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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?
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
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
- Celebratory calls to relatives
- Bike ride/fun outdoor activity
- Small toys
- Screen time
- Visit to friend/relative
Do you have a child with a candy obsession? Check out: 19 Tips to Help Manage Sugar
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.
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?