- 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
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 are worried about your child's growth or weight
- they seem very tired
- they aren't eating at all
- mealtimes are causing stress
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:
- Eatforhealth.gov.au for advice about the amount and kinds of foods that we need to eat for health and wellbeing.
- Dietitians Australia for diet and nutrition health advice.
- The Royal Children’s Hospital for healthy eating and play for kindergarten children (3 to 5 years).
- Queensland Government’s guide to 7 dinnertime habits to improve your child’s health.
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Last reviewed: June 2023