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Fun not Fuss with Food: Child-friendly meals

Category: Child Health

Topic: Diet and Eating

Sharing the tasks of feeding can help parents feel more comfortable and relaxed at meal times. As a parent, you are responsible for providing healthy, safe and appealing food. Your child is responsible for how much he or she eats.

  • The parent chooses what to feed and when to feed.
  • The child chooses whether to eat and how much to eat.

It can be difficult to allow your child to ‘choose’ how much to eat. However, this is the best way to give your child roles at meal times. Be clear when stating that if your child chooses not to eat then that is okay, but the next meal time is not for a certain period of time. Avoid offering preferred foods when your child has chosen not to eat the family meal.

These tips may help develop good eating habits and prevent a battle at meal times.

Tips for meal planning

  • Have a few simple rules for meal times. Discuss these rules with your child.
  • Decide what food is to be offered.
  • Involve your child in planning the week's meals and shopping.
  • Have your child prepare the meals, or help you in meal time activities (e.g. setting the table, washing, mixing, or measuring).
  • Children have small stomachs, so provide 5 to 6 small nutritious meals each day at regular times. Choose foods from the 5 food groups for meals and snacks. Read How children develop: Food and nutrition (one to five years) for more about the 5 food groups.
  • Keep to regular meal times so your child knows when the next meal is coming. This can stop your child from grazing and filling up on unhealthy snacks.
  • Try to avoid offering the main meal in the evening. This is a time when young children are too tired to try new foods or to eat much.
  • Be comfortable with the effort you put into preparing meals and accept it may not be appreciated.
  • Ask your child to wash their hands and come to the table, giving them 5 to 10 minutes’ warning to finish what he or she is doing.
  • Avoiding distractions can help your child eat the food that is in front of them.

Tips for during meals

  • Praise children when they eat well.
  • Try to make the mealtime pleasant.
  • Eat with your child.
  • Talk to your child about food.
  • Set a time limit if your child eats slowly (20 to 30 minutes is enough).
  • Children may not always finish their meals, which is okay.
  • Tell your child when the meal is over and when the next mealtime will be.

Food refusal

There is often a valid reason why children may refuse a meal. Take a moment to think about why your child may be refusing a meal before you act. Some reasons why your child may refuse a meal include:

  • eating frequent snacks throughout the day
  • filling up on drinks—in particular, sweet drinks or milk
  • being too tired or not hungry
  • having low activity levels that day
  • illness

Children's intake will increase during growth or as activity levels increase. This can result in a large appetite for a while, followed by small and picky eating soon after.

Here are some tips you can try if your child is refusing specific foods.

My child won't eat...

Vegetables

  • Are the flavours too strong? Try raw vegetables with healthy dips.
  • Add them to other foods that they enjoy (e.g. pizza, spaghetti bolognaise).
  • Let your child help to prepare the vegetables.
  • A taste does not always lead to a swallow. The ‘one bite policy’ is a good technique. The child will eventually realise that the vegetable is actually edible.
  • Prepare the same vegetable in different ways (e.g. your child may like raw carrot but not cooked, or corn on the cob but not individual kernels).

Water

  • Make sure it is easy to access.
  • Serve it cold with interesting ice cube shapes added.
  • Be a role model by drinking water yourself.
  • Don’t have other drinks available.
  • Put the water in an interesting cup.

Milk

  • Try other dairy foods such as cheeses and yoghurt.
  • Make smoothies with milk and fruit or yoghurt.
  • Increase the amount of milk used in cooking (e.g. milk-based desserts like custard) or add more milk to cereal.

Meat

  • Try softer cuts such as mince or thinly sliced meat in sandwiches.
  • Mix meat into foods your child likes (e.g. pasta) or mix roast meats with gravy.
  • Mixing meats in with sauces also makes them easier to chew and swallow. Other foods can provide similar nutrients, so include fresh and canned fish, eggs, peanut paste, nuts or combinations of legumes and grains (e.g. baked beans on toast, hummus with pita bread, or kidney bean tacos or burritos).
  • Try using tenderising cooking methods (e.g. slow cooking, letting roasted foods rest).

Advice on snacks

  • Use snacks as an opportunity to meet the day’s food group serves rather than a quick filler to get you through to the next meal.
  • Offer snacks and meals at regular times so that your child knows when the next meal is.
  • Serve fruit or vegetables with wholegrain breads or crackers.
  • Snack times may be when your child is at their hungriest. Try offering a small meal (equivalent of a dinner) at this time if it is possible.
  • Role-modelling is important.

It is best to avoid hard foods such as whole nuts, popcorn, corn chips, hard lollies and hard, raw fruit or vegetables until the child is 3 years of age, as these may cause choking.

Acknowledgement

This information is the result of input and effort from many health professionals in Queensland. Their assistance with the content is greatly appreciated.

This information is provided as general information only and should not be relied upon as professional or medical advice. Professional and medical advice should be sought for particular health concerns or events. Best efforts have been used to develop this information, which is considered correct and current in accordance with accepted best practice in Queensland as at the date of production. The State of Queensland (Queensland Health) does not accept liability to any person for the information provided in this fact sheet nor does it warrant that the information will remain correct and current. The State of Queensland (Queensland Health) does not promote, endorse or create any association with any third party by publication or use of any references or terminology in this fact sheet.