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Healthy eating habits for children

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Teaching your children good eating habits and how to make the right food choices will set them up for a healthy relationship with food as they grow up.
  • Make mealtimes friendly and relaxed so eating is a positive experience for your child.
  • Some young children often seem to eat very little food, but as long as they're growing and gaining weight, there's probably no need to worry.
  • Children learn from their parents, so try to maintain a positive attitude to food and meals yourself.
  • If you are worried about your child's growth or weight — or mealtimes are causing stress, seek advice from your doctor or a dietitian.

Mealtimes: setting the scene

Mealtime is the perfect opportunity for children to learn good eating behaviours, and about nutritious foods.

Mealtimes allow the family to come together. Make mealtimes friendly and relaxed so eating is a positive experience for your child. Having meals at regular, predictable times of day will help them learn to regulate their appetite.

Kids often love helping in the kitchen. You can help them build a healthy interest in, and enjoyment of, food by involving them in:

  • planning meals
  • choosing ingredients
  • setting the table
  • washing vegetables for salad

Before a meal, pack away toys, turn off the TV or computer, and set the table together. Where possible, sit with your child, eat the same food and encourage them to at least taste all the foods on offer.

You can encourage good habits like using a knife and fork, but don't stress about the mess. While you should calmly discourage your child from throwing or spitting food, meals should be as relaxed and pleasant as possible.

Allow kids to serve themselves

Serving food to children and then forcing them to eat everything on their plate can set them up for unhealthy eating habits later in life. It is often better to place a variety of healthy foods on the table and allow toddlers, in particular, to choose what to eat. This encourages them to try new foods and understand how much to eat to feel full.

When offering snacks, provide kids with just a couple of simple, healthy choices. You could say, for example, “Would you like an apple or a banana?” rather than, “What would you like to eat?” This makes your child feel in control of what they eat, without giving them the option of an unhealthy choice — or too many options, which can overwhelm many children.

How can I monitor my kids' eating?

Young children typically need 3 meals a day and 2 to 3 healthy snacks. It's a good idea not to let your child snack constantly throughout the day (known as 'grazing').

Some young children seem to eat very little food. But as long as they're growing and gaining weight, there's probably no need to worry. If they don't eat much at one meal, they will probably make up for it another time.

As a parent, you can provide your children with healthy food at the right times and you don't need to force your child to eat. Only your child knows whether they are hungry and how much they want to eat. You should never punish or criticise your child for not finishing what's on their plate.

To create a healthy relationship with food, never give food as a reward or deny food as a punishment, as this doesn't teach children to listen to their appetite.

Limit (but don't ban) unhealthy foods

It's important for children to eat a variety of nutritious foods every day, and to limit their intake of foods and drinks that contain too much saturated fat, salt or added sugar.

However, try not to call foods 'good' or 'bad'. Better terms are 'everyday foods' (healthy) and 'party' or 'sometimes foods' (less healthy foods). This helps children to understand how all foods fit into a balanced diet.

If you're worried your child is eating too much unhealthy food, focus on ensuring they eat the right-sized portions. Make sure that healthy food is easily available to them. If your child chooses not to eat their veggies, for example, don't offer them a less healthy alternative.

Children learn from their parents. Try not to discuss dieting or restricting any foods (including healthy foods) in front of your child and try not to skip meals yourself.

When should I seek help about my child’s eating habits?

Parents often worry that their children are fussy eaters, that they aren’t eating enough fruit and vegetables, that they are eating too little, or that they are living with overweight. Try not to worry — especially if your kids are growing normally and are within a healthy weight range.

Seek help if:

You can talk to your child health nurse, doctor, paediatrician or a dietitian.

To find a health professional near you, use the healthdirect service finder.

Resources and support

For more information about encouraging healthy eating habits in your children, visit the following websites:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023

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Need more information?

Helping kids to become great eaters | Nutrition Australia

Getting young children to eat nutritious meals can be challenging – but it's not impossible. Try these tips for helping kids to become great eaters.

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Vegetables: encouraging kids to eat vegies | Raising Children Network

Vegetables give children energy and can protect them against chronic diseases. Our tips can help you encourage children to eat 2-4½ serves of vegies each day.

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Fun, enjoyable and simple ideas to encourage healthy eating habits in your children.

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Packing healthy lunches for children | Raising Children Network

A healthy lunch gives kids energy to play, concentrate and learn. With our healthy lunch ideas, your child’s lunch box options will be nutritious and tasty!

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Healthy eating habits for children | Raising Children Network

Healthy eating habits for kids include healthy food and opportunities to eat it. Healthy eating routines and messages can help with overeating or undereating.

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Fussy eating in toddlers and children

Fussy eating in children is normal but it can be a battle at mealtimes. Here are some tips to help curb fussy eating and encourage good eating habits.

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Healthy Eating Pyramid | Nutrition Australia

Learn more about the layers of Healthy Eating Pyramid.

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LiveLighter - Healthy Family Meals & Activities

Use LiveLighter for Families to develop healthy habits to help your family reach Australian standard guidelines for physical activity and nutrition. Find out more here.

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Encourage healthy eating habits for kids by shopping healthy and planning meals to minimise temper tantrums at the dinner table and keep fussy eaters happy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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