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How to Handle a Kid Who Under Eats

My ‘dream mealtime’ with my child, I can see it clearly: my little angel sitting patiently at the table, eagerly anticipating the delicious healthy family meal, then squealing with delight as it is served to her. She enthusiastically munches on her broccoli and enjoys the array of rainbow coloured vegetables and succulent chicken.  As a family, we chat about our day and she thanks me for my skilled efforts in the kitchen then clears the table and of course helps wash the dishes too!

My reality however isn’t anything close to this. She will sit for 2 seconds then want to hop up. She will pick through what’s on her plate, have a few bites of some familiar favourites (which changes more frequently than her nappy) then won’t even touch the rest, and that’s on a good night, sometimes the whole meal just ends up on the floor!

I know I’m not alone and all the questions and doubt can make one slightly crazy – Why is she so picky? Is this normal? How is she getting all the nutrients she needs? Should I be making her a special meal that I know she will eat or will I be creating bad habits? Will she be picky forever? I know a lady who makes 4 different meals each night – one for each of her three children and one for her husband and herself – will this be me?

The good news is that it’s usually just a stage, a difficult stage, but one that will pass in time.  Toddlers between 1 and 3 are usually picky eaters, they are at the age of asserting their independence and testing their boundaries. Older children are also happy to test the mealtime boundaries. The less we cater to their food demands the sooner the stage will be over and the sooner your family will be enjoying a positive, relaxed and social mealtime.

So to get through this challenging stage, here are some tips to help you along your way:

Keep something familiar on the plate

Toddlers like familiarity. Whenever offering a new food always pair it with at least one thing you know they like. This can help them with the fear of the unknown and hopefully get them to try something new.  The ever favourite cheese helped my little one put that piece of cauliflower in her mouth!

Serve small portions

How to deal with kids who undereat

Large meals can be overwhelming to young children. Keep the servings small and varied to encourage them to give it a go (and it’s less to throw away if they refuse it too!)

You provide, let them decide

As a parent, one of your many jobs is to provide nutritious meals for your child. Now meals don’t have to be gourmet masterpieces made up of expensive “superfoods”- a nutritionally balanced meal based on the 5 food groups (grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy and lean meat/alternatives) will provide all the nutrients a child needs. Serve it up and let them decide if they eat it or not. A lot of the times they won’t but if you keep offering it, one day they just might!

Be a good role model

Let your child see you and other family members enjoying healthy foods every day. Comment on how delicious your fish is and how it will make you big and strong. Talk about the colour, texture and taste of the tomato you’re eating and even try getting your toddler involved in growing some vegetables.

Ensure your child feels comfortable and secure

How to deal with kids who undereat

I definitely don’t enjoy a mealtime if I’m not comfortable; this is the same for children. Whether in a highchair, booster seat at the main table or at a small child’s table and chair, make sure they are comfortable and feel secure. A foot rest is important for them to easily rest their feet if they can’t yet reach the ground. A pillow behind their back will help if they are not sitting straight up in the chair. Providing side support including arm rests will also help to create a secure environment for your child to feed.  It is surprising how eating patterns can change when the seating arrangement is correct.

Stay calm

When a child refuses to eat, allow enough time for them to try their meal, then acknowledge their wish to not eat and let them know that it will be available for them later if they would like it. Most problems only become big issues when an adult reacts and a power struggle begins. We’ve all been there!

More information

The Australian Government website – Eat For Health has information on serve sizes and number of serves to aim for. Don’t worry though if your child is not quite there, they are good at regulating their food intake. Some days they might eat a lot but other days not so much – they’re kids that’s just what they do!

So for now, know that the effort you are putting in isn’t being wasted. Your child is being given healthy meals that they choose to eat… or not. Take a deep breath and count to 10 when it isn’t even touched or ends up on the floor and smile to yourself because it’s just a stage and it will only get better.

Abbey Warren Nutritionist/Health Promotion Officer NAQ Nutrition

This article was published in Issue 15 of our print magazine, April/May 2016.

Photo of author

Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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