Children can be unpredictable when it comes to eating. It is common for their likes and dislikes to change day-to-day. Stay calm when your child seems to be acting “picky” such as refusing to eat or try certain foods. Being creative, staying patient and continuing to offer new foods without a fuss can help your child enjoy mealtimes and develop lifelong healthy eating habits.
Parents need to help their child learn how to eat while respecting when their child is hungry or full. The most important thing is that your child is growing well for their age.
Reasons Your Child Eats Less or Refuses Foods
- Growth: Children grow at different rates, there may be days where they eat more food than others.
- How they are feeling: They may be tired, upset, sick, or stressed.
- Distractions: They may rather play or watch TV.
- Pressure: If you are doing anything special to get your child to eat more, less or eat different foods you may be pressuring your child. Any kind of pressure does not work.
- Taste: They have a natural sensitivity to taste, smell, shape and texture. Or they may simply not like the food.
- They fear something new: Young children tend to be scared of new or unknown foods.
- Independence: Young children prefer feeding themselves and like to be able to choose what they eat. If pressured, they may refuse food to show their independence.
- For attention: Children may refuse food to gain their parents’ or caregivers’ attention.
- Role modelling: If a family member or another child refuses to eat a specific food, your child may copy or learn this behaviour.
- Drinking too much fluid: They may be filling up on milk or juice and may not be interested in eating.
- Food allergies/intolerance: Some children may have serious food allergies, intolerances, or medical problems affecting their senses, such as their sense of taste. This can cause discomfort or illness with certain foods and this is different from simply refusing to eat. If this is a concern, it is important to seek medical advice.
How to Build Healthy Habits
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.
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.
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.
Remember the Roles of the “Feeding” Relationship
- What foods to offer
- When to offer meals and snacks
- Where your child will eat
Let your child decide:
- How much to eat
- Whether or not they will eat
For more information
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.