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 My Child Doesn't Eat Enough

Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

My Child Doesn't Eat Enough

Elisabeth Stitt

Concern over what your child is or is not eating is a common one.  And it makes sense that we are concerned about it.  Our fundamental job is to keep our children alive; and eating well is fundamental to thriving.   

What makes the topic of eating especially charged is that it is one of the areas where children have control.  You cannot force food into a child’s mouth, and even if you do, her upset about food being forced down her throat will often cause her to throw it right back up again.  


When it comes to eating too little, many parents greatly over estimate how much they need to feed a child.  A standard reminder from doctors is that a child should be served a meal the size of his stomach which is about the size of his fist.  Have you looked at your child’s fist lately?  It is probably much smaller than you think.  

But it is not actually that simple.  Some children will have very regular appetites and will eat around the same amount of food at each meal.  Others will eat very little for three or four meals and then tuck into a big meal. It might help you calm your fears for your child if you look at what she eats over the course of the week.  I was curious about my daughter’s nutrition when she was around four, so I wrote down everything she ate in a week.  The week I kept records, she went three days eating about four small bites (of mostly fruit or Cheerios) and then she sat down to a full adult-sized meal.  I remember watching her in amazement as she worked her way through a large chicken breast, a big pile of broccoli and a serving of rice.  A similarly big meal later in the week included flank stake and about a pound of cherry tomatoes.  After that I stopped worrying about the days it looked like she had eaten next to nothing.  


My biggest concern for parents when it comes to their kids’ eating is that every meal becomes a power struggle.  Then from the child’s point of view,  it is no longer about what she does or doesn’t like or even about what she does or doesn’t want as all her requests and refusal are made not with her appetite in mind but with the need to exert her control in one of these few areas where she actually has control.  , 

If that is where you are with your child, it is up to you to disengage from the conflict.  Easier said than done, I know, because it means setting aside your own fears.  Here’s what helped me: I knew my child wasn’t going to starve herself to death or do her body any serious harm if she ate minimally for a week.  For the week this is the plan I followed:  I offered healthy food at regular times every day.  I included as much variety as I include in my own diet (I am not a foodie, so simple is usually my primary motivation): apples, oranges/tangerines/grapes/strawberries; carrots/broccoli/green beans/tomatoes/lettuce/avocado; cereal/whole wheat bread and crackers; peanut butter/turkey slices/chicken breast/hamburger meat/eggs; yogurt/milk/string cheese. For the whole week, I made no comment on how much she ate.  If she wanted to eat in-between regularly scheduled meals/snacks, I told her cheerfully when the next meal would be and then did my best to provide her some snuggles and focused attention to be sure that the bid for food wasn’t really just an expression of feeling disconnected from me. Water was available easily all the time.  


At the end of the week, not only did I make the discovery about the big meals she ate  at the end of eating very little for a few days, I realized how much more relaxed I felt about food and my daughter in general.  Mealtimes were more about connecting and conversing and less about my feeling that I had to keep the pressure on her to eat (making mealtime feel like work to me and leaving us little room to enjoy each other). I realized that if I divided the fruits, vegetables and protein she was getting over the course of the week by three meals a day, that I was very comfortable with the amount of nutrition she was getting. Now I could focus on using mealtimes to find out about her day. 

Admittedly, my daughter was not very picky eater, and as I backed off trying to make her follow set rules about how many bites she needed to finish or what she needed to try, she actually became a much better eater.  Once I stopped making it an issue and didn't engage in cajoling and/or threatening her to eat, she was willing to try things she would never have tried before.