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Healthy Eating for Children


Topic Overview

What is healthy eating?

Healthy eating means eating a variety of foods so that your child gets the nutrients (such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals) he or she needs for normal growth. If your child regularly eats a wide variety of basic foods, he or she will be well-nourished.

How much food is good for your child?

With babies and toddlers, you can usually leave it to them to eat the right amount of food at each meal, as long as you make only healthy foods available.

Babies cry to let us know they're hungry. When they're full, they stop eating. Things get more complicated at age 2 or 3, when children begin to prefer the tastes of certain foods, dislike the tastes of other foods, and have a lot of variation in how hungry they are. But even then it usually works best to make only healthy foods available and let your child decide how much to eat.

It may worry you to see your child eat very little at a meal. Children tend to eat the same number of calories every day or two if they are allowed to decide how much to eat. But the pattern of calorie intake may vary from day to day. One day a child may eat a big breakfast, a big lunch, and hardly any dinner. The next day this same child may eat very little at breakfast but may eat a lot at lunch and dinner. Don't expect your child to eat the same amount of food at every meal and snack each day.

How can you help your child eat well and be healthy?

Many parents worry that their child is either eating too much or too little. Perhaps your child only wants to eat one type of food—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for instance. One way to help your child eat well and help you worry less is to know what your job is and what your child's job is when it comes to eating. If your child only wants to eat one type of food, he or she is doing the parent's job of deciding what food choices are. It is the parent's job to decide what foods are offered.

  • Your job is to offer nutritious food choices at meals and snack times. You decide the what, where, and when of eating.
  • Your child's job is to choose how much he or she will eat of the foods you serve. Your child decides how much or even whether to eat.

If this idea is new to you, it may take a little time for both you and your child to adjust. In time, your child will learn that he or she will be allowed to eat as little or as much as he or she wants at each meal and snack. This will encourage your child to continue to trust his or her internal hunger gauge.

Here are some ways you can help support your child's healthy eating habits:

  • Eat together as a family as often as possible. Keep family meals pleasant and positive. Avoid making comments about the amount or type of food your child eats. Pressure to eat actually reduces children's acceptance of new or different foods.
  • Make healthy food choices for your family's meals. Children notice the choices you make and follow your example.
  • Make meal times fairly predictable. Eat at around the same times every day and always at the table, even for snacks.
  • Have meals often enough (for example, about every 3 hours for toddlers) that your child doesn't get too hungry.
  • Offer only water between meals so that your child is as hungry as he or she can be for the next meal. When children are hungry, it's easier to get them to eat something they don't like a lot.
  • Do nothing else during the meal other than talking and enjoying each other—no TV or other distractions.

Here are some other ways you can help your child stay healthy:

  • Set limits on your child's daily television and computer time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting TV and other screen time to 2 hours or less a day.1 Sit down with your child and plan out how he or she will use this time allowance. It's best for children younger than 2 to not watch TV, watch movies, or play games on a screen.
  • Make physical activity a part of your family's daily life. For example, walk your child to and from school and take a walk after dinner. Teach your young child how to skip, hop, dance, play catch, ride a bike, and more. Encourage your older child to find his or her favorite ways to be active.
  • Take your child to all recommended well-child checkups. You can use this time to discuss with a doctor your child's growth rate, activity level, and eating habits.

What causes poor eating habits?

Poor eating habits can develop in otherwise healthy children for several reasons. Infants are born liking sweet tastes. But if babies are going to learn to eat a wide variety of basic foods, they need to learn to like other tastes, because many nutritious foods don't taste sweet.

  • Available food choices. If candy and soft drinks are always available, most children will choose these foods rather than a more nutritious snack. But forbidding these choices can make your child want them even more. You can include some less nutritious foods as part of your child's meals so that he or she learns to enjoy them along with other foods. Try to keep a variety of nutritious and appealing food choices available. Healthy and kid-friendly snack ideas include:
    • String cheese.
    • Whole wheat crackers and peanut butter.
    • Air-popped or low-fat microwave popcorn.
    • Frozen juice bars made with 100% real fruit.
    • Fruit and dried fruit.
    • Baby carrots with hummus or bean dip.
    • Low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit.
  • The need for personal choice. Power struggles between a parent and child can affect eating behavior. If children are pressured to eat a certain food, they are more likely to refuse to eat that food, even if it is something they usually would enjoy. Provide a variety of nutritious foods. Your child can decide what and how much he or she will eat from the choices you offer.
  • Emotion. A child's sadness, anxiety, or family crisis can cause undereating or overeating. If you think your child's emotions are affecting his or her eating, focus on resolving the problem that is causing the emotions instead of focusing on the eating behavior.

If your child is healthy and eating a nutritious and varied diet, yet seems to eat very little, he or she may simply need less food energy (calories) than other children. And some children need more daily calories than others the same age or size, and they eat more than you might expect. Every child has different calorie needs.

In rare cases, a child may eat more or less than usual because of a medical condition that affects his or her appetite. If your child has a medical condition that affects how he or she eats, talk with your child's doctor about how you can help your child get the right amount of nutrition.

What are the risks of eating poorly?

A child with poor eating habits is going to be poorly nourished. That means he or she won't be getting the amounts of nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. This can lead to being underweight or overweight. Poorly nourished children tend to have weaker immune systems, which increases their chances of illness. Poor eating habits can increase a child's risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol later in life.

Poor eating habits include:

  • Eating a very limited variety of foods.
  • Refusing to eat entire groups of foods, such as vegetables.
  • Eating too many foods of poor nutritional quality, such as soft drinks, chips, and doughnuts.
  • Overeating from being served large portions or being told to "clean your plate" or "finish it all up."

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about children, weight, and healthy choices:

Helping your child eat well:

Ongoing concerns and health issues:

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