Child Nutrition 

But What If My Child Won't Eat?

Health Concerns

There is no doubt that nutritious eating is associated with good health. And since we would all like to see our children grow up to be healthy adults, we are concerned about our children's eating habits. Early eating behavior often doesn't measure up to our idea of good nutrition, however. Young children usually limit their diets to those few foods with which they are familiar. This limits the variety necessary to obtain adequate amounts of the 40+ nutrients needed for health. Also, children eat in response to hunger cues; if they don't feel hungry, they may not be motivated to eat.

Parental Responsibility

What should parents do about this? The answer is hard for a parent to accept - essentially, nothing. Children will eat when they are hungry, and will not starve themselves. They eat more during growth spurts, which can last varying lengths of time. This is why a child's calorie intake can change drastically from month-to-month, or even day-to-day.

Of course, parents must be sure that when children do eat, the foods are nutritious. So while children determine how much they eat, it is the responsibility of their parents to determine what they eat, and how it is prepared.

We must, however, be sure that children do nothing to blunt their hunger prior to mealtime. "Grazing" - continual, unsupervised snacking - can provide just enough calories to stave off hunger and prevent the consumption of healthier foods at mealtime. Fluids can quickly fill a small tummy, so drinking close to meals should be moderated. Healthy snacks should be eaten at least an hour-and-a-half prior to meals.

Children cannot be forced to eat. Attempting to do so can start a battle that parents have no chance of winning. Even if a child can be coerced in some way to eat at the moment, it may create resentments and negative attitudes toward eating that can lead to unhealthy future outcomes. For example, telling a child he or she must eat vegetables before having desert make vegetables "the bad guy" and desert is glamorized as "the reward". A negative association is created with vegetables, and deserts are something viewed in a positive light, because they are used as rewards. Forbidding foods also makes them more attractive. Human nature dictates that things are more appealing if they are restricted, especially among children. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, as long as moderation is applied.

Choose the proper setting for meals and snacks. Distractions that compete for the child’s attention should be avoided or limited whenever possible. Have meals and snacks away from the television; veggies can rarely compete with a favorite TV show. Ditto with other activities. Make sure your child is not eating where other kids can be seen playing. The desire to join the fun and games may convince a child that he or she is no longer hungry.

Your Child’s Diet will Improve

Children's tastes expand and mature as they get older, and they will gradually add more and more variety to their diets. Parents can encourage this by introducing new foods regularly. In doing this, however, parents must show patience. Children will not eat foods that are unfamiliar, and it often takes ten to twelve presentations before a child becomes familiar enough with the new food to taste it. Parents also need to be flexible, as tastes frequently change. For example, one week peas may be the only vegetable that is acceptable. The next week peas are out, but corn and broccoli are in. Try to serve whatever vegetables are presently favored, to assure some degree of consumption. Giving a children's vitamin with the Recommended Dietary Intake is a way to assure adequate basic nutrient intake until the diet can do so.

“Home Alone” (Latch Key Kids)

Over the years societal changes have impacted family dynamics appreciably. Unlike the past, now both parents often hold jobs requiring their presence beyond the end of the school day. This means that when children get home from school and want a snack, they are responsible for preparing it themselves. So how can parents be assured that their children will prepare snacks with at least some nutritionally redeeming qualities?

Educating and Training Your Child

The more your child knows about foods and food preparation, the better the chances that he or she will be able, and inclined, to have a snack that is more involved (and more nutritious) than opening up a pack of potato chips and doughnuts and washing them down with a soda. Teaching the safe operation of kitchen equipment and utensils (appropriate for age and ability) will greatly enhance the scope of what can potentially be prepared. Knowing relatively simple tasks such as how to heat foods in the microwave or blend fruits, juices, yogurt, low-fat milk, etc. into tasty, nutritious smoothies creates an almost infinite variety of healthy snack choices. Other basic skills include how to properly wash, peel, chop, and slice various food items.

One of the most important things that can be taught is how to avoid illness from improper food preparation. Teaching the value of hand washing, cleaning cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination, proper defrosting techniques, and cooking times and temperatures provides essential food safety knowledge to your child. You can then rest easier knowing your child is not likely to throw a raw egg into the blender as is fashionable among many athletes who are ignorant of the dangers of salmonella food poisoning.

Parental Planning and Preparation

In anticipation of your child’s culinary debut you may wish to provide some planning assistance. Getting things off to a good start will increase the probability of success. Also, you will be demonstrating to your child that proper eating is important and warrants the time and effort to be done correctly. While it is important, though, try not to portray it as just another task that has to be done. Approach it as a fun project- an adventure, if you will. The spirit in which things are presented usually dictates how they are accepted.

Go to the store with your child and shop for easy-to-prepare, nutritious items that appeal to him or her. Choose items that will be practical to prepare and eat for a late afternoon snack (and dinner, if there are times when you may not make it home in time). Freezer sections are stocked with microwaveable dinners or single entrees. Many of the entree-only choices, such as the pocket-type sandwiches, can be consumed as a snack. Careful label reading will reveal the choices that are nutrient-rich, but not so plentiful in the fat, sodium, and cholesterol categories.

Take this opportunity to teach smart shopping. Compare items according to cost per unit of weight, nutrient quality, freshness (e.g. expiration dates), etc. Choose produce for ripeness according to color, texture, and firmness; and explore all the varieties available. Explain how to purchase amounts required for the number of snacks/meals needed, as well as the necessity of staying within a monetary budget.

A little preparation can save plenty of time and effort. Pre-prepare food items and refrigerate or freeze as necessary in single-serving packets. This makes it easier to prepare after a grueling day filled with tests, reports, and all those new-fangled math problems. And mom and dad, this is your opportunity to prolong the modicum of control that you exert over your child’s dietary lifestyle.

Preparation Tips

Preparation is relatively simple and, contingent on age, could be taught to your child:

  • Chop vegetables into the size of small meatballs. Saute in a nonstick pan with vegetable oil spray. Mix in with spaghetti sauce, heat, and serve over spaghetti. The vegetables have the consistency of meatballs, and the sauce hides the taste.
  • Finely chop broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, onion, pepper, mushrooms, etc. Use as ingredients in an omelet. (Use egg whites for the omelette, if you wish to avoid the fat and cholesterol from the yolk.)
  • “Protein Punch” sandwich: Fry two egg whites in a nonstick pan with vegetable spray (cook both sides until firm and solid white); place one ounce of fat-free lunch meat on the egg whites, then melt a slice of low-fat or fat-free cheese over the egg whites and meat; put on toast (or nontoasted bread) to make a sandwich; top with a slice or two of tomato. This makes a low-fat sandwich that is nutrient-rich, especially in protein and calcium. (I often recommend this to athletes who need a little extra protein.)
  • Clean carrot and celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets, or fresh squash slices. Put them in the refrigerator in a bowl of water to prevent dehydration. Have some low-fat or fat-free salad dressing available (most kids like Ranch) to dip the veggies, or fill the celery stalks with fat-free cream cheese or peanut butter (raisins optional).
  • Have blender ingredients handy to create tasty, nutritious shakes. Limited only by personal preference, most anything can be used - fresh fruit, fruit juices, low-fat milk, yogurt, low-fat ice cream, cereal, peanut butter, and different flavorings such as vanilla or almond extract. Ice can be added for additional fluid and to make it nice and cold.
  • Blend fruit and pour into popsicle molds. This tasty, portable snack provides the fiber from fruit, as well as the juice.
  • Prepare a bowl of fruit salad or slices and refrigerate. Have bananas handy so they can be added whenever a portion is taken for consumption. Soak apple slices in orange or lemon juice, as the citric acid will prevent oxidative browning.

There are a zillion ways to prepare healthy, appealing, and quick and easy meals and snacks; the only limit is your imagination. Make healthy snacks as easy and appealing as chips, cookies, and sodas, and you may find that they compete quite well. And your child may actually become proud of the fact that he prepares his own snacks, rather than merely opening a pack of cupcakes.

Influences That Shape Your Child’s

Nutritional Habits

Children learn from and are influenced by the things they encounter while growing up. This is why we as parents attempt to exert a certain modicum of control over the things in which our children are exposed. We know that they will soon be making their own choices, and we want to establish a good foundation of knowledge and common sense from which to make them.


It is estimated that by the time a child has reached puberty, she will have seen about 100,000 food commercials on television alone, approximately 90% of them for items high in fat, cholesterol, or sodium. No wonder the shelves of supermarkets are stocked full of popular foodstuffs, such as cereals, that are so loaded with sugar that they should rightfully be placed in the candy aisle.

How can we combat the millions of dollars spent on sophisticated ad campaigns targeted specifically at our children? One thing we can do is spend time with our children on “their turf.” This allows parents to experience various phenomena, including advertisements, with them. Parents can explain, on a level at which their child is capable, the psychology behind advertising. They can equip their children to see though the persuasive attempts to sell a product via celebrity or some appealing situational scene that has nothing to do with the quality of the product. In essence, parents can teach how to separate and evaluate the meaningful information from the “hype.”

To carry this one step further, couple healthy eating with fun activities and events. Pack a healthy, tasty lunch to eat on picnics and hikes, have juice and low-fat flavored yogurt as a snack when your child works up an appetite from playing with friends, or create pictures on his plate with the many different shapes and sizes of foods. This is “fighting fire with fire” - using the same basic psychological principles that advertisers use but, in this instance, to develop a positive association with healthy foods.


As parents we have first crack at influencing our children and need to take advantage of it, because it won’t last long. Before we realize it, our children will be spending time away from home and subject to many new influences. When this occurs, we want them to have a good knowledge base from which to make important lifestyle decisions.

Speaking about outcomes important to our children, not us, will give us a much better chance at success. For example, teaching how nutritious choices not only lead to good health, but enhance appearance, energy, and physical performance, will help assure that our children listen to and retain what we impart. They will then be more likely to make better choices after our influence wanes.

Establishing an environment that encourages healthy lifestyles and provides the opportunity to manifest them is important. Our teachings about nutrition will be to no avail if we make chips, sodas, candy, etc. readily available for snacks, while keeping fruits and vegetables hidden away in the bottom of the refrigerator. Regularly frequenting fast food establishments and purchasing cheeseburgers, french fries, and sodas after extolling the virtues of healthy, low-fat eating gives mixed messages that negate our efforts and confuse our children. Probably the biggest threat to our nutrition nurturing is our own actions. A major learning modality of children is imitation. Being the most significant figures in our children’s lives, we are the role models whose lifestyles are most emulated by them. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to “practice what we preach.”


Entering school is the first major step toward increased independence for children. They will now begin spending more time away from home, and be subjected to many new influences. The school environment imposes a major influence in the child’s life. Unfortunately, the school’s influence is often not what we might desire in regard to healthy eating. While on the one hand teaching nutrition and health in the classroom, many schools create an environment that is the antithesis of these teachings. Vending machines flourish in the hallways, usually offering very little in the way of healthy choices. Soda machines are ubiquitous, while juice machines are nowhere to be found. This means that children couldn’t choose healthy snacks even if they wanted to do so (and believe it or not, many want to).

School food service is commonly supported by funds raised from sales. Therefore, cafeterias offer items they know will be good sellers such as cheeseburgers, french fries, and pizza. Some school cafeterias have an alternate choice or a salad line, but frequently there is little effort to make these very appetizing or even healthy.

Fund raising has become synonymous with candy. Check out educational and PTA conferences that invite exhibitors, and you’ll see that many are candy wholesalers. To raise money, schools regularly promote the sales of candy to the public by students. This has been such a longstanding tradition among schools universally that it had been rarely questioned. Recently, though, many parents, teachers, and health professionals have begun to wonder why healthy alternatives cannot be used for this purpose.

Major supermarkets are usually amenable to establishing a relationship with schools whereby educational tours can be conducted, and produce can be purchased at greatly discounted prices for special promotions. Doing this would show children that schools “really mean what they say” in nutrition and health classes.