Try not to worry
It can be very worrying if your child refuses to eat or is very choosy, but try to remember this is a perfectly normal phase. Children will eat enough to keep them going, so try not to worry unless your child is clearly not gaining weight or is obviously unwell.
It may be that your child is picking up your own feelings about food. Perhaps you’re a dieter, or you have a weight problem. Maybe you just see healthy eating as an important goal. If your child is picking up your anxiety, it may be that mealtimes have become an ideal time to get attention.
Refusing to eat, or eating very little
As long as your child eats some food from each of the five food groups, then you shouldn’t worry. If your child is active and gaining weight, they are getting enough to eat.
Tips for success
There are some things you can do to try and encourage your child to eat.
- offer them the same food as the rest of the family (remember not to add salt) and eat your meals together if possible
- give smaller portions and praise them for eating even a little
- if your child rejects the food, don’t force them to eat it – remove it without comment
- don’t leave meals too late, as they may be too hungry or too tired
- limit in-between meal snacks to a milk drink, a cracker with some cheese or some fruit slices
- don’t get annoyed if they refuse to eat – sometimes your child may just be attention seeking
- don’t use sweet food as a reward for eating savoury food, as this will just to your child that vegetables, for example, are not enjoyable
- never use food as a reward – instead play a game with your child or go to the park
- ask another adult your child likes or another child the same age to eat with you – this may break the habit of refusal
- try to make mealtimes enjoyable and not just about eating
Some children experience unpleasant reactions after eating certain foods like coughing, vomiting, itchy rash, diarrhoea or tingling of the mouth or throat, though they often outgrow these.
However, with a few children, some foods may cause a reaction so severe that it is life-threatening. This is called anaphylaxis.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis vary, but if your child is fainting or having trouble breathing, you need to call 999 immediately.
Foods most likely to cause an allergic reaction include:
- Wheat based foods which contain gluten
- Nuts and seeds, including ground nuts
- Fish and shellfish
- Soft and unpasteurised cheese
If you think your child is reacting to certain foods, you should speak to your doctor or your health visitor.
Don’t be tempted to experiment by cutting out a major food (like milk) as you may be cutting important nutrients from your child’s diet.
Peanut allergy can be particularly serious.
The children most at risk of peanut allergy are those whose parents or siblings have:
For any children in this risk category, the advice is to avoid giving them peanuts and foods containing peanut products (like peanut butter and peanut oil) until they are three years old.
Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to bacteria that cause food poisoning. It is very important that you store, prepare and cook food safely and keep the kitchen, chopping board and cooking utensils clean.