lecture about manners, the kids will probably pay you back with bad manners. If your attitude is that meals are one of the special times that families can share together, the kids probably reflect that thinking.
  3. At different stages of development, your children’s bodies may not fit the national ideal, so be patient with them and with yourself. When all else fails, trust your sense of what is normal for your children.
  4. Encourage regular exercise. Turn off the television and kick the kids off the couch if necessary.
  5. We have talked to people who were raised during the Depression. They say picky eating was never a problem. Parents didn’t make a fuss when a child didn’t want to eat because there often wasn’t enough to go around. When children didn’t get any “mileage” out of being a picky eater, they ate what was available or went hungry.

Booster Thoughts

One of our toddlers participated in a university preschool program where they put all kinds of foods on the lunch table and allowed kids to eat what they wanted. Sometimes he would eat cake first, and sometimes he would eat broccoli first. The main thesis of this program was that children would naturally choose foods that would balance out to good nutrition (over time) when they were allowed to choose from a variety of nutritious foods--without anyone making a fuss.

One mother thought it was her job to control what her daughter ate. If her daughter didn’t eat her oatmeal for breakfast, Mom would give it to her for lunch. If she didn’t eat the oatmeal for lunch, Mom would give it to her for dinner. Of course, her daughter refused to eat it. The daughter became sick. A doctor discovered she was developing rickets. It was more important for the daughter to win the power struggle than to eat.

When the doctor learned what was happening, he said, “Please put good food on the table, and then leave your daughter alone.” When the mother did this, her daughter started eating better. Not perfect, but better.

The first time I sat down to eat a meal with my new stepchildren and their grandparents, I was dismayed at the number of comments that were made about the youngest’s eating habits. He was coaxed to try this, that, and another thing, he was labeled the family’s “picky eater,” I was told that he doesn’t eat vegetables or fruit, etc. Of course he was a picky eater, getting tons of negative attention and also engaging in a power contest at every meal.

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