Food Refusal and Why “they’ll eat if they’re hungry” Doesn’t Always Work

by Caitlin Moran, Accredited Practising Dietitian
BA/BSc, MDiet

I’m sure you’ve been told before that if your child is hungry, then they will eat what you serve up. However, if you’re a parent of a neurodiverse child, you’ll know this isn’t always the case. 

Advice from well-meaning friends and family can become quite unhelpful and frustrating when trying to feed your child. It is important to remember that every child is different and while one thing may have worked for someone you know, it may not be applicable to your child.

Kids with ASD and/or ADHD can struggle to interpret their internal cues such as hunger and fullness, so when your child doesn’t want to eat what is on their plate, they might not be fussed if they go without food. This can be worrying for many parents who know how critical it is for their child to eat and continue to grow. And while it is important for children to eat a varied diet including fruits and vegetables, when pressure is applied, the whole situation can be made worse. 

Sometimes, there may be an underlying gastrointestinal issue causing food refusal, so please see your GP or Paediatrician to rule this out before seeing a dietitian.

Here are my top tips for food refusal:

  • Offer new foods with preferred foods 
  • Try not to praise your children for eating their food, remain neutral if possible
  • If they continue to eat only preferred foods, keep offering new foods alongside
  • Play with food by touching, smelling, kissing and licking while not asking your child to eat the food
  • If suitable, get them in the kitchen to increase exposure to new foods without the pressure to eat