How to handle Preschool Children's Eating Problems ~By Kathy Lai King Lam  

When a child reaches six months old, she/he can start  to eat solid food.  It is common to hear parents of preschool age children (3 years old & under) to complain that their children have different kinds of eating problems.

Common Eating Problems

Preschool children common eating problems include:  difficulty sitting still and eating quietly until finishing a meal, dropping food on the floor, picky eater, playing with the food, refusing to eat on their own, eating very slow, temper tantrums,  playing with toys, mobile phones etc while eating.

Common Reasons

  1. Parents/Caregivers have little knowledge about the characteristics of children at different ages, so that they may have unrealistic expectations on them:

    1. Preschool children’s attention span time is relatively short(usually less than 10 minutes), easy to be distracted. If the meal time is long, they feel bored and want to walk around. Also , preschool children of this age will be full of curiosity and like to explore different things by touching. It is difficult to make them sit still for a long time.

    2. Preschool children have food preferences, like adults. As long as a child has a balanced diet, willing to eat different types of food, parents/caregivers should not force them to eat the food they dislike.

    3. Normal preschool children’ s appetite may not be the same everyday.  Maybe today a child can eat half a bowl of rice, tomorrow he/she wants to eat one third bowl of rice only and feels full. No need to force a child to eat all the amount of food you provide as this may make the child feel that eating is unpleasant experience.

  2. Parents do not set up regular eating habit for their children.
    Some parents let the children eat whenever they want. This results in the children eating more snacks, and then they have no appetite to eat at dinner time. It is difficult for this kind of family to set up regular eating habits for their kids. Some parents/caregivers give the children toys or electronic products to play while eating, in  the hope that  the children will not walk around when eating. Some want the children to eat faster, so they feed the children to speed things up even though the child is capable of feeding themselves. These result in giving the children extra attentio and reinforce inappropriate eating behaviors.

How to prevent /solve eating problems of preschool children

  1. Prepare the children for the meal time.

    If the children enjoy playing games and activities, they will feel very disappointed if they need to stop playing immediately. The chance that they do not cooperate is high. To minimize both the parents/caregivers and the children’s frustration, we can prepare the child by saying, "Jason, play this game for one more time, then go, wash  hands and eat." Or " Maria, you can play three more minutes, then go to wash hands and have dinner." This helps the children to cooperate with us better.


  2. Let the children eat the amount they can eat.

    The amount of the food for the preschool children should be based on how much they can eat, NOT how much the parents/caregiver wants them to eat. Tell the children that if the food is not enough, they can take the initiative to ask for more. No matter the children can finish eating all the food or not, they should know clearly that they will not be given any snacks before next meal.


  3. Set rules for the children during meal time

    Clear rules will increase the chance of having a smooth mealtime. Here are some good rules to consider:

    1. Don't leave your seat when eating,

    2. No playing with toys/ mobile phone/ tablet/ any electronic products while eating.(Because it will only distract the children, extend their eating time. of course, adults have to set a good model ourselves),

    3. Don't play with food,

    4. Don't waste food (???)

    5. Feed yourself


  1. Tips

    1. Use a timer. If a child has a minor problem, for example: eating too slowly, we can set a count down timer and remind him/her that the meal time will end when the timer gets to zero. He/she should finish the food within the time limit.  Before the next meal, we will not give the child any food and snacks.

    2. Deliberately ignore some behavior: Some children like to do little tricks to attract the attention of parents/caregivers. Some children feel curious of their surroundings when eating outside and want to look around. In these cases the best thing to do is to deliberately ignore the behavior. Sometimes giving a child too much attention will encourage them to do more improper behavior.

  2. Reward and Consequences

    1. Rewards help the children to follow the rules and eat better. For example, if the
      children sit and eat properly, they can enjoy a snack after dinner, or let the children  enjoy 10 minutes more play time in the park. Also, praise the children for the good behaviour as it will encourage them to be more willing to comply with the meal rules. Also let the children know the consequences of non-compliance.


    1. Punishment or Consequences: help children cultivate good habits and learn to obey the rules. If a child ignores the warning of adults, continues to do improper behavior, or breaks the rules,  then they need to experience some negative consequences so that they will learn to take responsibility for their own actions.

      For example, if a child has tantrums or throws food on the floor, we can bring the child to  a corner, tell him that he violated a meal rule and will be subject to a consequence. There are many ways to punish a child including: make a child sit in the corner for two minutes before they can continue to eat together; cancel play time in the park, etc. If the child admits the misbehaviour, or says "sorry", we should accept and forgive them. We can praise them, "I appreciate that you admit and are willing to correct from your mistake, you are a good boy."


Meal times for small children do not need to become a "contest of wills" and misbehavior does not need to be resolved by physical punishment or shouting. If you follow these practical steps of relaxing your expectations about what and how much a child needs to eat, setting some basic rules along with rewards and consequences then meal time can be an enjoyable experience. The stress level at home will go down and life will improve for the children, the parents and the caregivers.


Kathy Lam is the Client Relationship Manager or Arrow Employment Services, registered nurse, Family Life Coach of I Care Family, a mother of 3 girls.