‘I Don’t Like It!’ What To Do If Your Child Refuses To Eat

We all want our children to enjoy a healthy diet – but at times it seems an impossible task. Here’s how to tempt them to eat more fruit and vegetables.

healthy diet

Hands up who loves broccoli!

And was that from the first time you tasted it?

We’d guess not. What about tomatoes? Or bananas?

Our children’s diets are high on the list of parental worries.

Are they getting enough fruit and veg? How much is that, as daily recommendations change so frequently? Is there enough variety and colour on their plates?

A picky eater can be a nightmare, especially when combined with toddler-tantrums. Why eat the nasty cauliflower when you can throw it at the cat instead?

It’s worth remembering experts estimate you’ll need to introduce a new food on average ten times before a child accepts it. Others say parents should make the most of a ‘flavour window’ between the ages of four and 18 months, when children are most receptive to new tastes. (Don’t worry if your child is older than this, though.)

There are studies that conclude breast-fed babies are more likely to take to new foods, as the flavour of their mother’s milk will have varied according to her diet.

So don’t be disheartened if your neighbour swears her one-year-old likes nothing more than lamb’s liver sautéed with spinach and garlic – that could be why.

The rest of us, though, generally need a few tricks up our sleeves…

1Taste the rainbow – within reason

We’re born with an in-built preference for sweeter flavours – worth remembering when you’re trying to expand your child’s food horizons.

Potatoes, carrots and peas are all good places to start, while alternatives such as sweet potatoes or parsnips will be more appealing at this stage than harsher flavours. Best to wait a while before introducing the curly kale.

Most fruits are naturally sweet, but those with a sharper taste – such as citrus or kiwi – probably won’t be popular straight away. Offer canned or dried fruits as an alternative sometimes. Pure juices are good too, but don’t rely on them too much – they have a higher sugar content and less fibre than whole fruits.

2Get creative (ok, we mean sneaky)

It’s amazing what a good blender can do. We know children who would swear they never touched a vegetable until they were teenagers. Little do they know!

Stir pureed carrots, onions, mushrooms and red peppers into the spaghetti Bolognese, whip creamed corn into the mashed potatoes, and blend carrots and butternut squash with the tomato soup. It might seem like a lot of effort, but it works.

Yes, the ideal is to persuade your kids to eat these things freely – but while you’re working on that, at least you can be sure they’re taking in some vitamins!

3Make it different

This works well as an alternative to plain fruit.

Melt some chocolate in the microwave, or in a bowl above a pan of hot water on the hob. Dip chunks of bananas, pineapple, whole strawberries or cherries – whatever you like – into it and allow the chocolate to set before serving.

Alternatively, puree fruit and then freeze them in silicon ice-lolly/popsicle moulds. Refreshing in the warmer weather and a great way to coax your child to try new flavours!

4Get them involved

You’ll want to keep them away from the sharp knives for now, but children can help with food preparation from an early age.

Whether it’s shelling peas, fetching equipment or simply placing the carrots you’ve already chopped carefully into a pan – it helps them to feel involved. And if they’ve had a hand in creating a meal, they are more likely to eat it.

5Give them a choice

Why not ask how your child would prefer their vegetables to be served? Sprinkling plain broccoli with grated cheese might make it instantly more appealing, or perhaps a large dollop of tomato ketchup will do the trick.

If that’s what it takes, don’t worry – cooked tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.

Go one stage further and ask them to help you with the shopping, then give them a say in the produce you buy in the first place. If they’ve chosen it, it makes it harder to refuse to eat it.

6Set an example

How many times have you had a rough day and announced an urgent need for something sweet to make you feel better? Or felt like a snack during the evening and opened a bag of crisps (potato chips)?

Our children learn from the example we set them. We’re not saying it’ll be easy. Yes, an apple is a poor substitute for a melting, velvety mouthful of your favourite chocolate.

And no, this isn’t a method we’ve employed successfully ourselves because our willpower, frankly, isn’t that strong. But others swear by it, so we’re just putting it out there.

7Make it look good

Sliced fruit is more attractive to a child than whole fruit. Large chunks of vegetables can be overwhelming, so remember smaller is generally better. Children also seem to prefer the different components of a meal to be separate, rather than together in the centre of the plate.

There are also people who say arranging a child’s food on the plate in pictures or patterns is the way to get them to eat it. You can try this, but beware – they may get upset at the thought of eating the lettuce ears you’ve put on their cute salad bunny.

8Avoid the battleground

Meals should be relaxed occasions. A time to come together and enjoy being a family. This can’t happen if you’re stressing about how much – and what – your child is eating.

Try to serve food as if you really don’t mind whether they eat it or not. Claire Potter has some excellent advice in her book, Getting the Little Blighters to Eat:
“Don’t invite children to a power battle…behave as if you have no power. Completely let go of the parent-to-child authority you use in other areas of life. No commands, no orders, no tellings-off, no threats, no punishments, no bribes.

“This is because children want attention, even bad attention, and food is a perfect place for getting it. As soon as you let go of the power struggle, they are liable to be more willing to eat a varied diet – because they have nothing to gain by refusing it.”


There will, inevitably, be flavours your children come across that they just don’t like, and never will.

It’s also important to remember that your son or daughter won’t let him/herself starve, and that the body is very adaptable – it makes use of whatever is available.

We’ve known children whose staple diet was chips (French fries) and mayonnaise. Who insisted on smothering everything in tomato ketchup – even breakfast cereal (true story). Whose sole concession to ‘fresh’ food until they were ten years old was sliced cucumber.

These kids grew up to be happy, well-adjusted adults with a ‘normal’ approach to food. They eat healthily, are keen to try new flavours, and don’t embarrass you by asking for chicken nuggets in a fine-dining restaurant.

Try to follow your principles, but don’t make them hard and fast rules. Offer different foods repeatedly, but don’t make an issue of it when they are refused. And don’t worry. They’ll come around, eventually. Promise.