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Raising a good eater may feel like a rollercoaster at times—sometimes your child will enthusiastically try new healthy foods, and sometimes he or she will refuse to eat anything. And naturally, if your child isn’t eating, the worry and desire to fix it can be overwhelming. Understanding why your child is not eating can give you the insight you need to be patient—or intervene with positive strategies if you need to. Here are some of the most common nutritional reasons your toddler or preschooler may not be eating:

1. Your child’s growth slows. Around 2 or 3 years of age, your toddler’s growth slows. It’s a natural part of normal growth. Their appetite takes a nosedive along with it. Ironically, this happens right around the time that picky eating begins.

2. You’ve got a finicky eater. It’s considered normal for toddlers to go through a picky eating stage. Adults can make this harder (and longer) by nagging kids to eat, bribing them with dessert, or taking away privileges (or food) if they don’t eat.

3. Your child is feeling too much pressure to eat. Research shows that children who are pushed to taste food or take another bite may eat less well and less healthfully. Or they may do the opposite—eat really well, perhaps beyond their appetite, or too much. For children who are in the picky eating phase, pressuring them to eat may dampen their appetite and cause early fullness. Nagging kids to eat often produces the same results.

4. Your child has a food allergy. Some children don’t eat well when they have a food allergy, especially if they have more than one, called multiple food allergies. Many food restrictions and diet limitations may lead your child to be bored with his daily diet, leading to poor eating.

5. Your child has super-sensitive taste buds. Some children experience certain flavors more intensely, and they are referred to as super-tasters. Particularly, the taste of bitter is more prevalent for the super-taster than the non-super-taster, which can result in selective eating, especially of vegetables.

6. Your child is sensitive to texture. Some children may be leery of certain textures, such as mushy, wet, or slippery foods, and as a result, avoid them. Others may be sensitive to the appearance or smell of food. These sensitivities to food can limit the diet, leading to poor eating and overall nutritional intake.

7. Your child is food jagging. Your hot dog-loving preschooler may be on a food jag, getting stuck on a few favorite foods, and preferring them above all others. While this might appear like he or she is “not eating,” your child is most likely eating enough (calorie-wise) but may not be getting enough food variety, which impacts nutrient intake.

8. Your child is filling up on snacks. When children fill up on snacks, they fill up their bellies. A full belly means that your child won’t be hungry when meals roll around. The result? Not eating at mealtime.

9. There are too many distractions. Television or toys at the table may distract your child and negatively impact his or her eating. It’s best to let your child focus on eating while at the table—playing or TV time are for after meals are over.

10. Your child is too tired to eat. At the end of a long day, some young kids are just too tired to eat. The good news is that many children will regulate their food consumption, making up for a poor meal with eating more at a later one.

11. Your child is sick. Children tend to eat less well when they are sick, mainly due to a reduction in their appetite. This is generally not a worry, as the appetite comes back when children start to feel better.

Takeaways

  • There are many reasons your child may not be eating as well as you would like.
  • Some reasons for not eating well require patience, while other reasons, like texture sensitivity, benefit from early intervention.
  • Beware of too many snacks, as this can interfere with eating during mealtime.

References

  1. Castle, JL and Jacobsen MT. Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. Jossey-Bass, 2013.

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