Food Refusal: “I don’t love that!”

My 3-year-old son is beyond cute. He is 2nd percentile on the growth chart (because someone has to be!), but he has some serious personality to help fill out his baggy clothes. This child may be small in stature, but he lives large.

As you might guess, and you definitely know if you have been following this blog even half-heartedly, this dynamic preschooler has tested our seasoned parent grit, helping us grow in ways that never would have happened had we stopped with our first two daughters.

One recent example of this is his recent complete refusal of dinner. As cute as it is that his new slogan for everything is “I don’t love that,” it’s not cute when he throws a tantrum at the sight of his plate at every dinner.

When I started writing this, it felt like it would certainly never end and we had to accept our fate of tantrum-laced dinners.

Trust me, we know the tips and strategies. I discovered Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine book when we pioneered the young child eating challenges eight years ago. We follow her recommendations of the “no-thank-you bite,” and serving as the providers of nutritious food choices while the children make the choices of what to eat. At all costs, we will NOT become short-order cooks (because hey we have 3 kids . . . that’s just asking for even more trouble than dinner is now).

We have no means been perfectly adept at living Satter’s science-based recommendations. We have slid into encouraging a certain number of bites rather than the one no-thank-you bite, and stressing the need to eat some semblance of protein before having dessert. (Satter recommends serving dessert as part of dinner – we did this for about a week and couldn’t go through with it!) Our deviations do devolve into some degree of power struggle, but one we are comfortable with because our girls have developed into mostly decent eaters.

Our 8-year-old loves sushi, spicy foods, and salmon. Our middle loves bell peppers, all things fruit, and will easily turn down dessert if too full. They both eat food they don’t love, or even like, as long as they don’t hate it. The one time recently my 6-year-old was uncharacteristically refusing her plate of food at dinner, she threw up two minutes later and was put to bed with a stomach bug.

Then there’s the 3-year-old. It doesn’t matter if he has historically loved tuna melts, he now screams and cries when he sees it sitting on his plate. He has developed an especially violent aversion to chicken. Chicken, featured in approximately 80% of our dinners. Even if it’s pork and not chicken, he will call it chicken and refuse to eat it.

There is only ONE dinner he eats without batting one of his alluring eyelashes: pasta. But we know better than to fall for the trick of serving him pasta all the time to avoid the fight. We fear this would mean a lifetime of cooking a separate pasta dinner, so we’re not going to do it.

I don’t worry about his growth curve, because he is genetically small and has tracked consistently his whole life of being short. I don’t worry about him getting enough to eat because we hear from school that he eats seconds and thirds at lunch. I’m honestly not worried, but dinnertime can be just plain miserable.

My husband is the primary cook, and we have had countless Sunday dinners that he has prepared with lots of work and thought to make them special, only to hear the “NOOOO!! I DON’T LOVE THIS!” before my poor chef husband can sit down to enjoy the first bite.

Food Refusal: "I Don't Love That"

Food Refusal: "I Don't Love That"

Of course we know 3-year-olds love power struggles, but somehow it’s easy to forget when you’re in the middle of one. Our son picks up on our own NEED for him to eat his dinner, which is the perfect ammunition for him to take the control he’s often seeking in that tough existence of being three and always told what to do and how to do it.

I believe the food refusal has now turned into habit – an association of dinnertime with throwing a fit. He’s also tired at the end of the day, maybe not quite hungry enough from not finding the perfect snack portion, and he does get a lot of attention from the whole circus dinner becomes.  

It feels like an interminable amount of time, but has probably been happening for the last two months or so. When I started writing this, it felt like it would certainly never end and we had to accept our fate of tantrum-laced dinners.

As child development goes, things then change on a dime and he has been chowing down this week. He’s probably in a growth spurt (because also sleeping past 6 every morning – celebration!) but I’ll take it, because it gives me hope we are breaking a frustrating, life-draining cycle of stress at dinner.

Going through this most recent phase of the 3-year-old dictatorship reminds me of a few things – AGAIN – because parenting amnesia is so real.

  • We gave him way too much attention and should have backed off; even if this didn’t result in him eating more, it would have saved us some angst.

  • In a power struggle, the 3-year-old always wins.

  • He will get hungry and his body will adjust to what it needs. (He has also developed a habit of a few spoonfuls of peanut butter before bed.)

  • Everything in parenting is a phase. Everything. And it will pass.

  • I don’t care how smart you are, or how much you have read, or how much you already know, you are always learning more. Especially when your child is a masterful 3-year-old.

Most likely, your child will have, or has had, a phase of “picky eating” or refusing food. Most likely, it will track like mine, including lots of attention-grabbing behaviors, inadvertent parental reinforcement, and then a sudden disappearance of the problem as your child picks another part of child development for your next challenge.

I hope my own reminders to myself might come at a good time for you, and might even shorten this frustrating phase if you are in it . . . or you can save the reminders for the next phase that comes along.

Speaking of, we have moved on to refusal to use the toilet even though he is perfectly potty-trained. What am I doing about it? Deep breaths, silently repeating my mantra, “Everything is a phase. It will pass,” and reverting back to gummy bear incentives.

Note for Especially Worried Parents: As with every child behavior, there IS a continuum for eating that can sometimes cross into the abnormal. There are children whose eating behaviors are selective to the point of interfering with their growth and development. This fear underlies all of our parental worries, but this is where the pediatrician’s expertise comes in. If your child happens to fall on the worrisome side of the continuum, there are excellent, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based feeding interventions available.