Mealtime Success

Child eating meal

Feeding your child is about much more than food. It is a time to show your child that they are important, loved and respected. Feeding your child well takes practice and effort.

What is normal for your "learning" eater?

Most young children are picky about different foods. Their appetites vary from meal to meal and they may only eat one or two foods from what is offered at mealtime.

Their likes and dislikes will change often and they rarely eat a new food the first time they see it. Children need to ‘learn’ about foods and tastes in order to accept them. Some children learn more easily than others.

How do I get my child to eat what I make for them?

Be realistic. Your child will likely not eat everything you prepare or the amount of food you think they should eat. Think beyond a single meal.

Nutritious meals and snacks give children several chances every day to eat a variety of foods. If your child eats only a little or nothing at one meal, try not to worry. Children will make up for it at other meals and snacks to get what they need for good health over time.

Children will eat best when parents and children each follow their roles in feeding.

As a parent or caregiver, your role is to:

  • Offer a variety of foods at meals and snacks. Make one family meal and try to include at least one food your child likes at mealtimes.
  • Have regular times for meals and snacks. Offer three meals and two to three snacks each day. When children eat at set times, they are more likely to come to the table hungry.
  • Eat together at the table and make mealtimes social and enjoyable. Children are more likely to eat a variety of foods when they eat with others.

Trust your child to decide:

  • Which foods to eat. Let your child select which foods to put on their plates from the foods you offer at mealtime.
  • How much to eat. Trust your child to decide how much or how little to eat at mealtimes. Children know when they are hungry and when they are full.

Ten Tips for Mealtime Success

1. Provide a meal or snack every two to three hours

Young children need three meals and two to three snacks each day. Offer only water between set meal and snack times so that your child comes to the table hungry and interested in eating. Children who snack too often during the day do not have the chance to feel hungry enough for a meal.

2. Seat your child at the table for meals and snacks without TV or toys

Television, toys and phones get in the way of eating and family social time. The television can distract children from eating and can cause your child to overeat. Check out EatRight Ontario to learn how family meals with no TV can help your child's health

3. Offer small portions of food

Children have small stomachs and fill up quickly. Large portions of food can overwhelm or frustrate children and may make them less likely to eat. Use small plates and offer your child less food than you think they will eat. Let your child ask for more if they are hungry.

4. Limit milk and juice

Children who fill up on milk and juice during or between meals may not be hungry at meal and snack times. If you choose to offer juice, give no more than half a cup (125 ml), once per day at a meal or snack and limit milk to no more than three cups (750 ml) per day at meals and snacks. Offer your child water when they are thirsty.

5. Allow your child to say "no thank you" or "more please" at meals and snacks

Children feel when they are hungry and when they are full better than many adults do. If you do not make a big fuss about whether or not they are eating, your child will learn to trust their feelings of hunger and fullness and everyone will be more likely to enjoy mealtime.

6. Let your child put food on their plate

It is common for parents and caregivers to put food on a child's plate for them, but it is better to let children learn by serving themselves. This allows your child to decide what goes on their plate giving them independence. Children will also learn how to handle utensils and to choose foods for themselves.

7. Let your child leave the table when they are full

Children who are full will lose interest in food and stop eating. Keeping your child at the table will not make them eat more. Expect some food to be left on your child's plate.

8. Keep mealtime free of pressure

Patience works better than pressure. Pressuring children to eat may cause them to eat less. It also teaches them to let others tell them how much to eat instead of trusting their tummies.

Pressure comes in many forms...both positive and negative. Positive pressure can seem like good parenting and can be hard to detect. For instance, saying things like "be a good girl and eat your broccoli" is a form of pressure. It may actually increase your child's dislike for that food.

Negative pressure such as forcing or bribing is also harmful. It can take the enjoyment out of eating and may lead to eating disorders. If your child does not want to eat a specific food, just let it go and try again another day. When children are hungry they will eat.

9. Be patient with new foods

New foods can be scary for young children. A new food can be a food they haven't seen before or a familiar food prepared in a different way or prepared by someone they don't know.

The more often children see others eating a new food, the more likely they are to try it. Avoid pressuring, bribing, nagging or game playing to get your child to eat a new food. Instead, offer it in a casual way and allow your child the choice to put it on their plate or not.

When it comes to vegetables, it's best not to hide them. Instead, help your child learn to like vegetables by letting them help prepare vegetables and talking about what they look like, how they feel and how they taste.

Children are more likely to enjoy new foods when eating them is their own choice. Let them explore the food (see, feel and smell the food) without pressure to try it. Visit EatRight Ontario for more tips on helping children to learn to like new foods.

10. Eat together as a family whenever possible

Children learn from watching you. Your child will be more willing to try a variety of foods if they see you enjoying nutritious foods.

Meals are also a time to connect with your child and other family members. Meals are a time to relax, tell stories and catch up on the day's ups and downs, while developing a sense of who you are as a family.

Children as well as adults want to enjoy mealtime without conflict, arguing or other unpleasantness. Check out The Family Dinner Project for family meal ideas.

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