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Picky Eaters or Children Who Won’t Eat

Is it normal for children to be picky eaters or not want to eat?

Yes – As children get older, their growth rate decreases and their approach to food simultaneously changes;

Between 9 and 18 months, most children’s milk intake decreases;

They also become picky over the type and amount of food that they eat. This is when most mothers become desperate and seek help, but such behavior is perfectly normal, and there is no need to worry.

When should you be worried?

Children have an excellent way of controlling their own energy intake. This congenital instinct can, however, disappear if parents force their children to eat regularly;

if you are anxious, take your child to a clinic or dietician for regular weighing and monitoring. This is the most obvious indicator of poor growth;

You can also weigh your child yourself at home and plot this weight on the child’s growth chart or road to health chart (depending on the age);

If a child is gaining weight, it means that he/she is getting enough energy to maintain health and well being;

On the other hand, if a child’s weight stays the same for 2 or 3 consecutive months or follows a descending curve, you should take the child to see a doctor or dietician.

What influences a child’s eating habits?

  • Pre-school children are inclined to do whatever other children do as they need to “fit in” with the crowd and be accepted.
  • They imitate their parents, teachers, siblings, and friends, which marks the beginning of their social development and international skills.
  • Commercial and social factors also influence a child’s eating habits. Many TV advertisements advertise foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt.

A child exposed to this may thus not be interested in a plate of healthy food, which appears so much less exciting than that advertised.

  • The activity level of a child also plays a role. An inactive child may refuse food seeing that he/she has been too inactive to become hungry.
  • On the other hand, a child can also be too active and, as a result, be too tired to eat. This problem can be resolved by initiating a short rest period before mealtimes.
  • Lastly, a child who is given snacks shortly before mealtimes may also not be hungry when it is time to eat. It is therefore NOT recommended to give children snacks within an hour before mealtimes.
Food GroupPortions per day1-3 years old4-6 years old 7-12 years old
Bread & Grains6 or more1/2 slice1 slice1-2 slices
Vegetables3 or more2-4 tbsp or 1/2 cup1/4-1/2 cup or 1/2cup of juice1/2-3/4 cup or 1/2 cup of juice
Fruit2 or more2-4 tbsp or 1/2 cup1/4-1/2 cup or 1/2cup of juice1/2-3/4 cup or 1/2 cup of juice
Meat & meat Alternatives2 or more30-60g30-60g60-90g
Milk & Milk products3-41/2 to 3/4 cup3/4 cup3/4 cup- 1 cup

1 slice of bread = ¾ cup of dry porridge or ½ cup cooked porridge or ½ a cup of potato, rice, or noodles;

30g meat, fish, or chicken = 1 egg or 2 teaspoons peanut butter or ½ a cup cooked beans and legumes;

½ cup milk = ½ cup cottage cheese, cheese, yogurt, or 22 g of cheese or 2 tablespoons of powder milk.

How much food is enough?

  • At the age of a year, children eat only 1/3 to ½ of that of an adult.
  • At three years, children eat almost exactly ½ of a regular adult diet.
  • At the age of 6 years, children eat about 2/3rds of adult portions.
  • It is unnecessary to serve a big plate of food to small children – a good guideline is a level spoon of every food type for each year of the child’s age. Children who are still hungry will ask for more food.

Do not Force Feed your Child

Force-feeding includes blackmail, physical limitations, holding of the nose to promote swallowing, and forcing food into a child’s mouth. The more parents force a child to eat, the more resistance that the child will put out.

Parents often use favorite foods as a bribe to make children eat their meals of healthy food.

However, studies have shown that this type of motivation reflects negatively on healthy foods. It is better to use non-food bribes, such as stories and outings.

Regular Discussion, Encouragement, and Praise!

Praise is vital in any activity, including eating. If a child refuses a particular food, it is unwise to remove that food from the child’s diet. Instead, try that food again next week.

Introducing new foods to children should be done in small amounts regularly, along with praising. Foods that parents do not like must still be given to their children; this ensures that the child is exposed to a wide variety of foods.

Set Specific Meal Times and Stick To Them

Make it clear to your child that there are specific times to eat. Sitting around the dining room table at mealtimes helps the child identify when the mealtimes are.

If your child does not eat, remove the plate at the end of the meal without making a fuss. The child will soon realize that an empty plate is better than an empty stomach!

Additionally, any other caretakers involved with the child’s mealtimes must handle the refusal of food in the same way, which will allow for consistency and thus re-enforcement.

Don’t Reward Bad Behaviour.

If a child refuses to eat during a mealtime, no snacks must be given between meals.

Parents often worry that their children will suffer from hunger; however, children are quick learners and will adapt to eating at mealtimes sooner than they let themselves starve.

Encourage Self-Feeding and Self Selection of Food

Allow children to make their own food choices from various foods served for the rest of the family.

Allow children to eat simple foods such as tomato wedges with their fingers and feel food in their hands, which forms an essential part of discovering new foods.

Get Help from The Dietician

You can approach a dietician regarding help with the correct food choices suitable for children at different ages to meet their individual nutrient requirements.

Limit the Number Of Hours Spent In Front Of The Television

A maximum of 1 hour of television per day is recommended for young children. Children need to be active and, in this way, learn to socialize with other children. Active children will have a better appetite and also sleep better.

Keep Desserts Out Of Sight

If there is a dessert to be served, don’t put it in front of the child as a reward, leading to the child refusing to eat the main meal. Only bring out desserts after meals have been finished.

Keep Portions Small and Attractive

Children like bright colors, so try to make meals look colorful. Keep portions small, and don’t overload a child’s plate with food as this may overwhelm them.

Allow Children To Help With Food Preparation

Children between the ages of 2- and 4-years love to help with the making of food. Allow them to mix, stir, and help out where they can. If allowed to cook for themselves, the chances are that they will enjoy the product of their own handy work!

What Food Can I Give To My Child?

No Good or Bad

There is no right and wrong food. It is the total food package that a child receives that determines whether or not the diet is nutritionally adequate or not.

Keep It Simple

In general, it is wise to give children uncomplicated foods seeing that they prefer them.

Under 6 Years

Children under six years usually prefer moderately flavored foods; thus it is recommended to limit herbs and spices.

Little and Often

Seeing that a child’s stomach is small, snacks between meals are important. Children should eat 5-6 small meals per day, that is 2-3 snacks over and above their breakfast, lunch, and supper.


The snacks may include fruit, raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, sandwiches, milk, and yogurt.

Make Mealtimes Fun!

Make mealtimes fun instead of merely serving good food onto the plate, make shapes such as faces or flowers.

You can use mashed potato to form a face’s shape, with mince for hair and two cucumber rings for eyes.

Carrots and tomatoes are also easy to shape into smiling mouths, making any meal much more exciting to a child.

By Melissa Pyle, BSc. in Dietetics, Registered Dietician (SA)

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