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Eating Problems in Young Children


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2022
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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?

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

  • Lose weight

  • 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:

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:

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

During meals:

  • 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.

For snacks:

  • 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

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