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The Informed Parent

Eating Problems In Young Children: An Informed, Positive Parenting Approach

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Aug. 16, 2004

The most common complaint heard in a child psychologist’s office when it comes to eating is, “My child overeats!” The second most frequent complaint is that of finicky, picky eaters. This article will attempt to address these relatively common childhood problems in a positive manner which, hopefully, leaves both parent and child feeling more confident about their ability to manage them.

My Child Overeats!

First of all, try to understand the situation. Thinness is valued in our society! If your child overeats and becomes overweight, you, a caring, concerned parent, are likely to worry. If you had a weight problem yourself, your child’s overeating may push a button, which causes you to overreact, or to react badly.

So, first off, remember that children often go through spurts--they often exhibit a pattern of eating, gaining, and then growing. In addition, children, just like their parents, may eat when they feel bored or unhappy. When children are confident and do not feel criticized, they are less likely to overeat.

During periods when your child appears to be eating far beyond his needs, it is important that you NOT show him your worry. Instead, give him plenty of encouragement and love. Then he’ll listen when you give him ideas about healthful food choices. Remember, diets are NOT generally recommended for children. Most physicians advise parents to help children maintain their weight, as opposed to losing weight, until height catches up.

What Do I Say And Do In The Meantime?

DO NOT call attention to your child’s overeating. Instead, fix and serve reasonable portions. It’s hard to overeat if the food is not there. Keep crisp vegetable and fruits, preferably sliced or cut, on hand. You can allow those foods in unlimited amounts. Avoid buying foods that are high in fats and sugars. Avoid fast foods.

As with adults, the combination of improved eating habits PLUS increased energy output is critical. Make a concerted effort to build activity and exercise into your child’s day. Younger children can be encouraged to walk, run or even do simple calisthenics. Most children love to dance to music. They love to ride bicycles with parents or other caretakers. Encourage your child to walk, jump rope, swim and bike. Model how fun these activities are by joining in and how nice they are to share.

As noted above, overeating may also be a function of stress or unhappiness. It is important finding time to discuss your child’s day with him, and listening to his feelings. Often, bedtime is an ideal occasion for deeper conversations with your child. If he is a reticent talker, encourage him with questions. “How was your day? What was the best part of it? What was the worst part of it?” As your child opens up, it can lead the way for invaluable problem-solving and brainstorming sessions that allow him to feel more in control of his life.

What Are Some Ways To Try To Avoid Overeating In The First Place?

  1. Model good eating habits. If you have junk food available, and/or you overeat, your child is likely to do the same.
  2. Make sure you are in touch with your own feelings and any issues you might have about eating. Separate your problems from those of your child.
  3. Read! HOW TO GET YOUR KID TO EAT...BUT NOT TOO MUCH, by Ellyn Satter, Palo Alto: Bull, 1987 is a wonderful reference for worried parents.
  4. A final note; if your child expresses unhappiness about his weight, or you have concerns, which are not addressed by the information offered in this column, by all means see your pediatrician. He or she can rule out any underlying medical cause for weight gain. In some instances, pediatricians do recommend a registered dietician.

What About The Picky Eater?

Again, and first of all, try to understand.

A common complaint is that a child has only a few acceptable foods in her diet. Another is the seemingly small amount they actually ingest. When you have a picky eater of either type, you have probably found that bribing with rewards, anger, scolding and lecturing generally do little or nothing to alleviate the problem. Instead, these tactics tend to intensify the problem.

Picky or selective eating, for a more positive spin, is a way for your child to learn about her own likes and dislikes. Studies suggest that even the most selective of eaters get their nutritional needs met!

So, avoid power struggles! Insisting what and when your child eats, or allowing her to control you by preparing only what she demands, is a blueprint for disaster. Instead, prepare and provide nutritionally sound meals and snacks, model eating a variety of foods, and encourage healthful choices.

That's Good Advice, But What Should I Actually Say And Do?

  1. Make mealtimes and snack times a predictable routine. A selective eater often eats small amounts, but also is sometimes willing to eat more frequently.
  2. Try to serve at least one food that you know your selective eater likes at each meal and snack time. While you do not want to create power struggles, it is okay to implement the “one bite agreement” into at least one meal a day. You say, “Ellie, please just have one bite of the baked potato. You are such a good taster.” If she tries it and spits it out, that’s okay. She kept the agreement. If she argues with you about it, let it go. Do not allow food to become a battleground between you.
  3. If your child gets antsy at meal or snack time and wants to leave the table, ask her to put her food away until she is ready to eat. Say, “Susie, put the rest of your food in a sandwich bag, and if you get hungry later, come and eat it.” Food should not be saved as a punishment, however, or saved for the next meal.
  4. Don’t nag. Don’t be negative. Don’t say, “You’re too picky” or, “You eat like a bird!” or, “Children in other parts of the world would give anything for a piece of that sandwich!” Put a positive frame on the situation. Say, “You are very sensitive to taste and texture. Maybe you’ll be a famous chef some day.”
  5. Talk with friends and family who interact with your child. Explain your “one bite policy” and tell them, politely, to back off if they bug your child about her eating habits.
  6. Make sure to comment on any incidents in which your child eats well, or makes new choices. Say, “Cindy, you tried the olive! Good going!”

How Can I Avoid This Selective Eating In The First Place?

  1. As in overeating, offer raw fruits and vegetables, which can be eaten freely and at any time. Chop or grate it finely for very young children.
  2. Read together. BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES, by Russell Hoban, New York: HarperCollins, 1964 is an older but excellent book to encourage the pickiest of eaters. Other wonderful books are: YUMMERS--STARRING EMILY AND EUGENE by James Marshall, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1973; WHAT HAPPENS TO A HAMBURGER? by Paul Showers, New York: HarperCollins, 1985; and SEVEN KISSES IN A ROW by Patrician MacLaughlin, New York: Harper Trophy, 1988.
  3. Read alone. The Ellyn Satter book mentioned above is a great choice for parents of picky eaters as well as overeaters.
  4. If your concerns or worries persist, talk to your child’s pediatrician or your family physician-- not to your child.


Overeating and picky eating are concerns which are voiced by many parents. Research and common sense tells us that MOST of these problems are transient and can be tracked to growth patterns or underlying unhappiness. A positive, non-critical approach is mandatory if your child demonstrates such eating problems. Reading--for parents and children--can be very relieving. Implementing some of the suggestions above may be sufficient to eliminate most minor eating problems. When serious concerns or worries persist, however, contact your family physician or your child’s pediatrician.

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