Many parents worry about their young child’s eating habits. Some children don't want to eat certain foods. Some want to eat only certain foods. But being a picky eater rarely causes health problems. That's because most young children's food preferences don’t last long enough to harm their growth.
What eating problems do young children have?
Very young children don't get actual eating disorders Overview of Eating Disorders Eating disorders involve a disturbance of eating or of behavior related to eating, typically including Changes in what or how much people eat Measures people take to prevent food from being... read more , such as anorexia Anorexia Nervosa Anorexia is an eating disorder. People with anorexia limit their food intake even though they continue to lose weight. They are preoccupied with thoughts of food and may deny that they have... read more and bulimia Bulimia Nervosa Bulimia is an eating disorder in which you: Eat lots of food at one time (binge) Then do things to make up for overeating (purge) To make up for overeating, most people make themselves throw... read more . Those problems usually don’t start until middle or high school.
Eating problems in young children usually involve:
Not eating at meals
Overeating and getting overweight
Why doesn't my child eat at meals?
Most of the time, young children don't eat at meals because:
Their growth is naturally slowing down
They're eating snacks and junk food instead of their meals
Babies grow very fast, so they need to eat a lot. But growth slows down around 1 year of age. Around that time, children eat less because they need less. Parents who aren't aware of this may push their child to eat. They may worry too much about what their child is eating. Usually, your child is fine.
Snacks are necessary but can cause problems. Children usually need something to eat between meals. However, too many snacks take away appetite and your child won't eat at meals. It's easy to overeat tasty snacks, particularly sweets, like candy, cookies, and soda. Even juice has a lot of sugar.
Only rarely is not eating for any length of time a sign of a medical problem. If it's a medical problem, children will:
Not grow or develop normally for their age
Usually feel sick or have other symptoms
Why does my child eat too much?
In young children, overeating and gaining weight are rarely caused by a medical problem. Being overweight tends to run in families. And children often learn poor eating habits from their family.
However, overeating itself can cause problems. Being overweight isn't healthy and puts your child at risk for:
High blood pressure
Being an overweight adult
Being made fun of or being bullied
If your child regularly overeats, talk to a doctor to see if the amount and types of foods he or she is eating is a concern.
How do doctors know if my child has an eating problem?
During regular checkups, doctors will ask about your child's diet. They'll want to know the kinds of food your child eats and how much. Particularly important is the balance between snacks and meals and between healthy foods and junk foods.
Doctors tell how serious any problem is by seeing how your child is growing. They will:
Measure your child's height and weight
Growth charts compare your child's height and weight with other children of the same age. Some children are big and some are small. But each child usually stays about the same in comparison to other kids. For example, if your child has always been right in the middle for weight, your child should stay in the middle while getting older. Dropping off in comparison to other kids is a sign of problems.
How do I make sure my child eats the right foods?
Don't make a big deal about a healthy child who doesn't seem to be eating enough. The main things are to:
Feed your child 3 meals a day
Limit snacks to 2 to 3 each day
Have your child eat meals when other family members are eating and have everyone sit at the table
Limit distractions: turn off the TV, shut off digital devices, and keep pets in another room
Let your child decide which foods on the plate to eat
Take away your child's plate 20 to 30 minutes after mealtime begins
Don't talk to your child about how much is left on the plate
A child who doesn't eat much at a few meals won't starve. Just make sure your child isn't filling up on junk food after meals.
Serve small amounts of healthy foods such as fruit, cheese, a small sandwich, or milk
Avoid high-calorie snacks such as candy, cookies, chips, and fast foods