4 Year Old Refuses to Eat...

Updated on November 09, 2010
J.W. asks from Olympia, WA
15 answers

My middle child is 4, he will NOT eat... My oldest did this also, starting around 2 yrs old. Their ped said it was a phase and they would grow out of it. My oldest did. He eats a large variety of foods. There is never a fight for him to eat. My middle son though has not grown out of it yet. The doctors say they wont starve themselves, but I know he isnt getting a balanced diet.
He goes to school and they serve lunch there, he never eats it. He will eat the snack, but not lunch.
He will eat snacks, treats all day long.
Poptarts, crackers, raisins, grapes, etc... but no meat, except hotdogs or chicken nuggets. No Pasta, will only eat veggies that come in a veggie tray that you buy at the store.
It is driving me crazy. I stopped fighting him about eating for a long time, but I have had it. I am so tired of making dinner that he wont eat. Or a lunch that he wont eat! I dont know what to do with him. He is 4.5 yrs (bday in June) and he weighs 31#... my 9 month old weighs 21#.
He will say that he doesn't like it before even trying it. If we make him take a bite to taste it, he gags himself while chewing it and comes close to puking.
I thought about removing all snacks and treats from the house but then that isn't fair to my husband (who uses them for lunches) or my oldest son, who does eat his food. Tongiht for dessert my oldest son got a small piece of apple pie and a little ice cream. I told my middle son that if he ate his food he could have some too. He wouldn't eat but cried that he didn't get any dessert.
The whole thing isn't fair... My oldest has to eat most (if not all) of his food in order to get his dessert, but for my middle son, we will let him get away with 3-5 bites because then atleast he ate something!
IDK what to do... Anyone in this position or know what to do about it.
I have let him go to bed without eating. I have tried just giving him smaller portions. I have tried talking to him. Eating with him. Bribing him with desserts. Nothing works!

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Seriously I think this needs to stop being a power struggle. Let him eat whatever he eats. Talk about nutrition, energy and healthy foods. He'll come around.

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answers from Portland on

Hi J.,

I don't have any one-size-fits-all answers, but some observations and ideas. While I've only been a mom for 3.5 years, I have worked with/nannied for children for nearly 20, and have learned a few things about eating in the 'family realm' (as opposed to school/preschool):

1. As you suggested, eliminating some of the snacks at home might work. Are there any in particular that are being a particular point of contention? My husband keeps his work snacks in his desk at work, which helps. Dessert/treats we do like to have at home are kept up in a high shelf. Raisins and dried fruit live in that stash too, because they can tend to become "junk food" if not part of a balanced diet. If it were me, when your 4 year old isn't around, I'd move all the fought-over items--snacks and treats, to a new place and do not tell him where it is.

2. Find balance for your family, so everyone is included. One thing my sister did was to limit the family to one or two "dessert days" a week, which everyone had, regardless of being obedient eaters. I've also seen great success with 'backward desserts'. These are desserts that are served an hour before dinner. This might seem like heresy, but hear me out: it completely eliminates the arguments around "eat your dinner or no dessert", so that this *doesn't* become an issue over the long haul. Like I said, just once or twice a week. I'm of the belief that dessert every night makes it less special and isn't all that healthy for us anyway.

3. What did your son like to eat before the big freeze out? Choose those healthier items and include them in the meal. I usually suggested to families the following: whatever sort of meal you plan, include two things you know your child will/would normally eat, then let it go. This could be bread and cheese, really, or apple slices and pasta.

4. Let this be his problem, not yours. This certainly isn't your intention, but it sounds like your son is getting a LOT of attention for this newfound aversion. "I have tried just giving him smaller portions. I have tried talking to him. Eating with him. Bribing him with desserts. Nothing works!" Keep with the smaller, reasonable-for-him portions (without any discussion about it), no more bribes, no more special attention of getting mommy to sit down at the meal with him. Certainly, he should get some one-on-one with you, so do it at other times of day when food is not the focus.

5. Pay it no mind. When he doesn't eat much, just ask a simple question: is your tummy full? If he says no, then remind him there's food on his plate and leave it at that. Me personally, when all the " I don't like" talk starts, I just ignore it. If it's truly bothering others, I ask the child to leave the table and come back when they are "ready to use their good manners". (My 3 year old preschoolers understand this...)

6. Recycle. Each day, I send my son to preschool with a lunchbox of healthy food. When he comes home, he eats out of the lunchbox first for afternoon snack. Leftover sandwich and red peppers, carrot, apple slices, etc.... his lunchbox needs to be empty and eaten before we start looking in cupboards. Likewise, when he's at home and reluctant to eat his meals, keep the plate together, cover it and put it back in the fridge. When he's hungry, voila! you aren't dragging out extra food to make a second meal.

7. What about snacks? Because you are trying to make this HIS challenge to overcome (and not yours) going cold-turkey on snacks mightn't be helpful in avoiding power struggles. Try a 'snack box'. This is a not-too-big ( no bigger than sandwich-sized) container that does have a very reasonable amount of snacks for the day. This can be cheese slices, a few crackers, some almonds, raisins, pretzels, banana, or a few other nutritionally-friendly snacks. For some kids, it's tempting to turn this into a junk-food dump, but try to go for the whole-grain/fresh fruit, more balanced foods. With the snack box, you are offering *a few* of his favorites in a reasonable, contained amount. When he clears out what's in his snack box, that's it for the day. I like this too, because it gives us as adults a clear idea of how much of something the kids are eating throughout the day. I'd prep his snack box when he isn't around too, because you are at a point that his having input is only going to result in more conflict and frustration on both your parts.

Lastly, I want to relate a story that seems germaine to what you are going through. A few weeks ago, I asked my son how his day at preschool was. He's usually a very amenable kiddo, so I was surprised when he said "not good" and then went on to tell me that he hadn't been allowed to attend his Morning Gathering circle. Of course, this got my attention...and my attention caught his. For the next week or so, this story replayed again and again. Guess what? When I asked his teacher, she just laughed and reassured me that he was always at Gathering and participating, and might have seen another child being asked to leave until they were ready to cooperate, but that it wasn't him! All that attention over *nothing* was only because I was giving him attention... and weeks later, if we ask him how preschool was, he still says "not good"-- even though a conference and the rest of his stories tell another truth.

Good luck with all this and I hope some ideas work for you!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Redding on

I think you should just give up trying so hard and offer him what everyone else eats for meals. He can turn them down or not. However, NO snacks of any kind for the child who won't eat anything else or only a couple of bites.
He has it figured out you have different rules for him and that's not the way to go. You can't keep treats out of the house all together because your husband and son are good eaters and enjoy them. But, you can not let the picky one have treats. That's a consequence of not eating a regular meal.
Don't force him to eat. Send him to bed hungry. If he's not hungry enough for dinner, surely he shouldn't be hungry enough for pie and ice cream, so no arguments....he goes without. One piece of celery does not earn dessert.
I have a friend who made the horrible mistake of letting her child eat or not eat whatever he wanted and just to keep him shut up she will drive out of her way to buy him fast food because she feels better that he at least ate something. Of course he is included in the same dessert the rest of the family gets even though they ate the meal that was prepared.
It's a slippery slope and creates habits that can be impossible to break. This kid is 15 and still won't eat what anyone else eats and lives on Top Ramen, sweets, and McDonald's.
You might try letting help you cook. Sometimes kids like eating what they helped to prepare. Try making kabobs. A little chicken, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers, pineapple chunks.
They're fun and you get a little of everything.

Maybe helping get creative will spur him to try things more.
Just a thought.

Good luck!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

Rule one: Get rid of the unhealthy snacks!!!!! For everyone to make it fair.

Rule two, there are three things you can not make a child do: eat, sleep and go pee, or poops when or where or what you want you want them to.

I learned this with my son. He was the pickiest eater from day one. When he ate foods he was on a white diet. As he got older he remained on that. And I never fixed him any extra food. What was available was on the table was what was on the table and that was it. He got to choose from that. He ate the sauces from the stir fries, stews, small bits of meats, but otherwise, only the whites.

Oh, did I tell you he was 10lb at birth, always the tallest child in class and now he is 6'2"". Even on a picky diet he grew just fine.

So I think you should relax and offer your child only healthy food at dinner time, maybe one healthy snack at 3:30 or so. As long as he is running around and active he is getting enough.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Spokane on

We designate two nights a week to 'dessert nights'. Regardless of how much is eaten, everyone gets dessert. Then there's no fighting, bribing, etc.

With your picky non-eater(s) just keep giving them healthy food at meal times. If you're letting them have snacks, then they don't NEED to eat at meal times because they're not hungry enough. At 4, children can go longer periods without eating, needing fewer snacks. He will not STARVE himself, and this phase will not last long enough to do any kind of real damage.

Just be consistent and DO NOT give him the treats and snacks just so he'll eat SOMETHING. If he says he's hungry offer him an apple. He refuses? Then he's not that hungry.

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answers from Seattle on

We are going through the exact same thing with my almost four-year-old (Four in February). He is exactly the same - will eat snacks all day long, but won't eat any veg or meat or dinner-like foods. It's terrible and I hate fighting with him, too. Fortunately he's the oldest and my 15-month-old twin boys will eat anything, so we don't have your issue of fairness. I do find, though, that my husband gets more upset about it than me and when he comes home and starts in on my son about eating, it becomes a total battle of the wills. I can usually get my son to eat something during the day. If he says he's not hungry, I say "okay, but remember that we aren't going to the park/aren't going to the party/aren't going to do play-do, etc. until AFTER lunch so you'll have to have lunch first". I usually give him a choice of two or three things for lunch and he has to pick one. Eventually he gets hungry and sometimes will eat without issue, but yes, it's getting worse. I find the more attention I give him over it, though, the more he refuses to eat. If I'm with him all day, then I usually just try to lay off a bit and see what and when he'll eat. And, if he doesn't eat his dinner I refuse to make anything else, but will give him the option of having cereal after he's tried everything on his plate once. Yogurt and cereal used to be our mainstays, but he's even refusing those at times. He's 35 lbs, but the smallest in his class... I'm not worried about his size, but yes his not eating does drive me crazy, but I tell myself that he continues to thrive and continues to be fine even though it seems like he hardly eats a thing some days. The other thing we do is give him those Odwalla drinks that have fruit and veg in them to help balance his diet. We talked about this in toddler group yesterday and some doctors will tell you that you have to look at a child's diet over a week to count how balanced it is as some days he may only eat grains and others he may only eat fruit, or so it seems. Also, don't forget that at this age one serving of grains is about a third of a piece of toast! We tend to put too much on our children's plates and maybe they get overwhelmed with that. Maybe try cutting back on portion size and starting with about half the amount you'd like to see him eat next time... I don't know why kids do this, but they do and it always drives their parents crazy! I've seen my friends go through it and now I'm going through it and I'm sure my youngest two will go through it too. Frustrating, but they will survive! Hang in there!



answers from Montgomery on

My DD is the same way. We just serve her what we eat. Some nights she eats and other nights she doesn't. We will not allow her to have seconds until everything is gone but we are flexible on the desert thing. If she eats a little then she gets desert but if she doesn't eat, tears or not, no desert. I wouldn't worry. Give him a vitamin. He will be fine. I wouldn't bribe him. Let him have reasonable snacks and just serve him what everyone else is eating. Ultimately he wont starve.



answers from Sacramento on

I'm not sure what to do but wanted to let you know you're not alone. My son is 18 months and eats ONLY chicken, spaghetti, yoghurt, berries, apples, grapes, raisins and of course any junk you'll give him. he only weighs 24 pounds. I'm at a complete loss for what to do but all his doctors say he'll eat when he's hungry. I know it's not our fault as parents so don't blame yourself.



answers from Seattle on

Getting kids to eat balanced foods isn't fair. No doubt about that. Neither is life. You and your husband still have a job as parents to do what you can to raise your kids in a healthful way.

Get the snacks and "fun foods" out of the house for a little while. Take your middle to the grocery store and have him help pick out some "grow foods" that he can help prepare (broccoli with cheese, chicken nugget ingredients, fruit to make into fruit rolls, oatmeal to add raisins into, etc)

Have your husband take his snacks and keep them in a desk drawer or in the trunk of his vehicle. Ask the teacher of your oldest if he can bring a box of snacks in for the week and leave them at school.

Why doesn't he want to eat? Has he been evaluated for any sensory issues?


answers from Austin on

Shane B said it perfectly. You cook one meal and you eat or do not eat. No big deal, no words. If he sits there, fine.

Consider placing very small portions on a small plate in front of him. This means not a chicken leg, but the chicken drumette or 2 small pieces of the chicken meat. If you are having peas. only place 4 on his plate. Mashed potatoes only 1 tablespoon. 1/4 slice of bread. IF he eats anything, quietly replace it with the same amount. No comments..

Some children are overwhelmed with portions. It just does not look appetizing to them. But for some reason they can enjoy tiny portions.. Think frozen dinner sizes.. If the food is not that great.. kids think it is fun to eat the little amounts..

Remind him it is rude to make ugly comments about food. If he does not want it or does not even want to try it, he is to sit there quietly till everybody has finished.. No treats or snacks.

A child will not starve themselves.
I am sending you strength..



answers from Portland on


I haven't read all of the responses but have you tried not serving him a meal? Just don't do it. Have it sit at the table with everyone else and leave his plate empty and in front of him. Sometimes being left out of something is pretty powerful to a preschooler. Don't chastise or make a big deal out of it. If he asks to be served sometime, just serve it and leave it at that. **You may want to fill your eldest in on the "experiment" so he isn't confused about why little brother doesn't have to eat*

Also, stop serving HIM snack. If he asks for snack the answer is simply "no" but you can keep snacks in the house for people who do want snack and who do eat meals when it's mealtime.

BTW, my preschooler didn't really like meat. Ground meat was okay but other meat required a little too much chewing for him. Guess what he does love? FISH. I love that he loves fish and he gobbles it up every time it's served. Fish requires much less chewing and white fish really is flavorless. My son prefers it without any sauces so I make a sauce for myself and my husband and leave it off his.

I have heard that bribing with dessert will only have short lived success. I don't really understand why but enough people have said it (including my preschool teaching sister) that I believe it. Dessert does not need to be a part of daily dinner so maybe just stop serving it in general? My husband's family always had dessert and they are all sweets loving and slightly overweight. My mom never had enough money for that "luxury" and I don't care so much about sweets and my side of the family is all very slim and tends towards the sweetness of fruit vs chocolate. I don't know if this is related to our "growing up" but it kind of seems like it does.

I hope your frustration ends soon. I know it's hard! My first wouldn't eat any "first" foods and it was SOOOO worrisome but he's totally fine and your son will be too.

Best of luck!!!



answers from Chicago on

My son went through the same thing at 3 years old. Before that he would eat everything. Now that he is turning 5, he is eating again and he really has a large appetite now. I was concerned too because he would not eat anything except for oatmeal and fruit. I would give him oatmeal for breakfast with fruit and milk, grilled cheese for lunch, and chicken nuggets, carrots, rice for dinner. He began to ask for different meals as he was turning 4 because he saw the other kids at school eating all of their food. He folded...eventually. Now he eats...



answers from Portland on

My 3 yr old has been the same way. I started saving his plate from dinner and serving it at breakfast. If he didn't eat it, he got it for lunch. He was usually pickiest at dinner. A few months have past, and I have noticed that he is eating a bit more now. Remember, toddlers slow down in growth at that age and then pick it up again at school age.

Another thing that I have read, but not tried: fill a small muffin tin with healthy snacks, whole wheat crackers, fresh veggies, fruit, soy nuts, etc. Keep this on the table for him to snack on throughout the day and see what is left by the end of the day. You'll know that he had a fairly balanced diet if he ate most if not all. Also, it is a cumulative thing. Track his eating for a week, not just a day. That is a better measure of his eating habits and whether it is nutritious.



answers from Portland on

My son is a very picky eater. Anything I cook that isn't mac-n-cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, or PB&J he turns his nose at. He is required to at least try whatever is served to him and I try to plan meals with at least one thing that I know he likes - even if it is just a side of fruit. At lunch, I usually let him pick from a couple choices and he usually eats great at lunch since he had a part in deciding what he eats.



answers from Seattle on

In addition to the great suggestions already posted, I think it helps to get my daughter to participate in meal prep. I take my daughter to the grocery store with me and she helps choose the fruits and vegetables that we'll be eating that week. At home, she helps me in the kitchen, not all the time, but often. This way she'll at least try the foods. It doesn't guarantee that she'll like it or that she'll eat much of it, but she'll try it. I don't make her a separate meal--she eats what we eat, or she can choose a piece of fruit. I'm pretty good in the kitchen, but the compliments that mean the most to me now are the kudos from a picky 4-year-old! Good luck.

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