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.
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.
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.
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:
Here are some other ways you can help your child stay healthy:
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.
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.
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:
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Healthy eating means eating a variety of foods from all food groups. It means choosing fewer foods that have lots of fats and sugar. But it does not mean that your child cannot eat desserts or other treats now and then.
With a little planning, you can create a structure that gives your child (and you) the freedom to make healthy eating choices. Think of this as planning not just for the kids but for everyone in your family.
If you are feeling out of control over your own eating habits or weight, your child may be learning some poor eating habits from you. See a registered dietitian, your doctor, or a mental health professional experienced with eating problems, if needed. For more information, see the topics Healthy Eating and Weight Management.
Help your child learn to make healthy food and lifestyle choices by following these steps:
Make a point to eat as many meals together at home as possible. A regular mealtime gives you and your family a chance to talk and relax together. It also helps you and your child to have a positive relationship with food.
Most children self-correct their undereating, overeating, and weight problems when the power struggle is taken out of their mealtimes. But the hardest part for most parents is stopping themselves from directing their children's choices ("Eat at least one bite of vegetable." "That's a lot of bread you're eating." "Clean your plate." "No seconds."). Do your best to avoid commenting.
If your child skips over certain foods, eats lightly, or eats more than you'd like:
Expect some rebellion as you change the way you feed your family. At first, your child may eat only one type of food, eat everything in sight, or stubbornly refuse to eat anything. Fortunately, no harm is done if your child chooses to eat too much or skips a meal once in a while.
Gradually, your child's eating habits will balance out. You'll notice that, as long as you provide nutritious choices, your child will eat a healthy variety and amount of food each week. Try to relax, and you'll see your child relax too.
Feeding your infant. From birth, infants follow their internal hunger and fullness cues. They eat when they're hungry, and they stop eating when they're full. Experts recommend that newborns be fed on demand.
Feeding your toddler/preschooler. As you introduce your young child to new foods, you are encouraging a love of variety, texture, and taste. This is important, because the more adventurous your child feels about foods, the more balanced and nutritious his or her weekly intake will be. Remember that you may need to present a new or different food a number of times before your child will be comfortable trying it. This is normal. The best approach is to offer the new food in a relaxed manner without pressuring your child.
Feeding your teen. When your child becomes a teen, he or she has a lot more food choices outside the home. You are still responsible for providing balanced meals in the home. Family mealtimes become especially important.
Children have special vitamin and mineral needs. For example:
If you are worried about your child's eating habits, you can call your family doctor for help. He or she can advise you on actions you can take or direct you to someone with specific expertise, such as:
Call your doctor if:
- Committee on Nutrition, American Academy of Pediatrics (2001, reaffirmed 2006). The use and misuse of fruit juice in pediatrics. Pediatrics, 107(5): 1210–1213. Also available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/107/5/1210.full.
Other Works Consulted
- American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Diagnosis and prevention of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children (0–3 years of age). Pediatrics, 126(5): 1040–1050. Available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/126/5/1040.
- Expert Panel on Integrated Guidelines for Cardiovascular Health and Risk Reduction in Children and Adolescents (2011). Expert panel on integrated guidelines for cardiovascular health and risk reduction in children and adolescents: Summary report. Pediatrics, 128(Suppl 5): S213–S256.
- Haemer M, et al. (2014). Normal childhood nutrition and its disorders. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 305–333. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lucas BL, et al. (2012). Nutrition in childhood. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13 ed., pp. 389–409. St Louis: Saunders.
- Nix S (2013). Nutrition during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. In Williams' Basic Nutrition and Diet Therapy, 14th ed., pp. 195–216. St. Louis: Mosby.
- Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2013). Life cycle nutrition: Infancy, childhood, and adolescence. In Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed., pp. 504–544. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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