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Healthy Eating for Toddlers and Preschoolers

 
Feeding and nutrition can be challenging when children are little. Learn how to check if your child is a healthy eater and how to help your child to eat well.

NutriSTEP® Nutrition Screening Tool is a nutrition risk screening tool for toddlers (18 - 35 months) and preschoolers (3 - 5 years). This screening tool is a questionnaire where parents answer questions about their child’s eating habits, growth and development, feeding environment, and physical activity levels.

Visit Nutri-eSTEP (external link) to assess your child's eating habits.

Feeding children requires a division of responsibility:

  • Parents decide what, when and where the food is served.
  • Children decide whether and how much to eat.

Parents

What food to serve

  • Offer a variety of healthy foods. For meals, aim for foods from three to four food groups. For snacks, aim for foods from at least two food groups.
  • When trying new foods, offer a small amount first and offer other foods your child usually likes. It might take 10 - 15 times before a new food is accepted.
  • Serve food in a form that is manageable for children. Expect a mess. While children are learning to use utensils, they still might want to use their hands to eat. Making a mess is just part of learning how to eat.

When to serve food

  • Set regular times for meals and snacks (usually three meals and two to three snacks per day).
  • Don’t rush them: children take longer than adults to eat. However, after a reasonable time if the child is not eating, remove uneaten food. Twenty to 30 minutes is usually enough time for a young child to eat.
  • Offer food and drink at meals and snacks only, not in-between. If they are thirsty between meals, offer water. Limit juice to 1/2 - 3/4 cup per day.

Where to serve food

  • Eat meals at the table as a family whenever possible.
  • Make mealtimes a social time. Talk about the day’s events.
  • How you feed your child is as important as what you feed them. Create a pleasant environment for meals: remove toys and other distractions.

Children

Whether to eat

  • Occasionally, it is okay if your toddler or preschooler does not eat a meal or snack. Respect their decision to say “no” to food; it is their way of having choice and learning independence.
  • Never force or punish a child for refusing to eat. As adults, we are not always hungry for food.
  • Do not bribe your child to finish their meals by offering them dessert. Offer attention and affection as a reward instead of food.

How much to eat

  • Children need to develop their own sense of when they are full and determine when they are finished eating.
  • Some days they may eat often, while other days they may not be hungry and may not eat very much. This is normal.
  • Never pressure children to “finish” their drink or their meal. Remove uneaten food without commenting.
  • Toddler and preschooler portion sizes tend to be smaller than adult portion sizes. Young children have smaller stomachs and need to eat smaller amounts more often throughout the day.

Being a fussy eater is a normal part of growing up. Refusing to eat is sometimes more an issue of a child trying to take control, and little to do with the actual food. Remember, as long as your child is growing and developing normally, a relaxed approach to food is the best way to cope with your child’s eating behaviours.

Check out these tips for parents dealing with picky eaters (PDF file).

Toddlers

When can I introduce soy milk to my child?

Do not offer soy milk to children until after two years of age. Soy milk, rice milk or other vegetarian beverages do not have enough fat for young children and might not have vitamin D added to them.

What foods might cause choking?

Young children can choke easily. Always stay with your child when he or she is eating. Do not give your child foods that are hard, small and round such as nuts, popcorn, whole grapes or hard vegetables. Do not give your child smooth or sticky foods.

My toddler never eats a full Food Guide serving. Is this a problem?

Let your child decide how much to eat. Never pressure your toddler to eat more than he or she wants. Do not restrict the amount you give your child to eat when he or she seems hungry. It is normal for young children to eat different amounts of food each day.

You could start with offering half a Food Guide serving (for example, half a cup of milk, half a slice of bread, 1 ounce of meat) and gradually work up to a full serving.

My toddler seems less interested in eating since she turned one. Is this normal?

Yes. When your child reaches one year, you might notice changes in eating behaviour such as:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Eating different amounts of food from day to day
  • Changing food preferences (textures, tastes and colours)
  • Increased need for independence and a desire to learn to eat by themselves

Preschoolers

My child eats very little, or sometimes skips a meal. Is this okay?

It is normal for your preschooler’s appetite to vary. An occasional skipped meal is not a concern as long as your child is growing normally. Serve a variety of healthy foods without pressuring them to eat. Serve smaller portions and make sure to serve snacks about two hours before mealtimes.

My preschooler wants to eat the same food all the time. Is this normal?

Food jags (wanting the same food over and over) are common for preschoolers. Let your child have his or her “favourite food” as long as it belongs to a food group. Keep offering other healthy choices at each meal.

My preschooler doesn’t like eating vegetables. What should I do?

It’s not unusual for a young child to be picky when eating vegetables. Your child may be more likely to eat vegetables if he or she sees you eating them. Here are some tips that might help:

  • Serve vegetables at snack time when your child is hungry.
  • Offer a variety of brightly coloured vegetables so he can choose.
  • Serve raw vegetables or lightly cooked instead of overcooked vegetables.
  • Puree or finely chop vegetables and put them in soups and sauces.
  • Involve your child in choosing vegetables at the grocery store, or let him or her grow his or her own garden.

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