When your child is a picky eater
Meals are important social times in a child’s day. They help children learn about food while connecting with family and friends.
Eating in a positive atmosphere helps children develop healthy attitudes about food and themselves. Parents and caregivers play an important role in keeping mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable.
How much food should my child eat?
If your child is healthy and growing well, you don’t need to worry. Most children’s appetites are right for their age and growth rate. At around 2 years, most children start eating less. This is because growth starts to slow down.
As a parent or caregiver, your job is to provide your child with healthy choices at meal and snack times. It’s then up to your child to decide what, how much and (sometimes) whether they will eat. Listening to their bodies—eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full—will help children develop healthy eating habits for life.
Every child needs a balanced diet with foods from all 4 food groups—vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives. Canada’s Food Guide gives information about the amount and type of food recommended for your child.
It’s unlikely that your child will eat something from every food group at each meal, but try to get all the servings your child needs over several meals and snacks throughout the day. Because little children eat small portions, you might also want to consider dividing one Food Guide serving into smaller amounts.
What if my child is a picky eater?
Young children often go through stages where they refuse to eat certain foods, only want to eat a small number of specific foods, or are easily distracted at mealtimes. Toddlers are learning to become their own person. One way that they show their independence is by self-feeding and choosing their own foods.
Just like you, your child will have days when he feels like eating certain foods and days when he doesn’t. He might not even be interested in eating at every meal or snack time. Don’t worry too much about what your child eats in any given day, but make sure that he eats a variety of healthy foods over several days.
It is common for young children to react negatively to certain foods. Some children are slow to accept new tastes and textures. Keep offering them to your child, and she will probably start to accept and enjoy them with time. Creating mealtime pressure or forcing your child to eat can actually cause him to resist eating.
Here are some tips to help:
- Children enjoy deciding what to make for dinner. Talk to your child about making choices and planning a balanced meal. Include her on grocery trips.
- Let your child know about 10 or 15 minutes before dinner starts. This helps her shift her focus and settle down when it’s time to have a meal.
- Involve your child in meal preparation, for example, washing vegetables, pouring, stirring, and so on. It might help her be open to trying foods if she helps to prepare them. She’ll probably also enjoy helping you set the table.
- Eat together at the table and try to make mealtime social and fun. Most young children have short attention spans, so be realistic about how long you expect your child to sit at the table. When the meal is done, take away the food.
- Avoid distractions like cell phones, toys, books, TV or other screens during mealtimes.
- Offer a variety of healthy foods for meals and snacks. Most children will eat what they need, even if their appetite changes from day to day.
- Most young children like to copy the things that others do. Set an example by eating healthy foods.
- Offer at least one food at every meal that you know your child likes.
- Give small portions of each food item at every meal. You can always offer more if she finishes everything on her plate.
- Give her the opportunity to make choices where appropriate. For example, let her choose between two different vegetables.
- Encourage your child to try at least a few bites of different foods at each meal.
- Serve drinks only after the main course. Too much milk or juice can affect your child’s appetite.
- If she refuses certain foods or whole meals, let her make that choice.
- Stick to a rule that the kitchen doesn’t reopen until the next planned snack or meal.
- Offer snacks and desserts from the Canada Food Guide. However, don’t offer a snack too close to a regular meal time.
- Don’t use food as a reward.
- Threatening, prodding, scolding, bribing and punishing can cause your child to resist eating even more. Praise and encouragement will help her develop food likes and dislikes.
- Try offering new foods at breakfast. This is usually the time that your child is hungriest and most likely to try something new. Once they have tried a food a number of times, it can be moved to later in the day and another new food can be introduced.
- Eliminate milk in the middle of the night because it interferes with eating breakfast.
How can I teach my child the importance of healthy foods?
Don’t label food by telling your child that chocolate bars are “bad” and apples are “good.” It’s more important to talk about “everyday foods” like vegetables and fruit, whole grain cereals and breads, and “sometimes” foods—like chips and candy—that are eaten as special treats once in a while.
Should I give my child vitamin supplements?
Vitamins are important for your body to work well. If your child is eating a healthy diet based on Canada’s Food Guide, he won’t need a supplement.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee
- Public Education Advisory Committee
Last Updated: October 2015