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My Seven-Year-Old Won't Eat!

My Seven-Year-Old Won't Eat!

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Dear Rachel,

My seven year-old son won't eat. He's as thin as a stick and the only thing that I can get him to eat is spaghetti. I'm worried that he's not receiving enough vitamins and minerals and that he is too picky of an eater. Do you have any ideas?

Thanks,
Estie

Dear Estie,

You sound to me like the classical, concerned Jewish mother and I'm sure that there are thousands of mothers out there with the same concerns as they tell their children, "Es my kint (eat my child)". For some reason, it seems to be that mothers are always worrying about their children getting enough to eat (and something new that was never heard a few decades ago-about eating too much). I've been there too, sitting with my child, trying to coerce him to take, "one more bite of chicken." While coercion might achieve short –term goals, i.e. you got your child to eat two bites of chicken, it certainly isn't going to achieve long-term goals-having your child like and eat chicken when he grows older.

The more a parent pushes, the more the child pulls. It's the nature of life. If I keep telling my child to "eat, eat, eat" the child is not going to eat and if I tell the child, "stop eating so much, that's enough" the child is going to find ways to sneak food and eat even more than he would otherwise. So how do we do it? How does one achieve short-term and long-term goals?

First-know what your obligation is as a parent:

A parent's obligation is to provide nutritious food for their child and to make sure it is available. If a child is hungry, they'll eat. (Also I would ask my pediatrician if the child is really under/overweight or if he is just too thin/heavy in my eyes. If the doctor is not worried, you shouldn't be either.) If you are not filling them with candy and snacks and they have no other choice I guarantee you that by the end of the day they'll eat something that you give them.

Remember as well that children have small stomachs! They might need to eat smaller amounts in more frequent sittings. Also sometimes kids are so active and are having a good time playing that they forget to eat. You can call them, have everyone sit down and say, "It's meal time now." No force, if someone is hungry they eat, if not, they don't, but this is what we are doing now, sitting at the table.

The issue then is not about the food, but about the activity. There are times to eat and times to play. On the other hand if you find your child overweight and eating all the time you can do the same. "It's playtime now, not time to eat. If you are hungry, let's sit at the table and eat." If the child is hungry, they need to eat. If they are eating too fast and want more, you can suggest, "Let's take a few minutes to digest and if you are still hungry I'll be glad to give you more." After a few minutes they might realize that they are full and again instead of making an issue about the food, the issue is about eating slowly and listening to your body's natural level of satiety.

Second-Educate:

If we force our children that they absolutely must eat their chicken and peas because we are worried about them receiving enough protein, I promise you they will hate them and it will be an ongoing battle. What you can do is teach your child about the importance of vitamins and minerals. At their age level explain what iron does for the body and why we need calcium. Explain to your child what sugar can do to their teeth and the advantage of eating whole grains.

I started explaining to my child even before he was three about trans fats, artificial coloring and preservatives, and the importance of fiber and whole-wheat. The same year he told his pre-school teacher who offered him a white flour pita that we only eat whole wheat bread because "it's healthy and we want to be strong". At five he comes home with treats from school and asks me, "Mommy, does this have trans fats?" If the answer is positive he himself throws it in the garbage. Educate your children so that they themselves can make wise decisions.

Third-Relax!

This was the hardest one for me, the Northern Californian organic granola hippie child. If your child receives treats from friends' birthday parties and from school, don't take them from him and say, "No, no, no, no!" You will get the reverse affect and make the treats even more desirable to the child.

I have one neighbor whose children ask other children to hide their treats for them so that they can eat them when the mother is not looking because she is so strict about sugar. While I would never encourage my children to eat junk food, as long as it's Kosher, I won't deny it to them either. I will go as far as to read them the ingredients (see above for educate) and I will offer them substitutes as an exchange. If they take it great, if not, I let them eat it. Nine times out of ten they don't even end up eating it and the junk goes into the garbage (where it belongs). I find that the more relaxed I am, the less they want it.

Of course if your child has an allergy or medical condition being relaxed doesn't apply and in that case you need to take the food away from the child.

Fourth-Choose your battles:

Like I said earlier, don't make issues about food; instead make issues about values . You just cooked a wonderful dinner and your child looks at it and says, "Yuck. I want spaghetti." Again, don't argue about the chicken and the peas, but you can teach your child about consideration for others and about being happy with what one has. Instead of forcing them to eat the dinner you can say, "Mommy worked hard to make a special dinner and this is what there is, if you are hungry, you can eat it and if not, then don't, but I can't make anything else."

You can teach your children the importance of saying a bracha (blessing) on the food before eating it, thereby elevating the food from a mundane item to a median for bringing more holiness into the world. Let them know that where the food comes from and that one should never take having food for granted. After eating ones says another blessing. Both blessings acknowledge our gratitude to G‑d for creating and giving us the food we eat. Another example of a lesson that they can learn-"We have an order in our home, first the main meal and then dessert." No mention of the food item, the value is not the food, but that in life there is an order to doing things.

Fifth-Involve them and be patient-they'll grow out of it:

Involve your children as much as possible in making meals. If they put in their own energy to make them, it will be more of an incentive for them to eat them. Have a child peel vegetables or make healthy zucchini or banana muffins. Let your children pick menus if that is reasonable and works well for you. If they want spaghetti for three weeks in a row, they won't die of malnutrition. Give them whole-wheat spaghetti with plain tomato sauce and know that after a few weeks they will be sick of it and want something else. You can try to throw some cheese on it and make it a complete meal. Supplement with a multi-vitamin if you are really worried and call it a day.

Sixth-Last but not least...Set an example!

Do your best to also eat healthily! Setting an example for your child is the best way to get the message across.

Bon Appetite!

Rachel

Dear Rachel is a bi-weekly column answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was responded to by Elana Mizrahi.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist and writer. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.

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Anonymous Lisbon Ohio May 10, 2017

I have a 7 yr old as well that don't like to eat at meals.Snacks and junk food he will devour but meals he can sit for an hr playing with his food..At times he will be chewing but has nothing in his mouth.At school he throws his food away.The school says they can encourage him to eat but cant make him.He is only 40lb.Drs.keep close watch on his weight and want me to up his protein intake but how can you do so if he wont eat the food.we tried pedisure which really interfered with eating cause then he wasn't hungry.I am at wits end.What do you suggest. Reply

Dawn Canada May 10, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

My son has always been a picky eater but it goes in and out of extremes. At most at one time he'll eat 10-12 different foods and down to 2 foods when it's really bad.
We've had a little bit of success with a sticker chart recently. Every meal (even if he only eats SOME of it - it's better than nothing) that he eats he gets a sticker and at 10 stickers he gets a small prize (I did in-game credits for a video game he likes). To try a bite of something new he gets 1 sticker and if he finishes it he gets 2 stickers. I usually stick with meals I know he has liked in the past such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, chicken & rice, homemade hamburgers. He started eating steak because he tried it for a sticker and liked it.
Cutting out the snacking and having dinner a little later than usual seems to help too.
My son eats everything completely plain (no sauces) and he doesn't mix foods.
School lunch is the hardest because he doesn't eat sandwiches so he ends up eating plain crackers, pretzels etc. Reply

Dawn Canada March 23, 2017

Kerrie - You are so right. I read these types of articles looking for some insight as to why my son will not eat. It's always the same type of people who have never dealt with a child with disordered eating or a sensory processing disorder. When I take my son to the grocery store I tell him to put anything and everything he wants in the cart but he never does. We are at the point where he will only eat one to two things. Doctors here don't take me seriously when I say he refuses to eat. He's 8 and it's only getting worse. Reply

Veronica laura-silver Walter GAYLORD March 6, 2017

My ten yr old daughter, currently living with her father, is giving him a tremendous amount of trouble eating. He is staying with this father and step mother who are from old school clean your plate time. She is a different child as it is and has always been a picky eater, but it Has become a power struggle and its breaking her down. He won't listen to my advice but says he's fed up...any suggestions? Reply

Kerrie February 27, 2017

Elana Mizrahi, you are not qualified at all to speak on this issue. Do you realize that there actually ARE children with undiagnosed medical problems for whom eating is difficult or near impossible? Additionally, sensory processing issues are real, and children with this issue will not just "eat when they are hungry." They will starve and become malnourished. This article just really ticked me off because it's full of the same useless advice that parents of struggling children hear all the time. Reply

Ashley Cape Town October 23, 2016

Fed Up!! Hi
My name is Ashley, i have an 8th year old boy refusing to eat what his suppose to eat. When he was an infant he drank breast milk until 4 years old and after that the saga began. He only eats french fries, noodles (mushroom flavour only) cerials (corn flakes, rice crispies). To school i only eat nutella bread and thats about it. We tried to sliwly introduce him to diffrent foods but he rejects. We left him to decide after speaking to him but he still wont eat other foods, we forced him but then he vomits the food out. We even tried bribing him numerous times but still nothing. Please advise or direct me for help. Reply

Sarah Masha West Bloomfield MI USA July 12, 2016

Anon in NC sounds to me like he is just being an annoying 7 year old.
Try to ignore it, or at least don't let him know how much he is yanking your chain.
If you have to go out in public maybe reward (bribe) him for not doing it at that meal. Arrange this with him in advance.
At least he is eating.
I remember trying to eat bread with the slice vertically. I just had to work out that it didn't fit that way myself. Reply

Anonymous n.c. July 12, 2016

my 7 yr. old grandson eats his food with an weird behavior. He eats a hamburger from the top down and he eats a hot dog from the middle and he held up a piece of steak and tried to eat the middle out. Should I be concerned or take him to a doctor.. Reply

Anonymous Massapequa March 28, 2016

This article does not hold truth to parents who really have this issue. My son is underweight, gets sick easily, falls asleep during the day bc he cannot get through his day. We had a feeding therapist for 2 years which did not help. Reply

cheryl pelletier Sandwich, MA March 19, 2016

Dear Mothers of Picky Eaters,
you are doing the best you can. It is not what you are doing or not doing (or cooking). Although some children go through a finicky phase, many children are seriously at nutritional risk and they with their family need some professional guidance to learn to eat more variety and volume of foods for optimal health and wellness.
follow your "MOTHER GUT". if your child is not growing well and not getting nutrients.........it is a problem. Make sure you get a second opinion with a feeding therapist, it can be a speech therapist or an occupational therapist who has specialized education in pediatric feeding therapy. you can get valuable ideas for home without having to go to weekly therapy. waiting will only make your frustration greater. The child may need further assessments with an allergist or a gastroenterologist to ensure that there are no other physical barriers to normal eating. talk to your pediatrician
Cheryl C. Pelletier, MS/CCC-SLP Reply

Anonymous February 21, 2016

This article is fine for regular kids but my son had a sensory processing issue from a young age. We were lucky enough to get and early intervention therapist skilled in sensory eating issues. The key was mixing things he likes with things he didn't even if it didn't make sense - strawberry jelly on chicken, ketchup on mash potatoes. This article helped me understand tremendously, I hope it helps you too! Since I can't post a link, look up this article with a google search with these key words: huffington post picky eating living with selective eating disorder The article is called "Is picky eating an eating disorder?" Reply

Anonymous gauteng January 28, 2016

My daughter is not eating most of the times at school. At home , she eats because we tell her to.
It is such a concern n for me because I feel she is not eating enough.

Please help Reply

Anonymous October 25, 2015

My child is 6years old he got choked on food and i can't get him to eat he cries when I try to get him to eat Reply

Frances Roth Uk October 21, 2015

Thank you for reminding me meal time is not a fight, it is easy to forget when your child has spent the past week being fussy. Reply

Traciy Curry-Reyes September 8, 2015

This was an excellent article. Thank you. Tonight is the first time that I am going to say no to my 7-year old son who is driving me crazy because he wants a different meal everyday. He just might go to bed hungry, but I refuse to cook two meals tonight. We'll see how it goes. Reply

Joe CO May 18, 2015

8yr old daughter....wouldn't eat My 8 year old daughter was / is having this thing where she is extremely picky when it comes to meal time. Some nights she eats no problems, and others she eats like a bird. She will blame it on "not liking" a certain part of the dinner. She is the oldest of our children so I decided to bring her shopping and have her pick out what we would eat for dinner. This way she couldn't blame it on not liking something because it was her creation. I kept it decent, no ice cream and things like that. But she picked a main dish and 2 sides for several nights of cooking. Also it made her feel more like the oldest having a special responsibility. Reply

Anonymous April 26, 2015

some good advice, some not so good As a parent of a picky eater a lot of what you say is wrong and flat out bad advice. It's old school. My mom says "if they're hungry, they'll eat." It's not true. Parents who do not have picky eaters -- shouldn't be writing advice on the Internet. My child is a super picky eater and there's some evidence it's genetic -- they have different tastebuds. My husband was a picky eater until the age of 15, he was anemic twice in his life because of it, and had a hard time outgrowing it. Several pediatricians would tell my child to eat. Well, the last one said that her percentages were down. I felt awful and totally panicked so I stopped following the "no stress, let it go, if they're hungry mantra" which is NO HELP AT ALL. I started convincing her to try things, basically negotiating with my child. The most important thing I did was offer a fortified drink. I kept a chart of meals. I monitored it closely. In just a little over a month -- she grew an inch!!! Reply

Jen April 14, 2015

It's so frustrating when people say, "If a child is hungry, they'll eat." My child will not eat when she is hungry! Some children have real eating issues and I'm so tired of hearing this "advice". Reply

Michael N Chin Savannah, Texas April 4, 2015

6year old won't eat It's good to see other parents struggling with their children eating. But at least your kids are EATING! What if a child doesn't want to eat at all or eats way less than he normally does? Not like the foods, he normally eats? I would love for my child to eat spaghetti all the time, pizza or mac and cheese. But hardly anything at all if not nothing at all is worse. Reply

Anonymous UK March 18, 2015

Fussy Eaters The trouble is that fussy eating covers a range of different eating patterns, from normal fussiness in young children to other children who have a genuine problem with eating, related to sensory sensitivity and child's need for predictibility. This is called Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Children who meet the ARFID criteria are very difficult to move on with food choices. Reply