Mealtime is important for children for various reasons including to provide nourishment, nurture positive feeding relationships and healthy behaviours, model healthy attitudes about food and to establish healthy food choices as the norm.
Children generally go through phases with food where their food likes and dislikes change from day-to-day and this is normal. Some children though, are not willing to try a new food or only want to eat familiar foods from a selective group of food or may be fussy about eating. So what can you do about this? Stay calm. Being creative, staying patient and continuing to offer new foods without making eating an issue, can help your child enjoy mealtimes and develop lifelong healthy eating habits.
If children are healthy and growing well for their age, there may be no need for concern. If, however, you are concerned with how much food they are eating and how well they are growing for their age, talk with your health care provider.
You may be wondering about the reasons why your child is not willing to try a new food or only want to eat familiar foods from a selective group of food.
Remember the Roles of the “Feeding” Relationship
- What foods and drinks 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
- Let them follow their hunger and fullness cues
Reasons Your Child May Eats Less or Refuses Foods
- Your child’s appetite is affected by how fast they are growing. Children grow at different rates and this affects how much food they eat. If they are going through a growth spurt, then they will eat more food. If not, then they will eat less food. There may be days where they eat more food than others.
- Children may be feeling tired, upset, sick, or stressed and this will affect how much food they eat or if they eat at all.
- Distractions during mealtime can negatively affect children’s food intake. They may rather play or watch TV.
- If you are forcing, praising, rewarding, begging, bribing or pressuring your child to eat more or less at meals you are participating in unhealthy feeding practices. This can make mealtime an unpleasant experience for you and your child.
- Some children may experience sensitivity to certain food tastes, smells, shapes and textures; or may dislike the food offered.
- Young children prefer to feed themselves and like to be able to choose what they eat. This is their way of showing independence. If pressured, they may refuse food.
- Children may refuse food to gain attention from their parents or caregivers.
- Children have small stomachs. If they drink too much fluid, such as milk or juice, they may not feel hungry and not be able to eat meals or snacks offered.
- Children may have food allergies or intolerances which can cause discomfort or illness when they eat certain foods.
How to Build Healthy Eating Habits
The following tips can assist you in addressing and building healthy eating habits for you children.
Offer a Varity of Foods
- Use Canada’s Food Guide to plan a variety of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks for your children.
- Make food interesting and fun by 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 without forcing your children to eat them. It may take about 15 tries before your child will try the food. Start with offering small amounts.
- Be a good, healthy eating role model. Children may be more willing to try new foods if they see family members eating them. Children learn healthy eating behaviours by following their family members.
Set Regular Times for Meals and Snacks
- Have meals and snacks at the same time daily as 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 three meals and two to three snacks daily.
- Offer child-sized portions and use child-sized plates, cups and utensils.
Make Mealtimes Enjoyable
The mealtime environment is important to support healthy eating habits. Here are some tips to make mealtimes enjoyable:
- 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 other screens and remove toys. This allows your child to focus on the meal.
- Allow your children to follow their hunger and fullness cues.
- Involve your child in meal planning, grocery shopping and preparing the meal.
- Do not force, bribe or pressure you child to eat food or insist that your child finish eating their meal or snack.
- Children will make a mess at times and that is okay.