The toddler and preschooler years are a good time to establish healthy eating habits for life. However, getting children to eat healthy foods can be challenging because they are often picky eaters, are hesitant to try new foods, and in general they do not appear to eat very much.
As children grow older:
- they become more independent
- they develop food likes and dislikes
- they want to choose their own foods
- they usually go through phases where they refuse to eat certain foods and this is normal
- their appetite vary on a daily basis
- changes in their activity level and/or growth spurts lead to changes in the amount of food that they eat
Let your child decide:
- Offer a variety of foods
- Use Canada’s Food Guide to plan a variety of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks
- Make food interesting and fun – provide food in different shapes, textures and colours. For example green peas, orange carrots, yellow pineapples and red berries.
- Give finger foods such as sandwiches, cut-up fruit and vegetables with dip.
- Offer a new food with familiar foods especially when your child is hungry.
- Offer new foods regularly with no pressure to eat them. It may take up to 15 times for your child to like a food. Start with small amounts to limit waste.
- Choose fish that are low in mercury – Some fish contain high levels of mercury. The Guide to Eating Fish for Women, Children and Families provides clear advice about eating fish.
- Offer foods that will help keep your child’s teeth healthy – Bacteria in the mouth mix with sugar in food and form an acid. This acid causes tooth decay. The longer the acids are in the mouth, the greater the chance of tooth decay. There are foods that you can offer that can help keep your child’s teeth healthy.
- Set regular times for meals and snacks
- Have meals and snacks at the same time daily- children like routine. Leaving space between eating allows your child to have an appetite for the next meal or snack. If they are always eating they may be full when you are expecting them to eat.
- Offer 3 meals and 2 – 3 snacks daily.
- Offer child-sized portions and use child-sized plates, cups and utensils.
- Limit sweets and snack foods (chocolate, candy, chips etc.).
- Limit or avoid sweet beverages like juice.
- Limit milk to no more than 3 cups per day since it may replace other important foods.
- Offer water to satisfy thirst in between meals.
- Supervise your child when they are eating – Parents and caregivers should always supervise the child while they are eating. Offer age appropriate foods to prevent choking. The child should be sitting upright, not be lying down, walking, running or distracted from the task of safe eating. Eating in a moving vehicle is considered unsafe. If choking should occur, it is difficult to attend to the young child while driving.
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment
- When you want to reward your child, give them hugs and kisses. These are much more valuable than candy, and are calorie-free.
- Punishment will not allow children to follow their hunger and satiety cues, and may lead to negative attitudes about eating and poor eating habits.
- Do not force feed – Respect your child’s appetite and follow their hunger and fullness cues. Allow the child to guide feeding.
- Make mealtimes enjoyable – Mealtime environment is important to support healthy eating habits:
- Eat meals together as a family.
- Be a good role model – eat well yourself and eat a variety of foods. Parents, siblings, peers and other family members are all role models for your child.
- Avoid distractions at mealtime – turn off the TV and remove toys. Allow your child to focus on what their tummy is telling them.
- Let children leave the table when they are full. Preschoolers may not be able to sit at the table for a long time.
- Involve your child in meal planning, grocery shopping and preparing the meal.
- Remember that learning to eat can be messy. Do not have expectations that are too high about mealtime behaviours and table manners for the age of your child. Your child may not enjoy mealtimes if rules are too strict.
For more information
For more articles about Healthy Eating, please check out our Resources section.
This information was provided by Toronto Public Health. Information provided on the FoodReach website does not replace any advice given by a doctor and does not provide all of the necessary information regarding your health, nutrition and preventing illnesses.