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The Most Overlooked Reason Your Child is Not Eating Food

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Inside: Child not eating food? There is 1 reason that parents often overlook. It may even cause picky eating. In this post you’ll learn about this reason a child is not eating food and 5 things you can do about it.

“I waaaaaaaaant caaaaandyyyyyyy!!!!” he let out an epic scream. Loud. Very clear. He was only 2 ½ but doing a great job of communicating. For the rest of the meal, this child did not eat food at all. Nothing. Not one pea. Not one bite of pasta. His parents tried everything. “If you eat 3 peas you can have candy.” Nothing. “You can’t have anything else until you finish your dinner.” Nothing.

That was the end. The child ate nothing for the meal.

This child is obsessed with dessert and that is a commonly overlooked reason for a child not eating food. The solution though, is not what most parents think. Many parents use dessert in a way that causes those dessert obsessions!

I’ll show you 5 ways to end dessert obsessions in your home to help get your child back to eating food.

Using Dessert as a Bribe can Make a Child Not Eat Food

What does it mean to use dessert as a bribe? Do any of the following sound familiar?

“If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert.”
“3 more bites and then you can have dessert.”
“You have to finish everything on your plate before you can have dessert.”
“If you eat your broccoli I will give you a piece of candy.”
“You ate your veggies at dinner, so you can have candy.”

All of these things are using dessert as a bribe for eating food during a meal. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course they can’t have dessert until they finish their dinner! Why let them fill up on dessert when they need veggies and their dinner.

I agree…buuuuuut, any time you use a certain type of food as a reward, it makes the reward food more desirable. That means it makes them want dessert more than they did before. Not only that, it makes them want the other food LESS. What does that mean?

It means, if you use dessert as a way to get your child to eat vegetables, the longer you do it, the more they will want dessert and the less they will want veggies or whatever other food there is.

This becomes a problem quickly. Suddenly dessert is on a really high pedestal. It’s so absolutely wonderful that no other food compares. All the other foods become second rate or maybe not worth eating at all.

I’ve seen some cases where the child will not eat food unless they get a reward. It’s good to end food bribes before you get to this point.

The best thing to do with food bribes is to stop using them.

That means that if you serve dessert, you serve dessert regardless of what they ate. If they eat a “good meal” you don’t reward them with dessert.

Wait, just let a kid have a cookie if they didn’t eat dinner?


Split image of no candy at the meal vs candy with the meal showing how a child is not eating food because the candy is restricted and more fun sounding

Serving Dessert with a Meal Can Help a Child Who’s Not Eating Food

I’m going to give you an even harder pill to swallow now. Ready?

Give them dessert WITH the meal with no requirements.

[Has that lady officially lost her mind?]

I’ve seen thousands and thousands of families help their kids take dessert off the pedestal by serving a small portion of dessert with a meal with no comment.

In fact, this is how I primarily serve candy in my house. I’ll say, “we’ll have a piece of candy with lunch.” One piece goes with the meal without comment.

Sure, they may initially ask for more, but I just let them know “that’s all that’s available for this meal.” My kids now don’t even ask. They just know there’s a small portion there. The best part, they 99.99999999% of the time eat more of the food that’s at the meal.

Related: Need more ideas of how to structure mealtimes? Read Child not eating? 5 things to check right now

Split Image. On the left is a dessert bar being served after dinner which can cause a child not to eat their food. On the right is a muffin tin dinner plate with dessert included with the meal.

Using Sweets as a Reward Can Make a Child Not Eat Food

Just like using dessert as a bribe to eat dinner, makes dessert really really exciting, so does using candy and sweets as rewards for other behavior. That makes children not want to eat more nutritious food. A healthy snack just isn’t as exciting when kids are fixated on candy and they know it’s in the cupboard.

Food rewards look like this:

  • “Finish your chores and I’ll give you a piece of candy.”
  • “If you stop crying I’ll give you a piece of candy.”
  • “Be quiet during my conference call, and I’ll give you a lollipop.”
  • “If you poop in the potty I’ll give you a piece of candy.”

I realize that a lot of people use candy as rewards for potty training. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t or you are a bad parent if you did. Whatever you did, you did!

In fact, I also used candy as a potty training reward for my first child. I really didn’t like the effects on his relationship with candy, however. He ended up with a really big obsession with candy for a long time afterward. I also learned more about food rewards after that.

By the time my second child came around, I didn’t use any sweets for potty training and he still potty trained on the same timeline.

Instead of rewarding with sweets, we use a variety of other rewards depending on what the kids are into:

  • Verbal praise
  • Dances
  • Celebratory calls to relatives
  • Bike ride/fun outdoor activity
  • Sticker
  • Small toys
  • Outings
  • Screen time
  • Money
  • Visit to friend/relative

Do you have a child with a candy obsession? Check out: 19 Tips to Help Manage Sugar

Lunchbox with orange & red sweet peppers, a quesadilla slice with purple cabbage stars, blueberries & three chocolate chips to show that serving some candy with meals can help a child who is not eating food.

Children May Not Eat Food Because You’re Making a Big Deal of Dessert

Sometimes kids are really tuned in to how you are presenting sweets or dessert. If dessert is held up on a pedestal, they are less likely to like other foods.

For example, you may always say something like this when you serve dessert, “Ooooooh, look, it’s ice cream! You are so lucky! Ice cream is so good. What a treat! What a special, special treat for you!”

They learn that sweet foods are a real treat and all other foods are a chore. In reality, sweet foods are sweet foods and other foods can also be amazing and delicious.

Instead of giving kids the running list of why treats are so delicious and amazing, if you choose to serve dessert, just serve it. You don’t have to say anything and it will still be just as enjoyable and amazing for your child if they like it.

One scoop of ice cream on the left indicating your child may not be eating food if you restrict treat foods. On the right is multiple scoops of ice cream showing that routinely and strategically serving treat foods helps to normalize it and curb sugar obsessions.

Excessively Restricting Certain Foods Can Make Kids Not Eat Food

One tool that parents use to help kids eat better is to forbid children from ever eating sweets. When this happens kids often eat less sweets and more nourishing foods. The downside is that it can cause a major obsession with sweets.

When highly restricted children are obsessed with sweets, they may sneak candy or sweets. That makes the children not eat food during meals or snacks.

If your child is frequently sneaking sweets, one reason (among many) could be that they are feeling really restricted from eating them. Sneaking can be caused by other things as well, but I’ll focus on restriction here.

If you find your child is sneaking sweets or some type of other food, stop and consider what is happening with them. Are they always sneaking foods that they are never allowed to eat?

If that’s the case, then I highly recommend making a point to allow your child to eat those foods as part of your routine diet. Does that mean you allow them to eat candy bars whenever they want? No.

You are still in charge when it comes to when and what food is served in your house.

When I find my kids have developed an obsession with a food, I will often serve it with a meal 2-3 days in a row and then a few more times over the course of the week or two. This helps kids see that sweets or treats can be included in their diet.

When they ask for more, I say, “That’s all that’s available for this meal. We’ll have more tomorrow.” I always tell them when they will get to have it next, so that they aren’t obsessively wondering about it.

Now that you’ve read through these five reasons that your child may not be eating food, which one sticks out to you? Is there something that you can tweak at home?

Child at a highchair with food in front of her. Child is not eating Food.

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Marc

    I think this is brilliant! There is so much to learn about how our children mentally-process food. Thank you so much for sharing this with parents who desire to learn, grow, and encourage others. I can’t wait to try these habits with my 7/yo 🙂

  2. Niki B

    This is so helpful. Thank you! I love all these tips. I don’t even know that I don’t know that I don’t know what to do sometimes and then here’s a solution on your blog!

  3. Jessica

    What do you suggest if the child eats the dessert and then nothing else?

  4. Kim

    These are great tips, thank you! I tend to serve dessert after dinner (if we have it) but I don’t make a fuss or big deal. Dessert can be fruit or a small sweet treat. Could that approach lead to sweet obsession too? Would you still recommend that I just serve with dinner?

  5. Holly

    We’ve started applying these concepts into our meals over the past few weeks/month and it’s been amazing. At first the kids were totally blown away that they had dessert on their plate with the meal and even asked “can we eat this whenever we want?” And then when it happened again, the older child explained to the younger child “we can eat the cookies whenever we want!” (as opposed to needing to eat them only after they finished the rest of their food).
    Honestly, I think I was a little weary at first, but they really have stopped asking for treats as much. And when they do, and it “isn’t on the menu today” I feel like they’re a lot more okay with that now, because they know they’ll eventually get them again, and it won’t be held hostage by needing to eat their dinner or something they don’t like.
    Thank you so much for sharing these great tips!

  6. Laura

    I started doing this upon your rec and now he’ll often just hold the dessert while eating the other food first. It’s been super helpful and also results in much less disagreement at mealtimes, and also better moods overall because he’s getting a full belly with lots of foods.

  7. Amy

    I try to follow this method with my own 2 1/2yr old, however all she will eat from the plate is the dessert item. So I might give 1/2 biscuit and that’s all she eats. What do I do then, knowing she is still hungry but won’t touch anything else? 🙁

  8. Nicole

    What if my 5 year old likes popsicles for dessert sometimes? Should I switch to something else so it doesn’t melt on the plate?

  9. Rachel

    This is a really, really good tip! We don’t have dessert at our house but I will pin this in case we need it somewhere else!

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