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HELP! My Child Won’t Eat Anything! What Can I Do?

Having children who are picky eaters can be a frustrating ordeal for parents. Luckily for us, Dr. David is back to the rescue! This is something he sees every day in his clinic as it seems to be a common problem in Dubai. But don’t worry – Dr. David has some useful strategies to help you feel less worried about your little one’s diet.

If your child’s eating habits is a sore topic in your household, then you’re not alone. It’s a common complaint parents bring up when I see them. Almost always, my first question to the parent is “who prepares your plate of food at dinner time”? We know what the answer is, but this highlights a fundamental issue with children and eating. When a parent prepares a plate of food for the child, they are making a huge assumption (or guess) how hungry that child is - but how do you know? You don’t, and children are like adults and only eat if they are hungry.

The second question I ask is “at mealtimes if there is a fight with your child, who wins?”. Again, we know that answer, the child! If someone (anyone, child or adult) isn’t hungry they won’t eat, so first rule is NEVER have a battle. Mealtimes need to be sociable and fun, no distractions, with an appropriate time to eat TOGETHER. I have worked as a pediatrician for over 20 years and almost all cases of “picky eaters” are children who are otherwise healthy, active and growing normally. If this sounds like your child, then please don’t worry but check with your doctor that this is the case. Then consider the following tips:

Respect your child’s appetite – or lack of one

Your child’s appetite will vary during the day and day to day. Don’t force a meal or snack or bribe a child with anything like an iPad. Mealtimes are for eating only, and ensuring the best environment for a child to feel most comfortable to eat. There should be no stress or your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to their own hunger and fullness cues. If you’re not hungry and you then sit in front of a large plate of food, you feel even less hungry. Who in Dubai goes to a brunch not hungry?! Provide small portions or even an empty plate as they sit down, and have the food on the table to encourage choice and give them the opportunity to independently ask for more. On the table, have something you know they like and ask them to try something new with gentle encouragement.

Reduce the milk in children over 1 years old

In Dubai there continues to be the misconception that children need to drink formula after the child is older than 1 year. In certain circumstances, yes, if there are underlying health reasons, but for the majority of children, there is no need for formula, especially if they aren’t underweight. A common problem why children don’t eat is because they are filling up on milk instead. In this case, it’s important to cut bottles during the day, live with the short-term pain of crying and upset as eventually the child will start eating food once they realize that that’s their only option to suppress hunger pains. At the very least, try to change mealtimes to when your child has had a period of no milk and give them food on an empty stomach. Avoid offering milk as this will keep your child expecting that milk will come. The best way is to reduce your child’s milk intake. At nighttime, a bottle is ok before sleep but once they are eating better, that can even be changed to normal supermarket cow’s milk.

Keep mealtimes family-orientated as much as you can

Children eat better with other people around them. It’s common to hear that children eat better at nursery which frustrates parents, but at nursery mealtimes are sociable with no battles. If your child is spending the day with the nanny, get your child to eat when she eats. Try and eat as a family as much as possible and don’t become dependent on screen time or TV. Mealtimes are for eating and socializing and when everyone is finished, mealtime is over – so don’t eat too fast either. If you give up and then use the iPad or TV, at the end, the child will get used to that. After a reasonable time, take away the plate and offer water or a snack but the child will learn, I promise.

Keep it healthy but then set a good example

Children copy their parents so if you want your child to eat a healthy, varied diet you need to as well. It’s much better to share your food at mealtimes with your children and not focus on a few foods. New foods will need repeated offering over many days, but with gentle encouragement and patience, it will work. Why not take your child shopping and let them choose some foods, or read books about foods and serve the same ones alongside reading them? Make the effort from an early age as diverse diets for children reduces allergy and obesity.

Use your little helper to prepare the meal

Get your child involved with the food prep. It’s more interesting to eat something you have prepared yourself (well sometimes ). Even if on some occasions your child just plays with the food, that’s ok, they will enjoy themselves. Even if they then don’t eat it, be patient and keep offering it.

Eating needs to be fun for all the family. Be patient, lower expectations but do get your children checked by a doctor to confirm their growth is good. Often parents feel their children are underweight and are worried they can see their ribs. This is likely to be normal in a child who’s healthy and active. If you are worried about vitamin intake, I always suggest a daily multivitamin to reduce the stress of getting them eating fruit. And removing stress is something we all need to do right now.

Need to see a pediatrician? Reach out to Dr. David here if you want to book a consultation or call 800 1999