How do you know if your child is eating enough or if they are eating too much

Parents often worry that their children eat too little or too much, that they eat too many foods that are unhealthy and too few food that are nutritious. Some parents believe that their children live on fresh air and fun and wonder how they seem to burst with so much vitality every day.

These concerns can cause stress levels to climb, particularly at mealtimes, when a young child appears to be hiding more in her lap than what reaches her stomach. It is important to know that a decrease in the rate of growth during the second year of age is usual. If your child is generally healthy and growing, and developing normally, then you can be assured that she is probably eating enough. Continue to provide a range of healthy foods with a few choices at each mealtime to avoid turning meals into food fights.

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Is it normal for a child to eat a lot one day and very little the next?

Most young children eat different quantities of food from one day to the next. It is unlikely that they will consume all of the major food groups in a single day. This is a normal pattern for children of this age who eat small quantities. A variety of foods eaten over several days will satisfy your child’s nutritional requirements. Looking at your child’s food intake (and its nutritional value) over a period of a few days or a week can be more valuable than focusing on each day individually.

Should you monitor what your child eats?

Being aware of and understanding your child’s eating patterns involves looking at the ‘what, when, where, how and how much’ questions relating to his current eating habits.

Observe his food and fluid intake during the day and night, if you are concerned that he is not eating enough (or is eating too much), try using a food diary to get an accurate picture of his eating and drinking patterns. You could use a diary format like the one below to jot down every bite that passes her mouth. Use one page each day over a seven day period. Preferably do this without his knowledge as it may increase his awareness of your concerns and thereby contribute to a negative attitude towards food (in the same way as bickering and badgering him might). In addition to food intake, the diary might also reveal:

  • Your child’s preferred eating and drinking times
  • His favourite food and drinks
  • His daily and weekly fluid intake
  • If it shows your child is eating enough, you can relax. You can also ask a professional to give you this reassurance if you still have doubts.

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What if your child is not eating enough? 

If you can see that his intake is definitely not sufficient then you will need to find out why. Ask these questions:

  • Is my child too tired to eat?
  • Is she unwell?
  • Does my child like this food?
  • How much have I offered?
  • Is it served up in an appealing way?
  • Is this his usual eating time?
  • Is it his preferred eating time?
  • Have there been any changes in the family routine?
  • Has your child been more active than usual?
  • Is my child’s eating pattern different in different environments e.g. school vs home vs granny?

Answering these questions might result in simple solutions, such as offering meals at an earlier time, increasing your child’s outdoor playtime before meals or making food look more appealing. Grandma or grandpa might also be able to help by jotting down their observations when your child is visiting.

Kath is a clinical dietitian with special interest in paediatrics. Her private national and international practice is not only built on assisting her little patients with their nutritional needs but also offering support to moms and dads. She is a regular speaker at baby and toddler seminars, runs workshops on infant and childhood nutrition, writes for leading publications and she is a respected author in her field. Kath sits on three international boards including the European board for feeding premature infants.