Healthy eating and your child’s appetite
Children’s appetites can change from day to day. These changes are usually nothing to worry about.
Sometimes your child might want to eat a lot. That’s fine. Just make sure that you fill up your child with healthy food.
Other times your child might not want to eat as much. That’s OK too. If your child doesn’t want to eat, they’ll probably make up for it at the next meal or even the next day. It’s best not to force things or offer other foods as rewards, because this teaches children not to listen to their appetites.
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. If your child is growing and developing well, they’re 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 tend to do what they see you doing.
‘Tummy talk’ and healthy eating
Understanding the way your child’s tummy ‘talks’ to their brain can help you deal with worries about your child undereating or overeating.
For example, your child’s brain realises their tummy is full only about 20 minutes after the food hits their tummy. Also, your child’s hunger is partly determined by how physically active they’ve been and whether they need to ‘catch up’ if they haven’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.
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 your child’s 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 your child 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 their appetite.
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. One small snack between regular mealtimes is usually plenty as an energy top-up, unless your child has been very active. If your child has too many snacks or the snacks are too big, your child can feel too full before a main meal.
- Avoid offering your child an alternative if they don’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 for their growth and development. 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 plenty of healthy, nutritious options, and leave the sometimes food on the supermarket shelves.
- Try to choose fruit and vegetables of different colours, textures and tastes. The more variety there is, the more likely it is your child will find something that they’re interested in eating.
- Get your child involved in planning and preparing meals. If your child has helped to make the meal, they’re 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.