Your Child’s Appetite Has Changed: When to Worry

Health & Wellness |


Child Not Eating Web

How can you tell whether it’s just a normal part of growing up or cause for concern?

Content originally published on Jan. 3, 2017 and last updated Nov. 28, 2023

Like you, your child experiences natural ebbs and flows in their appetite. One day, they’re scarfing down everything in sight, the next they’re barely making a dent in dinner. But how can you tell whether it’s just a normal part of growing up or cause for concern? Dr. Alyssa Swick, pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health, offers advice for how to approach your child’s shifting appetite.

When your child has a decreased appetite or “picky” eating

It can be difficult to watch your child push food around on the plate and barely put any into their mouth, but keep in mind there are several possible reasons for a temporary decline in appetite. Illness, congestion and constipation can play a role.

“If they’re not eating, I usually tell families that we expect children to eat fewer solid foods when they’re feeling sick,” Dr. Swick said. “The important thing is making sure they’re drinking enough fluids and having at least three voids (urinations) per day and staying hydrated. It’s okay if kids have several days of not eating well during an illness.”

Developmental milestones can also play a role in a less-than-ravenous appetite. When babies begin walking or running, for example, they often prefer playing and moving around to sitting down and eating. Some children will eat less every time they experience a developmental leap, especially in the toddler years. “Sometimes toddlers avoid meal times as a way to assert their independence and be in control of their diet,” Dr. Swick added.

To encourage your child to eat more at mealtime, Dr. Swick suggests the following:

  • Be sure to include a small portion of at least one thing you can reasonably expect your child to eat at meal time.
  • Keep offering foods they don’t prefer. “It takes 12 to 17 tastes of a food for a child to develop a preference for that food, so persistence with healthy, less preferable choices is important,” Dr. Swick said.
  • Ensure all members of the family are seated at the table for the entire meal. “We know that family meal time reduces things like risks of depression and obesity, and just one meal a day together improves overall quality of life for children and increases their chances of graduating high school,” Dr. Swick said. “It’s also a great opportunity for older kids to talk about their day and check in on how they’re doing academically and socially. It helps you stay connected as a family.”
  • Keep books, toys and other distractions away from the table so everyone can focus on the meal.
  • Be clear on meal and snack times, even if your kid chooses to skip. Offer three meals a day and two healthy snacks, depending on your child’s age. “As long as you have a scheduled meal time, and your child knows when the next opportunity to eat is, it’s ok for them to choose not to participate in everything that you offer at a certain meal time,” Dr. Swick said. “But you shouldn’t offer additional food outside of those scheduled meals and healthy snacks.”

In general, try to make meal time an enjoyable event, and not one your child dreads.

“As parents, it’s your job to offer healthy balanced food, and it’s your child job to decide what they’re hungry for and what goes into their belly,” Dr. Swick said. “We recommend focusing on making meal times pleasurable, rather than a high-pressure experience. As long as your child is growing appropriately and staying hydrated, it’s okay for you to offer the food and let your child choose what goes into their body.”

When your child has an increased appetite

A growth spurt could be why your kid is asking for seconds lately. These bursts of height or weight (or both) can make children extra hungry and crankier than normal.

If your child’s appetite has increased, a good rule of thumb is to focus on offering healthy choices like fruits, vegetables and healthy fats and proteins instead of offering processed snacks and junk food. While it’s normal for a child to eat more during certain periods of growth, it’s important to make sure parents are offering nourishing choices to build healthy habits and development.

“If you feel your child’s appetite has increased exponentially, beyond what you expect to be normal, talk to your pediatrician to make sure there aren’t other, more worrisome causes,” Dr. Swick said. “And any time you notice rapid weight gain, it’s time to talk to your primary care physician.”

When to call the pediatrician

Of course, sometimes a change in appetite is a sign of something more serious. Call your pediatrician if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain with eating
  • Weight loss or poor weight gain
  • Concerns for hydration, such as a child who is peeing fewer than three times a day
  • Vomiting, shortness of breath, coughing, facial swelling or rash after eating. These could be signs of an allergic reaction.

Learn more about the value of family dinners by exploring the available research.

A. Paredes and K. Shelnutt, Raising Healthy Children: The Importance of Family Meals (FCS8925), Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (06/2010).

J. Lyttle and E. Baugh, The Importance of Family Dinners (FCS2286), Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (Archived).

Related Doctor

Alyssa D. Swick, MD

Alyssa D. Swick, MD