How young children learn about food and eating

It is important that toddlers see parents eating and enjoying healthy food - are you a good role model for your child?
It is normal for young children to be wary about eating a food they have not met before and these are ways to help them.
  • Offer the food in a happy environment. Children tend to like foods that they associate with fun. (This is why fast food outlets can become so popular.)
  • Keep offering the food on several occasions. It can take 8 to 15 tries before the food becomes familiar and a child accepts it.
  • Children are more likely to try a food when they see the rest of the family or other children enjoy it.
  • dontít insist that the food is eaten and dontít offer a reward for eating it. Both of these measures have been shown to make children dislike that food.
  • Children are more likely to want a food if they are told they canít have it or if it is used as a reward.
Children have the natural ability to know how much food they need and they do not usually overeat. However they can easily lose this skill. If children are pushed to eat more than they want or encouraged to finish everything on the plate, they may learn not to stop when they have had enough. This can lead to weight problems later.
Remember Ė it is the parent's job to provide the food. It is the childís job to decide whether, what and how much to eat.

Encouraging toddlers to eat
Children have small stomachs - about the size of their fist, and large serves can be off-putting.
  • Provide a range of nutritious food and offer children a choice.
  • It is better not to have unhealthy snack foods (especially snacks like biscuits, soft drinks and sweets) in the house. This will prevent toddlers being tempted.
  • Avoid cordials and too much fruit juice as these are high in sugar and take away the appetite for other foods.
  • dont't fill a child up on milk or fruit juice just before a meal.
  • Allow children to help prepare the meal. It takes longer but encourages interest in the food.
  • Keep mealtime serves of food small and allow children to ask for more. Remove uneaten food without comment.
  • dontít use dessert as a bribe to eat the rest of the meal. This makes dessert too special. If you do have desserts make sure they are nutritious such as fruit or milk puddings. Give small serves.
  • For a treat you can sometimes make the meal into a picture such as a potato face with pieces of vegetable for the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Having a friend over for a meal often encourages the toddler to eat.
  • Sometimes vary where you serve the food. For example at your toddlerís own table in the playhouse, or a picnic in the garden or serve a meal where the food is put on plates in the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves to what they want.
  • Sometimes it is possible for toddlers to help grow vegetables in a window box or small area of the garden.
  • Give your toddler the main part of her evening meal early (around 4.30pm) so she is not too tired to eat. She can still have a small portion of the meal with the family later if you like to eat together.
  • A cold meal such as meat, bread and fruit or salad is nutritious. Raw grated vegetables are just as healthy as cooked. Or you could freeze part of the evening meal from the day before and reheat it for your toddler.
  • Do not ever try to force a toddler to eat. It can cause choking and make the child dislike the food. Adults would not like to be forced to eat food that they dontít like.
  • Keep a relaxed eating environment and leave the eating up to your toddler.
Note: Learning to feed themselves is often a messy business for toddlers. If you dont't like mess, put newspaper on the floor and a big feeder or bib on your toddler. The more practice they get in doing it for themselves, the quicker they will learn to feed themselves well.

  • Healthy children will not starve if they have access to a balance of nutritious food.
  • Children, like adults, enjoy choosing what they eat and how much (within reason).
  • Itís the parentís job to provide the food - itís the child's job to decide whether, what and how much to eat.
  • If you dontít have unhealthy snack foods and soft drinks in the house, your child will not fill up on them and it will be cheaper too.
  • Young children have small stomachs. They need to eat less, and more often.
  • dont't try to force your children to eat or punish them for not eating.
  • dont't let mealtimes become a battlefield. Food is to be enjoyed.
  • If you find mealtimes very stressful with your toddler you might need to try a different approach.