My child won’t eat!

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.

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’m 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. Parents can choose what foods are offered, but kids should determine how much to eat.

Talk to his doctor about 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!

They’ve filled up already.

If kids have access to snacks all day, they won’t be hungry for meals.

Make sure they have set meal and snack times, but no foods between. They’ll come to the table hungry if they haven’t snacked all day.

Some kids drink too much milk, juice, or other calorie-filled drinks. While it might seem that milk or juice are healthy, the reality is that they do not have a variety of nutrients that our kids need. Milk at least has protein, but it’s missing iron and other key nutrients. Juice is mostly sugar and really should be avoided. Don’t let your kids fill up on drinks.

When they’re hungry, they’re more likely to eat what’s offered.

A medicine makes them not hungry.

Some kids take medicines that decrease their appetite.

If your child is on one of these, their physician will need to follow their growth carefully, but it doesn’t automatically mean they shouldn’t take the medicine. Most kids can get the calories they need for healthy growth despite these medicines.

In summary…

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!

If you’re worried about your child’s appetite, talk to your pediatrician. The physician will need to see your child to check the growth pattern and to examine him or her for signs of illness. Labs are usually not needed, but can be done if there are concerns for some medical conditions. Medicines are rarely used to stimulate the appetite.

For more, see my related blogs:

If your child doesn't eat as much as you think he should, check out this list of possible reasons.
If your child doesn’t eat as much as you think he should, check out this list of possible reasons.

Author: DrStuppy

I am a pediatrician and mother of two teens. I have a passion for sharing health related information.

2 thoughts on “My child won’t eat!”

  1. I love this article! Nicely summarizes common scenarios about kids’ eating habits. I totally agree with too much snacking and/or ‘give them whatever they will eat’ strategy bc usually it the unhealthy items (ie. French fries and chicken nuggets). In fact, it just continues cycles of pickiness and unhealthy eating.

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