Many parents are concerned that their children have very small appetites or are unwilling to eat much at all. If you have a reluctant eater on your hands then there are a number of factors which may contribute to this.
Before getting too concerned, it is important to check the following:
- Are your eyes bigger than their tummies? Too much food on a plate can be overwhelming to many children. A rough guide is to look at the size of their palms. One portion equals one palmful. Aim to have one palmful of protein, one palmful of carbohydrate and one palmful of vegetables per meal.
- Are they snacking too much between meals? Snacks can be helpful at supporting energy levels between meals. (Oatcakes for toddler age and above are a great help). A snack should, however, be a snack, not a mini-meal. One oatcake, or half an apple, or a handful of grapes are a good gauge for most toddlers. Fruit juice between meals can easily curb appetites at mealtimes. Stick to water as much as possible.
- Are they taking enough exercise? Exercise is incredibly important for fuelling the appetite. If your child is a poor eater at lunch, take him to the park or let him run around in your garden for an hour beforehand so that he works up an appetite. If he can go shopping with you by bicycle or tricycle, even better.
- Look for any medical or nutritional indications and raise these with your GP or health visitor.
- A child with uncontrolled reflux or colic may well find eating uncomfortable and associate eating with pain. A parent of a child with reflux or colic needs to work extra hard to build up the child's positive relationship with food.
- Does your child have food allergies or sensitivities? Always seek advice on establishing the food culprits from your GP, paediatrician or dietitian.
- Listen to your child. If he says he often feels sick after eating food, he may well be right. Constipation and/or diarrhoea are also good indicators that the digestive tract is not functioning well. Children who sleep curled up in a ball or on their fronts may be sub-consciously trying to tell you that they have a sore stomach.
- Mouth ulcers might be the problem. Even the smallest of mouth ulcers can put anyone off their food. Check your child's mouth, just in case.
- Ensure your child is eating sources of zinc. Zinc helps the taste buds to function, as well as boosting the immune system. It is hard to enjoy food if you can't taste or smell it properly.
- Teething can put even the best of eaters off their food. Also check that your child has enough teeth to break down the foods you are giving them. We are often in a rush to get them onto 'grown-up' food too quickly.
- Is your child under the weather or going down with a bug? Many of us lose our appetite when ill, and a child is no exception. Don't force a child to eat if he is ill. If you have a child who is recuperating, be gentle and encourage him slowly but surely to eat and most importantly, ensure that he is taking in lots of fluids.
- Are they overtired? This is often why children go off their food or are reluctant eaters. Look for the underlying reasons for tiredness such as late bedtimes, or too many play-dates or after-school activities.