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Lifecoach: My son won’t finish his meals

Our experts answer your questions

My son is four and a half, healthy on the whole, but very skinny. It’s hard work to get him to finish meals – he loses interest halfway through. He prefers snacks such as fruit and biscuits, and drinks plenty of milk (full fat). He is very active and up early (6.30am) each day. How can I get him to eat more proper food? Or is this just normal for a little boy? AM, Kent


Variations on the theme of “picky eating” are common in childhood – up to one in five children show this type of behaviour, which usually starts in the preschool years. Most grow out of it, especially when the experiences of school start to take effect, but others remain fussy for years.

Studies looking at the long term outcome on growth and development are however reassuring – it doesn’t seem to matter most of the time. A child’s appetite will sort out their calorie needs and if they have access to a range of foods their choice will usually expand naturally with time. There is no harm in having a few rules in relation to meal times and choice of foods, but it does no good for mealtimes to become battles of will.

Avoid making food choice the focus of a meal. Encourage it instead as a social occasion that the family enjoy together. Punishments and rewards are often counterproductive and, in the long run, unnecessary. It’s more than likely that your son is getting all he needs so, relax, let him get on with it and you will almost certainly see him grow as fast as the “healthy eater” down the road.

Periods of disinterest in food and eating are common among young children. Although this can be a worry for parents, as good nutrition is so important for children’s growth and development, it isn’t often a sign of an eating problem. Most children grow out of this stage and grow normally, developing more balanced eating habits and better appetites.

So if your son is healthy and growing normally, don’t panic. If you become anxious at mealtimes, your son will pick up on the tension and it could make things worse.

Young children need to eat frequently to sustain their high energy levels, and as a general rule they should have three meals and two well spaced snacks. If his appetite is poor, he may be easily overwhelmed by large portions. So provide small portions of nutrient-dense foods (lean meat, fish, chicken, dairy products, eggs), alongside some starchy carbohydrate (rice, pasta, potatoes), and fruit and vegetables.

Avoid giving him too many bulky foods, such as brown pasta and rice or wholemeal bread, as these are high in fibre and may fill him up too quickly. Offer healthy snacks for extra energy and nutrients such as yogurts (full fat will provide more calories), cheese and crackers, sandwiches, pitta bread and hummus or dried fruit. Avoid giving him snacks and drinks close to mealtimes (keep to an hour or two before) as this will reduce his appetite.

And don’t be tempted to plead with him or bribe him to eat his meals, as this rarely works, nor insist that he clears everything on his plate. Children need to learn to listen to their own satiety cues (their body telling them when they are full).

Involving your son in shopping, preparing or presenting food and serving food in new ways (such as fun shapes) will make meal times more enjoyable. Also avoid distractions such as television or toys at the table.

Your son’s eating habits are unlikely to change overnight, but if he is hungry when he sits down to his meals and meal times themselves are more fun, you should find his interest in food improves gradually.


Since your child is healthy on the whole, and seemingly not classified as underweight, there seems little cause for alarm. If he was very underweight then investigations which looks out for infections, food allergies, endocrine, intestinal, lung, and liver function could be beneficial.

These days a child’s BMI would be taken into account, too, and should include not just weight, and height, but gender and age. The parents’ body types would also be considered. Some children are skinny and are perfectly fine that way. Your son must have plenty of energy since you advise that he is very active.

Since he seems to be developing cognitively as expected then, perhaps, this skinny state you report is his normal being at that age. There are probably not that many very young children who eat a balanced diet every single day but a majority who manage this feat over a period of a week.

If you are particularly eager, however, for your son to have proper food then you may be interested in investigating Shannon Pappert’s “Food in a Flash: Boddler Bites” flashcard system, which aims to not only give young children good food, but also teaches them about it.

Some parents are of the opinion that young children like to eat their meals in sections. Their instinct is to eat some, go off and investigate something, and return as and when they want more. Expecting children of a young age to stay put and eat a whole meal is not what such minded people think will happen.

You mention that your child drinks full-fat milk. There was an interesting study on some eight-year-old Swedish children carried out by the dietitian Susanne Eriksson of the department of paediatrics at the Institute of Clinical Sciences. It found, rather surprisingly, that the eight-year-old children who drink full-fat milk every day had a lower BMI than those who seldom drink milk. This was not the case for children who often drank medium-fat or low-fat milk. This couldn’t be fully explained, but it was suggested it may be that children who drink full-fat milk tend also to eat other things that affect their weight.

My son was quite skinny, and in the lower regions of the weight percentile, when he was a baby and a toddler. He had a known, quite rare, condition which explained this. Despite that, with some excellent medical care, he is now close to a 6ft tall teenager of decent weight who regularly eats us out of house and home.

Sensitive scalp

I’m 27. Last summer I developed seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp and I’m having trouble getting rid of it. My scalp often feels like it’s crawling, and can be sore.

Combined with this is the fact that I have been suffering excessive hair loss for almost a year, coinciding with when I stopped taking the pill, Femodene, for two months. I estimate I’ve lost about a third of my hair in the past year and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. I imagine my dermatitis is contributing to the hair fall.

I take zinc, biotin and iron supplements, and treat the dermatitis with TA 0.1 per cent Milk Lotion (a steroid), as well as Nizoral two per cent shampoo, which controls the irritation.

I’m trying to cut sugar from my diet, which I read feeds the dermatitis, but otherwise eat healthily and exercise.

Any advice on how to control the hair loss and dermatitis?


Femodene is a contraceptive pill, the most commonly used type, which all contain both oestrogen and progestogen. Stopping oestrogen therapy has long been recognised to sometimes trigger hair loss in women, but this effect is temporary unless you have underlying low natural oestrogen levels.

Until your scalp is returned to health it is very difficult to blame any other cause for the hair loss, but combined pills can increase oily secretions and so your pill could be helping to keep the scalp dermatitis going.

Fungal infection is one of the background reasons why seborrheic dermatitis happens and, although this ought to be controlled by the Nizoral, there may be secondary infection, needing antibiotic treatment.

A complicated picture therefore, and I suggest you see a dermatologist and get an opinion on what’s going on exactly with your scalp. Perhaps you should also consider a switch to the “mini-pill”, which contains no oestrogen.

Dietary sugar has no effect on dermatitis by the way, but people with poorly controlled diabetes have an increased tendency to skin infections.

Foreman’s form

What do you think of George Foreman grills? Are they as healthy a way to cook as they claim to be?


Grilling is a healthy cooking method as you don’t need to add extra oil and it allows fat to drip out of the food into the pan.

Foods cooked this way will therefore have less fat and calories than when fried. Eating less fat can also help lower blood cholesterol levels. Grilling vegetables can help to preserve their vitamin content as some vitamins are lost during boiling.

This is true of all grills, the main benefit of portable ones is their speed and convenience.


If only all fruits were equal

The proverbial apple a day may keep the doctor away but it now appears the optimistic claim no longer holds that five daily portions of fruit and vegetables provide the key to a long and healthy life. More specifically, as Dr Tim Key of Oxford University put it last year after reviewing “all the evidence”: “In well nourished Western populations, a general increase in fruit and vegetable intake will not have a large impact on cancer rates.”

There is a paradox here. The apple, potato, pear and so on each generates up to 200 chemicals whose composition is what gives it its colour, taste and texture. And some of these phytonutrients can be shown in laboratories to have definite “anti cancer activity”.

There are, suggests a review in Nature, several reasons why these phytonutrients might not “translate” into reducing the risk of cancer. First, “all vegetables are not created equal” with the more potent phytonutrients being concentrated in the pungent (onions and garlic), the bitter (greens) or those foods that tend to be an acquired taste such as mushrooms.

Next, “all forms of broccoli are not created equal”, where depending on variety, growing conditions and time of year, the concentration of the protective phytonutrient can vary twentyfold. Then there is availability – anthocyanins in raspberries, for example, are only available for a month or so a year.

The solution, it would seem, is to genetically engineer a popular food such as the tomato so that it will naturally produce, say, sufficient amounts of anthocyanins. It is tantalising to suppose that a variety of foods might have substantial health promoting properties, but it seems there is still some way to go before this becomes a realistic prospect.

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