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Ask an Expert: My daughter hardly eats. What can I do?

Q. It seems like my daughter hardly eats anything. She isn’t underweight, but I worry about her getting the nutrition she needs. Could I be feeding her too much? I thought growing kids needed to eat a lot of food.

A.  We often forget that our kids’ bellies are much smaller than ours. When we’re putting dinner on the plate or packing a lunch, we tend to over-serve, and then wonder why our children aren’t eating.

Most likely, they are truly filling up and letting you know when they’re full.  This is fine if what they’re filling up on is nutritious.  Or possibly your child may avoid the meal all together because the big plate of food is too overwhelming.

Now, we don’t want to give-in to finicky eaters who say they’re full because they don’t want to eat their salad.  We do, however, want to match portion sizes with age-appropriate appetites.

Knowing proper portion sizes is critical to breeding a child’s healthy relationship  to food. The child who is forced to eat everything on their plate, when the plate is as big as their dad’s, will learn to dread dinnertime and feel low self-esteem when you get into the fighting match.  Rather, use their hand as a guide for portion sizes, as seen in the video above.

But there’s more.

In order for those smaller portions to be worthwhile, and provide the nutrition and calories your child needs to grow and stay healthy, you need to focus on nutrient-dense foods.  I’ve made a list of these foods below.  These are the foods that, even with smaller servings, pack a nutritional wallop and satisfy most palates and appetites.

Remember, you don’t always need a lot of one thing – i.e. adding more pasta to the plate just to get in more calories.  Rather, serve little portions of the important things – i.e. a few grapes, a few tomatoes, a few bites of fish and a few bites of whole grain bread.

Here are just a few suggestions of Nutrient-Dense Foods to add to each meal and snack:

  • Spinach (add to pasta sauce or be brave and throw a handful into a fruit and protein smoothie)
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Baby carrots
  • Artichokes (kids love to eat these – don’t introduce them to the butter on their first try – they’ll most likely love the flavor without all the fat).
  • Blueberries
  • Red grapes
  • Cherries
  • Tangelos
  • Apples
  • Red, orange and yellow peppers – fine to use a touch of salad dressing as needed, but try something other than ranch – i.e. honey mustard.
  • Avocados (guacamole is a great snack – just mash and add some sea salt and/or a touch of salsa)
  • Edamame
  • Almond butter (or cashew, hazelnut or natural peanut butters)
  • Greek yogurt (plain, sweetened with your own touch of honey or a handful of berries)
  • Old-fashioned oatmeal (not instant)
  • Quinoa (keen-wa)
  • Kashi-brand cereals
  • Salmon
  • Tuna fish
  • Hummus
  • Black beans, lentil, or miso soups
  • Eggs
  • Tofu or tempeh

If you find that your family members can’t, don’t, or won’t get their seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables every day (which is now the recommended amount), please consider the The Children’s Health Study and contact me at juliehammerstein@gmail.com.

Have a wonderful week!

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