Saturday, January 17, 2015

My child won't eat... what should I do?

I hear from worried parents often that their kids won't eat. There are many reasons for this. Usually as long as a child is hydrated, gaining weight appropriately, and getting a variety of nutrients, I am not worried.

Some reasons kids don't eat:

  • They're really getting enough food, parents just have unrealistic expectations. This is very common. Portion sizes are smaller than many parents think. They vary with age and size of a child as well as his activity level. If your child is growing well and has plenty of energy throughout the day, why should he eat more? Kids tend to eat small meals frequently and even on holidays they don't overeat like the adults tend to do. When offering snacks, think of them as mini meals to help balance out the nutrients of the day. Don't let them snack all day long though or they'll never really be hungry. Schedule meals and snacks and allow water in between. We have an obesity epidemic in this country, so if you're comparing your child to another child, chances are that your thin child is healthy and normal, but the other one is one of the 30% who is overweight. Or maybe not. It doesn't matter. Just be sure your child is getting a proper variety of nutrients, he should determine how much to eat. Talk to his doctor about his growth at regularly scheduled well visits (more often if you're concerned) to be sure it's appropriate.
  • They're sick and it's temporary. When kids are sick they lose their appetites. This is normal. It usually returns with a vengeance when they're feeling better. They need to drink to stay hydrated and can eat what they feel up to it, but don't force it. See their doctor if you're worried.
  • It's a new food and they just aren't sure yet. I encourage that kids over 3 years old take one bite of a food. Kids often hear me say, "taste a bite without a fight." The bite needs to be enough that they taste it. If they like it they can keep eating. If they don't want more, resist trying to convince them to eat more. Allowing them to take ownership of the decision of what to eat empowers them. Kids like power, right. Give it to them while modeling healthy eating behaviors yourself. They learn from what you do, not what you say -- and not from what they're forced to do. When preparing a new dish, include familiar foods they like to balance out the meal so they can enjoy at least something on the plate.
  • They're picky eaters. Aren't they all? Most kids go through phases where they love a food then they suddenly dislike it. They might dislike a certain texture or a whole food group. While there are kids with real problems eating, most picky eaters can be encouraged to eat a healthy variety of foods as described above. Some children really suffer from being overly restrictive. Children with autism, sensory problems, food allergies, and other issues are not included in this "typical" picky eater category. A great series of blogs on picky eaters (typical and more concerning) is found on Raise Healthy Eaters
  • They're more interested in something else. Make meals an event in itself. Sit together and talk. Turn off the television. Put away your phone. Have everyone focus on the meal, which includes the food and the conversation. Try to keep the conversation pleasant and not about the food. Take the pressure off eating!

In general, parents should choose what foods kids are offered so that there's a balance of nutrients, but kids determine how much they eat. If they're hungry, they'll eat. If they're not hungry, they shouldn't eat. Learning to eat when not hungry is something that causes many of us to struggle with weight. Most kids are able to limit intake to needs. Don't force them to change that great quality!

For more, see my other blogs on the subject: