Early childhood is a critical period of development. During this time, children develop eating habits that will influence their relationships with food for a lifetime. Toddlers are often picky or refuse to eat altogether, making mealtime a real challenge. But there are practical tips to help children establish healthy eating habits.

Your child refuses to eat or has a small appetite?

There are many factors that may affect a child’s appetite (e.g. emotional instability, mood swings, fatigue, level of physical activity). First, it is important to remember that the rate of growth of children starts to decrease at around the age of two, which explains the proportional decrease in appetite. Every child grows at a different rate and this influences how much they want to eat. Children have the innate ability to recognize when they are hungry and when they are full, therefore you should respect their hunger and satiety signals. Their appetite may vary from one day to the next and even from one meal to the other. If your child’s growth is normal, and he or she is eating a variety of nutritious food every day, there is no need to be concerned. Appetite fluctuation is often temporary and will not harm a child’s overall health.

Since early childhood is a period where children are curious to explore food, it is also normal for small children to take a long time to eat. Encourage them to do so and take advantage of this curiosity—help them discover a variety of nutritious food.

Finally, young children may attempt to assert their autonomy by refusing to eat. If this happens, try to avoid using food as a bribe. Children will rapidly learn the art of negotiation and may therefore associate food with punishment or reward when it should only be associated with the pleasure of eating and getting fuel for their energy needs.

Some helpful hints

  • Be a positive role model by eating a variety of food yourself.
  • Choose fresh fruit over 100% pure fruit juice. It is recommended to limit 100% pure fruit juice to 120 to 180 mL (½ to ¾ cup) per day.
  • Serve water between meals and milk with meals and at snack time to keep your child well hydrated.
  • Keep a regular schedule for meals, snacks and rest times; children need this type of routine.
  • Be sure your child gets enough sleep.
  • Control the quality of the food served to your child. Let your child decide on the quantity he or she wants to eat.
  • Keep in mind that an unfinished plate is not always a bad sign. The golden rule is to motivate your child to taste a bit of everything and make meals and snacks a positive eating experience.
  • Prevent choking hazard by serving foods that are easy to handle and prepared safely.
  • Set a transition time between playtime and mealtime so that your child is always calm and properly seated for meals. Avoid distractions like watching television or playing with toys at the table.
  • Invite your child to help you with meal preparation. Children are more motivated to eat the food they help prepare.
  • Try to have frequent family meals, in a pleasant atmosphere and include your child in the conversation. Do not use this time to try to solve problems and conflicts.
  • Avoid discussing your child’s appetite in front of him or her, and be sure to pay a lot of attention to your child between mealtimes.
  • To ensure your child is hungry at mealtimes, serve healthy snacks about two hours before meals.

Your child says no to veggies?

Since vegetables provide a wide range of nutrients to your child’s diet, it is important to remedy his or her refusal of eating veggies with the help of these few simple tricks:

  • Offer small servings of vegetables that are not over-cooked or too highly seasoned.
  • Serve vegetables without utensils, so your child can eat and explore with his or her fingers.
  • Serve vegetables with a yogurt dip or topped with a white or cheese sauce.
  • Cut vegetables in various ways: julienned, sliced, cubed, grated, etc.
  • Serve vegetables in a variety of dishes such as soups and salads, with meals or at snack time.
  • Vary the texture of vegetables: cooked, raw, half-cooked, puréed, etc.
  • Add vegetables to dishes your child enjoys.
  • Serve vegetable soups more often (puréed in the blender if necessary) or finely grate vegetables into a consommé.
  • Provide a wide variety of vegetables, especially dark coloured ones (e.g. spinach, asparagus, and carrots).
  • Serve vegetables both at mealtimes and as snacks.

Remember: Get in the habit of washing vegetables and fruit well before offering them to children.

Your child won’t eat meat?

Sometimes children refuse to eat meat because they may have trouble chewing it. Below are some tips to encourage your child to eat more meat:

  • Offer small portions of very tender meat cooked in a broth.
  • Cut meat into very small pieces or offer ground meat.
  • Serve meat in sauce (e.g. with pasta) or as a meat loaf.
  • Offer other protein-rich foods that are easier to chew, such as eggs, fish, tofu, cheese, smooth peanut butter on toast, or legumes (lentil soup, pea soup, vegetarian chili, hummus, etc.).