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Problems with eating

It can be a great worry if your child refuses to eat or is terribly choosy, but it is extremely rare for a child to actually starve him or herself. Children will eat enough to keep them going. So try not to worry unless your child is clearly not gaining weight as he or she should, or is obviously unwell.

It may be that your child is picking up your own feelings about food. Perhaps you’re a dieter or have a weight problem, or maybe you just see healthy eating as a very important goal. If your child is picking up on your anxiety it may be that mealtimes have become an ideal time to get attention.

Just as anxiety may cause problems with toilet training, it can also create problems with eating. So try to take a step back and think about how much of a problem there really is.

Refusing to eat, or eating very little

As long as your child eats some food from each of the five food groups – even if it’s always the same old favourites – you shouldn’t have to worry. Gradually offer other food choices. Or why not go back to the foods your child didn’t like earlier and try them again? Remember, if your child is active and gaining weight, he or she is probably getting enough to eat however little it appears to you.

Tips for success

  • Offer your child the same food you’re giving your family, and eat your meals together if possible.
  • Give smaller portions and praise your child for eating even a little.
  • If your child rejects the food, don’t force-feed him or her. Remove the food without comment.
  • Don’t leave meals until your child is too hungry or tired.
  • Don’t use sweet food as a reward for finishing savouries. To a child this might be saying, ‘Here’s something nice after eating those nasty greens’. Reward them with a trip to the park or watching a video instead.
  • Limit in-between-meal snacks to, for example, a milk drink and a small cracker with a slice of cheese.
  • Your child knows that refusing to eat will annoy you, so try to stay calm. Eating with your child and eating the same foods will help to encourage good eating habits.
  • If your child fills up with juice or squash between meals and refuses milk or a snack, try gradually reducing the amount, diluting the drink well with water, and offer a small amount of food first. Sometimes too, children mistake thirst for hunger and say they are thirsty when really they are hungry.
  • Try to make mealtimes enjoyable and not just about eating. Sit down and have a chat about other things.


  • If you know of any other children of the same age who are good eaters, ask them to tea. A good example sometimes works, so long as you don’t go on about how good the other children are.
  • Ask another adult, whom your child likes, to eat with you. Sometimes a child will eat for say a grandparent without any fuss. 
  • It may only be for one meal but it can break the habit.
  • Your child may just be a naturally slow eater, so lots of patience will be needed.
  • Children’s tastes change. One day they’ll hate something, a month later they’ll love it. There will nearly always be enough that your child is willing to eat for some variety (say beans, fish fingers and fruit, potatoes and milk to drink). It may be boring, but it’s perfectly healthy.

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.