My Child Does Not Eat: Handling the Most Common Complaint in the Pediatrician’s Office

Tips for Parents

kid refusing to eat“Doctor, my kid does not eat,” or “I have to run after my kids for an hour to feed them,” or “I have to take my kids in the car and sit with them just to get them to eat” – if I had a dollar for every time a mother told me these things, I could have given Bill Gates a run for his money!

These are some of the most common complaints we hear as pediatricians in our office practice. The important thing to remember is that, for most kids, everything is part of playtime, even eating time. Parents are busy and have their own schedules to tend to. Children tend to prolong eating time because they feel this will force the caregiver to spend more time with them. Initially, mealtime begins as playtime, and then the prolonged eating time becomes a habit. Additionally, children tend to pick up habits from parents or other family members. If children watch television while eating, or they avoid vegetables/salads and prefer junk food, then I would advise you to look around (or in the mirror!) – the inspiration is mostly coming from inside the family. In my observation, most children of athletic parents are physically fit. The same pattern goes for children of parents with a sedentary lifestyle; they are also more likely to be slow and unfit. This is because parents inherently act as role models for their children, and children are great observers of parental behavior. You can lecture them all you want, but your kid is most likely to do what you do, rather than what you say. Below are a few tips, which might help in improving the eating habits of children.

  • First and foremost, change the eating habits of everyone at home. Start eating fruits and salads, yourself, REGULARLY. After some time, children start eating what the whole family is eating.
  • Do not buy food that you do not want yourself or your children to eat. This sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised how many parents buy junk foods for “guests”. Needless to say, this will be consumed by your little one, however careful you may be!
  • Set fixed days for treats, e.g., set Wednesdays for a small treat, like toffee or chocolate, and Sundays for a bag of chips, burger, pizza, etc.
  • Fix a place and time to sit down for every meal. If the child gets up, tell him/her you will wait only 10 minutes for him/her to come back. If not, pick up the food, pack it, and don’t give the child anything else to eat for at least the next couple of hours. When the child is hungry, give them back the same packed food, but again the child has to eat it while sitting down. After a few days, the child will get the idea that you are serious about eating time and place.
  • Keep the child hungry for at least 2 hours before a substantial meal, a “food curfew.” Don’t give him/her anything, not even a toffee, biscuit, some juice, etc., as that will kill the appetite.
  • Don’t put on television or any video game during mealtimes. I know it is easy to feed them when they are watching TV, but instead, try talking about school, friends, etc., or tell them stories to divert attention from potential electronic distractions. This will also help them focus on the food they are eating.
  • Children tend to avoid eating vegetables; they eat roti, chapatti, and rice but take vegetables with difficulty. An interesting option is to first feed the child vegetables with curd or dal when he/she is hungry. Then give the child a soft roti or parantha, which he/she can eat by itself after the vegetables are finished.
  • Try being firm about vegetables and fruits in the child’s diet. If they do not eat them, then calmly try to make them understand the importance of a balanced meal.
  • Also, do not give them something else to eat. Otherwise the child will get into the habit of manipulating the parent. They will avoid eating veggies, knowing they will eventually get their favorite food like paranthi, bread jam, etc. instead.
  • Try introducing vegetables in their favorite meals like pasta, rice pulao, stuffed parantha, etc. Most importantly, eat the same meal with them.
  • If the child starts eating well, don’t forget to show your appreciation. Keep patience, and do not give in to the tantrums and crying episodes when you are trying to be firm about their food.
  • Cook interesting healthy dishes, and rename foods with exotic names – a healthy mixed vegetable dish becomes Vegetable Jalfrezi, a simple dal soup becomes Veg Lentil Soup. Or you can just go plain silly with healthy kids’ snacks, like the recipe called “Ants on a Log!” Cut fresh celery into 3-4 inch pieces and spread peanut butter into the celery crevice. Add a row of “ants” (raisins) on top, and serve. The silly name will amuse them! (http://www.stay-a-stay-at-home-mom.com/healthy-food-recipes-for-kids.html)

I know feeding a child can be a daunting task for most parents. Each child is different, and the tips suggested here may work differently in different settings. However, one thing is certain… if you buy healthy foods, eat them, and offer the same in interesting ways to your child, it will certainly go a long way in developing long-term healthy food habits.

Gaurav Gupta, MD Dr. Gaurav Gupta is currently the pediatrics consultant at Charak Child Care in Mohali, India and is also the CEO of TravelSafe Clinic (www.travelsafeclinic.com). He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP), with extensive publications and presentations in national and international journals & conferences.
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