One of the most common questions I get from parents is “how do I get my picky kid to eat more/better/veggies/*insert thing you want them to eat here*”. Young children can be very mysterious when it comes to food, and a lot of it stems simply from being unable to communicate what they really want to say. Sometimes your kids simply don’t eat at all for some reason, leading to tremendous frustration from parents who just want their kids to be nourished and well-fed. Here I have listed some of the top 5 reasons that kids might not be eating, and some strategies to overcome the dinnertime drama.
1. They feel that they’re being pressured.
When children feel pressure to eat, or do anything else really, they tend to shut down. The pressure doesn’t have to be direct (“eat your broccoli!”), but can manifest in many other ways as indirect pressure. Continually talking about your toddler’s eating (or lack thereof), hovering over them, pushing food towards them, adding more food items to the plate, trying to spoon feed your toddler, and constantly talking about the food to try to get them to eat it (“Mmm look at how tasty this is! Carrots are good for your eyes! Don’t you want to try some of this?” are all forms of indirect pressure and demonstrate your anxiety about feeding, which can cause your child to get their back up.
What to do about it: treat your child like any other eater at the table. Provide a reasonable amount of food (see #3) on their plate and a variety of choices, and let your child be in charge of how much they will eat and at what pace. Family meals are about more than just eating the food – it’s about conversation and spending time together as a family! Invite your child into the conversation – a conversation that isn’t about how much they are/aren’t eating – and let them take the reins by self-feeding. By letting go of the pressure, your child may be more open to eating more variety of foods.
2. They have no say about mealtime.
Parents are in charge of the what, when, and where of eating, but after that, kids have the ability to decide the how much and whether they will eat at all. That said, we know from research that getting kids involved in the kitchen has a very positive effect on their relationship with food, and they often eat better when they’ve had some say in the process of meal planning and preparation. Kids may feel that they don’t want to eat the meals offered when they have no say at all about what they will eat. They may be bored of the meals they are offered, or the way they’re presented on the plate.
What to do about it: get your child involved! Children of all ages can be involved in some aspect of the meal planning and preparation process, including the menu planning, shopping, preparing ingredients, cooking, serving, and cleaning up. Give your child age appropriate tasks to help with (toddlers love to “help”!). Include your kid’s favourite foods now and again, and for children who are old enough to participate in menu planning, ask them what meal they would like this week. Have kids look through flyers or recipes with you to help choose an ingredient or a meal. The more involved they are, the more they will take ownership of the meal and want to eat it!
3. The portion size is overwhelming.
In my practice in hospitals with older adults, I often hear that patients don’t eat the meal presented to them because they are so overwhelmed by the portion size. They don’t think they’ll ever be able to finish the whole thing and just don’t know where to begin! The same thing happens with children – when portions are too big, kids can get turned off of eating altogether.
What to do about it: Offer smaller amounts of each item, still making a balanced meal but in smaller portion sizes. This makes the meal much less overwhelming, and your child may even ask for seconds!
4. They’re distracted.
Many of us fall into the habit of eating meals while being distracted by something – TV, iPads, phones, or playing with other toys at the table. This distraction can cause one of two things to happen – either we tend to overeat because we are just eating mindlessly and don’t even notice where our food has gone, or we don’t eat as much because we’re too distracted by the shiny objects and not paying attention to the food (or our hunger signals). Young children often have a difficult time focusing on their meal at the best of times, but when they are being distracted by screens or toys the distraction takes away from the mealtime experience altogether.
What to do about it: Set boundaries around mealtime. No screens or toys at the table – as I said in #1, mealtime is about more than just eating a meal, it’s time for families to connect and converse. Taking the screens and toys away means that kids can focus on their meal and participate in the family connection as well. For some kids, their position can be a distraction (dangling feet, wiggly bums on seats). If possible, remove these distractions by keeping young children buckled into their booster seat or high chair and placing a stool under their feet.
5. They just aren’t hungry.
Believe it or not, sometimes kids just aren’t hungry, just like you and I! Toddler tummies are small and fill up quickly, and their appetites can vary wildly from day to day and week to week (thanks to growth spurts, teething, high energy activities, etc!). The lack of hunger at a mealtime can stem from many different reasons, such as…
- Snacking too close to mealtime
- Too much milk between meals (or juice)
- Too tired (dinnertime is too late)
- Not feeling well
- They just aren’t hungry (and that’s ok!)
What to do about it: Figuring out which, if any, of these reasons is contributing to your child’s small intake is an important step to figuring out how to solve the issue, if it’s even an issue at all. If snacking or drinking milk too close to mealtime is the issue, set boundaries surrounding snacktime and when milk is offered. Perhaps having an afternoon nap or quiet time could help a child who is too tired by dinnertime, or dinner might need to be moved a bit earlier in the evening. As parents, we need to maintain our responsibilities (providing the what, when, and where of the meal) and allow our children to eat to their satisfaction; this means that if your child says they just aren’t hungry, we can accept that as an answer. But, we can also remind the child that the kitchen is closed until the morning, so we can encourage them to fill their tummies as best they can without adding pressure to the situation. Children are innately able to regulate their intake and won’t starve themselves – know that your child will make up for a small (or missed) meal at some point the next day or in the next couple of days, there’s usually not too much to worry about.
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