Feast or famine:
What is safe eating for young people?
These questions relate to a young person's food choices, eating patterns and attitudes towards nutrition.
Have you noticed any of the following?
A change in eating pattern, such as skipping meals
Eating alone, eating secretly, or having 'rituals' around food or meal times
Avoiding family meals or eating with others
Hiding, or secretly throwing away uneaten food
Leaving the table during a meal and avoiding finishing their food
Frequently reporting to have eaten elsewhere, or being dishonest about their eating
Limiting the variety of foods eaten
Eating according to strict food rules, such as no carbohydrates, or no sugar
Suddenly becoming vegetarian or vegan
Development of food 'intolerances'
A strong preference for 'diet' or 'low fat' products
Frequently talking about losing weight, or making comments about being 'fat'
Displaying a high level of concern about the calorie content of food
A strong focus on what others are eating, interest in cooking or interest in cookbooks without actually eating
Evidence of over eating (large amounts of food disappearing from household, hidden wrappers and packaging)
Finding it hard to stop eating once they have started
A history of 'picky' eating
Rigidity around food preparation and eating such as cutting food into tiny pieces, or 'hovering' in the kitchen whilst others are cooking
Anxiety, irritability, anger and hostility at mealtimes

Key Messages

Maintaining a regular eating pattern is protective against eating and body image problems in young people.

Young people need to eat more than you might think in order to support their growth and development.

Eating well is about more than just the type of food we eat. Eating well also means eating for enjoyment, meeting physical needs and connecting socially over meals.

What should young people be eating?

Young people need a substantial amount of food in order to support their growth and development. Children and adolescents need to be gaining weight during this time as they grow.

Eating well includes aspects like knowing how to obtain food, prepare food and the ability to recognise the balance of food groups required to achieve and/or sustain optimal health and wellbeing.

Being able to enjoy food in the company of other people is a significant part of eating well.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating is when a young person changes their pattern of eating, usually because they feel unhappy with some aspect of their body weight/ shape/ appearance. It may include:

  • The pattern of eating becoming increasingly irregular or inflexible. It can include dieting, fasting or skipping meals.
  • Restricting the amount or variety of food eaten, such as eliminating food groups or rigid food choices. 
  • Overeating and experiencing a loss of control during eating, also known as binge-eating.
  • Resorting to extreme weight loss behaviours, such as fad diets, excessive exercise, vomiting or using laxatives.

It is very concerning if these behaviours persist for any longer than a few weeks. If young people are also avoiding social or family situations that involve food, parents have good reason to become more worried and suspect something is wrong. In this situation, parents need to respond quickly to intervene, providing guidance and coaching the young person to re-establish a regular eating pattern and to stop any extreme weight control behaviours. RAVES may be a useful tool to assist in this process. RAVES can be located in the FYI Toolkit.


"Feed your child, no matter how much your child wants to resist. Resistance is to be expected, as well as a constant denial that anything is wrong"

-Parent of a young person with an eating disorder.


Shape and size

If a young person experiences teasing about their shape and size, it is important to be clear that this is a bullying problem (not a problem of the young person's size or shape) and respond accordingly. It can be helpful to encourage young people to recognise and challenge bullying about shape or size.

In addition, schools, sporting groups and the wider community may encourage or provide messaging around the percieved 'ideal' body shape and size. 

Some young people are more sensitive to negative comments and social messages than others. Young people who tend to feel anxious or strive to be 'perfect' may be especially affected by comments about their shape and size. This in turn, affects their thinking and attitudes about eating, health, shape or size.


Key Actions

If eating patterns have been disturbed over a number of weeks, parents need to take a firm stance, increase their vigilance and closely monitor their child's meals and snacks. Parents may find it helpful to keep a log of what and how much food their child is eating. The FYI Food and Behaviour Log can be located in the FYI Toolkit. 


If you have noticed your child displaying some warning signs of disordered eating:

  • Coach them back into healthy behaviours, such as re-establishing regular meals and snacks.
  • Support and encourage them to eat a wide range of foods and challenge any 'rules' they may have developed about their eating.
  • Make family meals enjoyable and establish a clear expectation that the family needs to prioritise spending time together.


Support your child to identify and challenge any weight related comments from others (regardless of your child's shape and size).

Related Videos
What is disordered eating
What to look for