We recommend that your child eat 3 meals per day plus snacks in between, from a variety of foods.
Most children will eat when they’re hungry, although they may eat very little at times. If your child is rejecting certain foods and drinks, there’s a range of things you can do to encourage their eating. See Fussy or picky eating for more information.
Your young child’s diet
A healthy diet includes a range of foods and snacks such as:
- soft pieces of vegetables and fruit (cook or finely grate if raw)
- cereals, crackers, breads and small sandwiches
- tender, finely chopped lean meat, chicken, seafood and eggs
- soft, slightly mashed, cooked dried peas, beans or lentils
- dairy products (eg, cheese and yoghurt).
Offer your child plenty of variety, and don’t worry if they refuse some things – they’ll make up for it by eating other foods. For example, they might reject some vegetables but gobble up plenty of fruit instead. Try and offer the rejected food later on. Remember to cut food to a size your child can easily hold and eat.
Tips for your child’s eating
- Avoid offering snacks close to mealtimes. A 1- or 2-hour gap is best.
- If your child asks for food but doesn’t seem hungry, try to keep them busy.
- Eat as a family at least once a day. Children like to copy their parents.
- Don’t bribe, force or nag over leftover food – it’s better to praise them for trying.
- Try to serve meals before your child is tired, or have your evening meal earlier.
- Offer a variety of foods during the day, as a tired child may not eat well at night.
- Present your child’s food in different ways, like offering meat as hamburgers or meatballs.
- Involve your child in preparing food, as it may increase their interest.
- Keep food choices simple (eg, ‘Do you want an apple or banana?’). This gives children a feeling of control.
To help prevent choking offer food that matches children’s chewing and grinding ability, and avoid small, round, hard foods like nuts and grapes. Always make sure your child sits down while they’re eating and drinking and that an adult is with them.
For more information on preventing choking see Food-related choking in young children.
Snacks and treats
Young children need some fat in their diets for energy and growth, but it’s important not to have high-fat and high-sugar foods (eg, chips, lollies and ice cream) every day. Children who eat ‘treat’ foods too often tend to eat less healthy food. Sweet foods can also cause holes in teeth.
However, avoid talking about high-fat and high-sugar foods as ‘bad’ foods. Teach your child to enjoy them as an occasional treat.
Try to offer snacks and treats well before mealtimes so your child has time to get hungry again.
It’s best to offer drinks in a cup rather than a bottle. Milk and water are the best drinks – milk after meals and water between meals.
While milk is great, you can overdo it. If your child drinks more than 2 cups of milk (500 ml) a day, they may not eat well because they’re already full. Giving them less milk should increase their interest in food. You can encourage them by drinking water yourself.
Try to keep flavoured milk, juice and fizzy drinks for occasional treats. If you are giving children juice, add plenty of water – 1 part juice to 10 parts water.
Worried about your child’s eating?
If you’re worried about your child’s appetite or diet, talk to your Well Child nurse or call PlunketLine on 0800 933 922.
Eating for healthy babies and toddlers – HealthEd (Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health)
Food information for babies and toddlers from birth to 2 years old. Includes breastfeeding and the benefits of breastmilk, formula feeding, drinking plenty of fluids, starting solids, how to prevent choking, healthy eating habits, and meal ideas for babies and toddlers.
Eating for healthy children aged 2 to 12 years – HealthEd (Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health)
Food information for children aged 2–12. Includes healthy eating, daily physical activity, good eating behaviours, food groups and variety, healthy food including fruit and vegetables, vitamins and protein, vegetarian options, healthy snacks, drinking plenty of fluids, and having very few takeaways.