Healthy eating and your child’s appetite

You might worry about whether your child is eating enough. Or you might be worried that your child is eating too much and above a healthy weight.

As a parent you give your child healthy food and opportunities to eat it. It’s up to your child to decide how much to eat – or whether to eat at all.

It’s normal for children’s appetites to change from day to day. Sometimes your child might want to eat a lot – just make sure that you fill him up with healthy food. Other times he might not want to eat. Try not to worry, because he’ll probably make up for it at the next meal or even the next day.

If your child doesn’t want to eat, try not to force her or offer food rewards. Forcing her to eat teaches her not to listen to her appetite.

If your child is growing and developing well, he’s probably getting enough to eat.

The most powerful way to send healthy food messages to your children is by letting them see you make healthy eating choices every day. Children will want to do what they see you doing.

‘Tummy talk’ and healthy eating

Understanding the way your child’s tummy ‘talks’ to her brain can help you deal with worries about your child undereating or overeating.

For example, your child’s brain realises his tummy is full only about 20 minutes after the food hits his tummy. Also, your child’s hunger is partly determined by how physically active he’s been and whether he needs to ‘catch up’ if he hasn’t eaten a lot over the last couple of days.

Offering meals and snacks at regular times encourages a better appetite at mealtimes. Regular meals and snacks can be part of a healthy eating routine.

Overeating

If you’re concerned that your child has a tendency to overeat, here are some things to try:

  • Offer a slightly smaller portion of food. If your child finishes it, you can offer a small second helping. This gives your child’s brain and tummy a chance to catch up.
  • If your child doesn’t eat part of the meal – for example, the vegies – this is her choice. It isn’t a good idea to offer extra serves of other food – for example, meat – to make up for missing vegies.
  • Serve your child’s food on a smaller plate. This way he gets the right-sized portion but still gets a ‘full plate’ of food.
  • Avoid distractions like TV or toys during mealtimes. This will help your child focus on her appetite.

Undereating

If you feel your child doesn’t eat enough at mealtimes or doesn’t have an appetite, you could try the following strategies:

  • Offer food around the same times each day. If children eat at regular mealtimes, they’re more likely to be hungry at that time of day.
  • Encourage your child to eat more at mealtimes by making sure you serve small amounts at snack times. Your child needs small regular healthy snacks for energy top-ups, but if there are too many snacks or they’re too big, they can fill him up before a main meal.
  • Avoid offering your child an alternative if she doesn’t eat a meal. Your child might just have a small appetite at the moment.

If you’re worried about your child’s growth or eating habits, make an appointment to see a GP, paediatrician or dietitian.

Healthy eating and food messages for your child

Healthy eating habits start at home.

Giving your child healthy nutritious foods is important. It also helps to surround your child with messages about healthy eating habits and food. This can help your child make healthy food choices.

Here are some ideas:

  • Try to have a bowl full of fresh fruit within easy view and reach on the kitchen table or bench. You can offer fruit as a snack or if your child is still hungry after meals.
  • Stock your pantry and fridge with lots of healthy, nutritious options, and leave the sometimes food on the supermarket shelves.
  • Try to choose fruit and vegies of different colours, textures and tastes – the more variety there is, the more likely it is your child will find something that he’s interested in eating.
  • Get your child involved in planning and preparing meals. If your child has helped to make the meal, she’s more likely to eat it.
  • Enjoy healthy meals together as a family as often as possible. Also look for opportunities to eat together at breakfast and on weekends.
  • Turn the TV off while eating. This way your child is paying attention to eating and the fresh healthy food choices you offer.
  • Read books that have healthy food messages for your child – for example, books with pictures of fruits and vegetables. Get your child to point out different types, colours, shapes and so on.

Keep healthy snacks handy at home – and try to avoid buying unhealthy ones. Children will take the healthy option if it’s the only one they have. For example, you could have a bowl of fresh fruit on the bench and a container of vegie sticks in the fridge.

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