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

Parents/Caregivers decide:
  • 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
  • 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.

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 providing 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.
Eating Behaviour Suggestions to Help
My child does not want to eat

Children’s appetites vary from meal to meal and from day to day. The amount a child eats depends on different factors including their activity level.

  • Serve small, frequent meals and offer more if your child wants more.
  • Offer nutritious foods so every bite counts. Have enough time between snacks and meals so your child is hungry before meals.
  • Turn off the TV and remove toys to avoid distractions when eating.
  • Let your child have some control, e.g. offer a choice between two foods; let them feed themselves.
  • Involve your child in preparing food such as letting them wash vegetables and fruit.
My child wants the same food every day

It’s okay for children to eat the same foods if these foods are nutritious. There is no need to worry – your child will ask for another ‘favourite’ food after a while.

  • Make sure the ‘favourite’ food is nutritious.
  • Continue offering the food your child likes, along with other foods.
My child doesn’t want to try new foods

It can take a while before a child will try a new food because they need time to accept new flavours and textures.

  • Offer food that your child likes along with new, unfamiliar foods.
  • Continue to offer the new food.
  • Encourage your child to try a small amount of the new food – do not force them to finish it. Offer the new food in the presence of other children, this may encourage your child to try it.
  • Make the new food interesting and fun, such as cutting sandwiches in different shapes.
My child does not eat vegetables

Vegetables are a good source of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, which help our bodies work properly.

  • Be a role model and eat vegetables with your child.
  • Involve your child in shopping for or preparing vegetables.
  • Cook and offer different coloured vegetables, e.g. stir-fry vegetables or salad.
  • Add puréed, grated or finely chopped vegetables to meals, e.g. stews, soups, sauces, and muffins
My child does not eat meat

Meat is a good source of protein, iron and other nutrients, which are needed for growth and development.

  • Cook meat soft enough so it can be easily chewed.
  • Add chopped or ground meat to stews, soups and sauces.
  • Offer plant-based proteins such as cooked peas, beans, lentils, tofu and smooth nut or seed butter spread thinly on toast or crackers.
My child drinks too much juice

Limit or avoid juice, which has lots of sugar and very little fibre.

  • Offer water as the drink of choice.
  • Serve fruit instead of juice.
My child wants to drink milk all day

Milk is one of the foods in the protein food category of Canada’s Food Guide. If they drink milk all day, they will not have enough room in their small tummies for other nutritious foods.

  • Offer water when your child is thirsty.
  • Offer no more than 3 cups of milk per day and serve in an open cup.
My child likes to eat while watching TV/ other screens

Children who eat in front of screens may not be aware of their natural fullness/hunger cues. Watching TV can expose your child to food marketing that promotes less nutritious food choices.

  • Limit your child’s screen time. This will also reduce their exposure to ads with highly processed foods and less nutritious food choices.
  • Teach young children how to eat healthier by providing them with examples of nutritious foods.