My 2-and-a-half-year-old child refuses to take her food. We have to force her to eat. I even tried changing her food to suit her tastes but still need to force her. Please help.


4 Answers 4


Please do not read this answer as bashing your parenting style. I know from experience that it's easy to fall into a pattern of wanting your child to eat more or differently, and end up coercing them into doing so. My daughter was flagged as underweight by her doctors as a toddler, so as a family we have a long history of struggling with helping her eat well (see final section, below). There's a lot of evidence that well-meant intervention in eating can backfire, and backfire badly.

In a comment above, A E linked to a Psychology Today article about force-feeding which has useful information about its potential negative long-term impacts. While much of it deals with reward/punishment force-feeding rather than actual physical force, I feel that the information is still applicable here. I've added some quotes from that to lend some support and context.

A toddler is beginning to realize that she has some control over the world around her. One of the easiest things to control at that age is food: she is supposed to be picking it up (not throwing it), putting it in her mouth (not smearing it around her face), chewing (not spitting it out or swallowing/choking on large chunks), and swallowing. As you can see, there's plenty of other things she can do with the food, including simply refusing to eat it.

By making it such a big deal, you are somewhat encouraging her to continue refusing food because you will be paying attention to her -- even though it's negative attention. This can have lifelong impacts on her feelings about food and eating, none of which are particularly good.

Findings from a study in which over 100 individuals who had been force-fed as kids were interviewed revealed the psychological damage that force-feeding inflicts on kids.... 55% said that they had experienced nausea, while 20% said that they vomited at several points during their childhood on account of the force-feeding.... Also, half of those in the force-fed group recalled that they "cried frequently" during meals...

An additional risk of forcing her to eat is that you're starting a constant battle about who will control her food. Also, you are not helping her learn the important skill of listening to her body's hunger: you are saying food needs to go in no matter what. Both of these can lead to eating disorders when she is older (teenager/adult), either anorexia or overeating (ref. this CNN article for a discussion of a link between forced feeding and obesity).

Over time, as research on the presence of extrinsic rewards [e.g. earning a dessert, being praised for a clean plate] for doing intrinsically enjoyable tasks shows, these bribes start eroding into the kids' enjoyment of food; these kids grow into adults who don't particularly like food or have unhealthy attitudes towards them.

I recommend instead focus positively on the importance of eating sensible meals regularly throughout the day.

  • "This food gives you energy, which helps you play. We will be able to have fun playing a game once you have eaten this and gotten energy!" (It's about activities she enjoys, not about the food.)
  • "This food helps you grow up healthy. You are growing very quickly! What a big girl you are!" (It's about her body, not about the food.)
  • Even something specific about a meal: "This is Mommy's favorite food. Mmmmm. Would you like to taste and tell me if you like it?" (It's about enjoying eating, not about the food.)

Let her refuse food sometimes, perhaps even a whole meal. (Give her a chance to exercise a little independence.) Let her pick foods (within reason) and portion sizes. Give back food control to her, provide guidance and suggestion instead of forcing, and see if that makes a difference. The goal should be to raise a daughter who will eventually make healthy, sensible food choices even after you are no longer there to tell her what, when, and how much to eat.

There is also the possibility that she has a mild allergy to a common ingredient, and eating makes her uncomfortable. For example, my daughter is lactose intolerant; if she eats anything with milk or cheese, she gets stomach cramps, acid reflux, bad gas, and diarrhea. She learned to associate eating with pain, and therefore didn't want to eat much -- but once we discovered the condition (after years, unfortunately!) and eliminated dairy food, she felt much better and was more positive about eating.

If your daughter is very against eating even after you change your feeding strategy, consider visiting a medical specialist to try to rule out physiological reasons.

Additional reading and sources, some of which were quoted above:

  • Ellyn Satter's "Division of Responsibility in Feeding" (Link)

  • Raj Raghunathan blog post at Psychology Today, "The Nurturer's Curse: Why force-feeding kids backfires and tips on kicking the nasty habit" (Link)

  • Val Wadas-Willingham blog post at CNN, “Pushing kids to eat may cause obesity later” (Link)

  • Loth, Katie A. et al, “Food-Related Parenting Practices and Adolescent Weight Status: A Population-Based Study.” Pediatrics 131.5 (2013): e1443–e1450. PMC. (Link)

  • Maryann Jacobsen, blog post titled, “What forcing kids to eat looks 20 years later” (Link)

  • KidsHealth blog post titled, “Toddlers at the table: avoiding power struggles,” (Link)

The following articles were referenced in a comment to the Psychology Today post, but I have not read them:

  • 2
    I like both parts of this answer, particularly pointing out that it could be a mild allergy. Teaching the child why we eat is a very good approach to helping her understand how to eat properly for her whole life.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 16:12
  • 1
    Thanks. I was also considering suggesting including kids in meal planning and preparation to engage them with food (teaching them how to think about meals, not just how to eat them), but that's not always easy at such a young age.
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 17:55
  • 4
    On the positive notes of food - giving you energy and what have you - My 2 1/2 year old seems to understand you have to be a certain height to ride anything at Disneyland. When I tell her that food helps her grow taller so she can ride the rides at Disneyland she seems to be more interested in her meals. Not sure if it's the right tone, but the fact is that if she starts eating well and grows high enough, I will be more than happy to take them there.
    – Kai Qing
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 23:01

A child will not starve itself. She is probably not eating because she is not hungry. Forcing her will only make it less enjoyable for her, imo.

Ask her if she is hungry/if she wants to eat something at some points of the day. When she does, propose food you can give her, and follow her tastes. If she is hungry when you also are eating, propose to eat with you, either at a place for herself, or next to you, or on your lap. 2.5 years old is an important age where she start to see that she can make choices, and being given (directed) choices can be a really good motivation for her, like when she is hungry "Do you want to eat at your place, or with me? Do you want an orange or blue plate?" etc.

I remember many times when my daughter didn't eat with us, when she was that age. Also, many times when she ate while sitting on her mother's lap. Now she is 4 years old and eat at her place on the table most of the times.

When she is a bit older, you might want to explain why there are social rules about when to eat, why a family eat together at certain times. But 2.5 years seems a bit early for that.

  • 5
    This is our experience too. Generally the kids will eat when they are hungry. Additionally they will switch between eating lots of protein and lots of carbohydrate. Not so much a balanced meal as a balanced diet.
    – Ian Lewis
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 16:46
  • 2
    Actually, a good "grazing" type eater will have a healthier lifestyle than one that eats three meals a day "because it's socially correct." Six smaller meals spread through the day maintains blood sugar levels, energy, digestion, etc, for example, and the portions are smaller overall than just eating three larger meals. Let them eat when they're hungry, and don't force it.
    – phyrfox
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 18:48
  • 1
    Grazing, or eating ~6 small meals a day, being healthier is a diet fad myth And there are many other sources that agree. A more recent study even suggests eating only 2 large meals a day may be the route to go, or maybe loading up all the carbs at night. Regardless of those studies' validity the "grazing" concept is erroneous.
    – user11394
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 3:26
  • 1
    My son often didn't eat more than a few bites for weeks. Then he would suddenly wolf down food and ask for more. We noticed this was when he was just about to grow a lot, sometimes an inch overnight. Unlike adults, kids can choose not to eat when they are not hungry.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 9:25

She's old enough to realize what eating is and that it is necessary. If she doesn't want to eat, don't make her. But make it clear that when she refuses, the next meal will be in, say, 3 hours. If that's her choice, stick to it. Don't give in by offering her something to eat in the meantime, don't let her fill up on sweets, etc., be strong and wait for the next meal. If she still refuses it, repeat the process.

If she refuses to eat for a whole day, and then a breakfast the next day, it's probably time to consult a specialist.

  • 4
    Even one day I think wouldn't be a big deal - she could be a little sick with something mild. I'd probably go so far as three days before I worried, although my guys are very good eaters so I might have less to worry about.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 16:10

** Let me say we have been to the specialists, therapists, doctors, etc. This answer is based on what I have to do when all the normal suggestions fail **

Oh man, you and me both. My 2 1/2 year old is doing the same things. Let me tell you what I've figured out myself. Most of it is a battle, and probably doesn't set up the best structure for meal time, but it might be enough to avoid a g-tube.

First - don't force feed. I don't know if by force feed you mean shove things in her mouth or if it means an hour of spoon feeding in a variety of inconvenient ways to get through a cup of yogurt. I personally went down the road of holding her in one arm while walking around the house getting her to touch light fixtures, look out windows, etc, while spoon feeding her meals. This was grueling, but it didn't seem to drive her to outright reject food with some negative overtone like forcing food in her mouth or anything.

Nursing - Is she still nursing? That's pretty much the best source of nutrients, so if she's still doing well there then the amount of solids taken in might not be as critical. I know this is also exhausting. My daughter is still demanding nursing so frequently, and with the fervor of a 2 1/2 year old, that it is every bit as hard as getting her to eat a normal meal.

Treats - Careful on that road. I used small things like gummy vitamins, which I just call gummy bears, as bribery. Sometimes it's single M&Ms. I'll tell her - one chicken one M&M. She'll eat a small chicken bite, I give her an M&M. In the end I know I'm giving her way too many sweets and that's building bad habits, but at the same time I get her to eat a whole meal she would otherwise have never touched. Just be warned that too many sweet things may get her to refuse to eat anything without them, or start demanding just the sweets with no nutritional food with it. I've been there too.

Longer periods without food - We tried dropping the frequency of meals just to see if maybe she just wasn't hungry. That was totally inconclusive. Her eating behavior was pretty much the same even if we didn't try to feed her anything all day - just leaving out foods she can graze on all day. Didn't work. She would eat small bits, just the same as when we try to get her to eat at meal time.

Costco - Costco usually has samples around noon. She did like going around trying the samples, and from that we discovered foods she would willingly eat. Things we wouldn't have guessed otherwise. When your kid eats nothing, it's hard to commit to buying something that comes in large quantities since there's no guarantee she's going to eat even a single bite. But Costco gave us a few items she seems to not reject.

Overall, I can get her to eat, but pretty much only me. Sitting down with other kids doesn't seem to work. If her mom is around she just wants to nurse and refuses food. Babysitters sometimes report she ate something, but nowhere near what other families say their little ones eat. It's such a battle I am not sure whether or not a g-tube would be a better path than this constant struggle. G-tubes come with their own difficulties as well.

Everyone's an expert. They all say to do this and that and warn you about what not to do. I've battled through many years of 2 kids who hate food and about all I took from this is that everyone is different, but pretty much everyone learns how to eat, feed themselves, and not die of starvation. So if your doctor says she is still growing and doesn't need a g-tube, then you're probably ok. Probably also doomed to many years of food battles. My 4 year old is very reliable now. Once they can reason, it is pretty easy to get them to feast and be happy to do so. While the battle with her is over, she still doesn't eat nearly as much as a normal 4 year old, but I'll take what I can get by this point.

If it helps, here are the things my daughter will definitely eat, but usually only small portions each where each meal is a small bit of one thing, then I move to the next small bit until she says no more:

  • YoBaby organic yogurt. Found in any Target.
  • Bananas
  • Cuties oranges
  • Chicken Taquitos from Costco
  • Guacamole
  • Bagels w/ Cream Cheese (even though it looks more like lick the cheese and only minimally bite the bagels
  • Organic chicken nuggets from Target
  • Black Beans and Brown Rice from Chipotle (they will usually give you these for free with any purchase)
  • Canned Peaches
  • Canned Pears
  • Olives
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Strawberries or Raspberries
  • Macaroni & cheese

We also tend to mix in some coconut oil, flax seeds, and poly-visol liquid vitamins in when we can. I've seen no evidence she rejects foods with these things added in.

Good luck though. I know your pain all too well.

  • 1
    I'd be cautious of using gummy vitamins as a treat-reward. I once ate half a bottle because my mom had told me they were candy, so as soon as I managed to get my hands on it down the hatch they all went. It caused nothing worse than a bad stomachache in my case, but there are mild/low risks of vitamin overdose.
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 1:43
  • @Erica - we only give one gummy vitamin and one DHA gummy a day. But there are plenty of healthy things that seem like treats. Some xylitol candies, though those are hard to find in non-gum form.
    – Kai Qing
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 2:30
  • Yeah, at proper dosage it's not unhealthy -- I was just reminded of my personal not terribly safe approach to them (at a slightly older age) :)
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 3:12
  • 2
    @Erica - vitamins with iron can be quite toxic. :-( Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 3:47

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