Written by Doctor G

Won’t eat breakfast

I know breakfast is the most important meal of the day but try telling my 5 year old that. It is nearly impossible to get her to eat more than two bites in the morning. What do I do?

M in Squirrel Hill, PA

A: If only this were just a “little kid” issue. I can’t begin to tell you how many adults in my practice who are trying to make healthier choices about eating struggle with this same problem. Some people (myself included) just aren’t hungry in the morning! And teenagers? Most teenagers would never give up 5 minutes of sleep on a school day for something as trivial as breakfast. Never mind that they have sports practice, 2 tests this morning and a meeting at lunch.

If the problem is hunger: If your child (or yourself) just isn’t hungry first thing in the morning you have 2 choices.

1. Alter what they drink. Most of us are thirsty in the morning. So you can give a tasty, healthy shake to drink instead of water or milk or juice. Tailor this drink to the individual – if they need more calories it can have more fat, if they need the energy punch but are watching calories, add protein. The food industry recognizes this issue and has breakfast drink mixes (I often use Carnation Instant Breakfast) that fit lots of different situations. If you are really motivated and home-made-ish, recipes online and a blender plus a little taste-testing should do it.

2. Make sure they have an opportunity to eat 2-3 hours after waking up. For little kids this is pretty easy – they are often up at the butt-crack of dawn to begin with. Letting them wait a few hours to eat breakfast just makes your life easier. For families who have to leave the house early or for children who sleep right up until the very last minute, look into high-protein or high-calorie snacks and a time in their schedule they can eat them. Most of us don’t enjoy the sensation of “starving” before lunch, so recognize that this is your child’s pattern and be creative in your solution.

If the problem is habit: Some people don’t like “breakfast” foods. There is no rule that what you or your child eats for breakfast has to be on a “breakfast” menu somewhere. At our house left-over Chinese food is a favorite breakfast. As long as you are nutritionally comfortable, this can look more like dinner. Many other countries (outside of Europe) eat a rice and salad type meal in the morning and a much smaller meal at the end of the day. This is a very healthy habit.

If the problem is autonomy: Some kids wake up grouchy and choose breakfast as their battle ground. Our children know (from a very young age) that we can’t make them eat. If “You must eat” is your party line, they can “win.” At certain ages and for certain personalities, winning is more important than hunger. So be creative. For younger kids, have them make a “table service menu” the night before, putting the 3 most common breakfast foods and drinks on the menu and then let them check their selection and leave it on the table. Get older kids involved in menu planning and shopping, even cooking. If each person age 8 and older in your house has to take turns getting up a little early and prepare breakfast, this may shake it up enough for them. Give kids a “to go” option for breakfast if they can explain when and where they will eat what they have taken.

Remember that solving this problem (slowly, creatively) teaches an important life lesson. Often adults find that their inherent nature and a healthy behavior are at odds. Setting the example that there are lots of different solutions to be tried helps children be more versatile when faced with this later in life.

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