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What children learn at home about meal times and eating is important in how they feel about food for the rest of their lives.
What children learn at home about meal times and eating is important in how they feel about food for the rest of their lives.
- Children need to see that eating good food is an enjoyable part of life.
- If meal times are family sharing times and relaxed and friendly they will learn that meal times can be enjoyable.
- If meal times are full of rules and they are made to eat foods they do not like, it may turn them off eating, rather than help them.
- Children need to learn to know the messages that they get from their own bodies about when they are hungry and when they have had enough to eat.
- They need to have a balance between the healthy foods they eat every day, and "sometimes" foods.
- It is helpful if they have learned about buying, preparing and cooking food before they leave home.
Parents who have worked hard to get a meal ready can feel angry or hurt if children don't want to eat it. Everyone's appetite varies from time to time and no one wants to be made to eat something they don't like or don't feel like. Put yourself in their shoes.. ..children are no different from adults in this.
Learning to enjoy meals
This refers to everyone in the family.
- Meal times should be relaxed, when people have a chance to talk together. In many families meals are eaten in front of the TV or everyone in the family eats at a different time. Try to have at least a few meals together each week.
- Accept that young children can make a bit of a mess at meal times. Often this happens when they have had enough. Do not force children to stay at the table after they have finished their meal.
- If the adults in the family eat their main meal late, children may need to eat earlier. They are often hungry after school and then tired by the evening meal so not wanting to eat. It helps to give them something healthy after school, eg a sandwich and fruit (see Snacks, below) and then let them eat less in the evening. Cold food is just as healthy as hot food.
- Children need to learn to eat sitting down and to give themselves time to enjoy their food.
- If your children do not like many foods try letting them eat at friends' homes or invite a friend over for a meal. It is amazing what they will eat when friends are there.
- Encourage them to try new foods, variety adds interest, but don't force them. You may need to let them see a small piece of new food on their plate a few times before they are ready to taste it.
- Give them mostly the foods that they like (as long as it is healthy) - battles about food don't help children to learn to enjoy their meals.
- Don't make dessert the treat or bribe for after they eat everything else. This makes it seem as if healthy foods are not enjoyable.
- Dessert, if you have it, should be just part of the meal.
- Desserts can be just as healthy as other parts of the meal, eg fruit, yoghurt, milk puddings.
- Small serves are often easier to manage than very large ones - they can always ask for more.
- Involve your children in preparing different foods ... experimenting can make meals all the more enjoyable.
- As your children get older involve them more in shopping for food.
- Teach them how to choose foods by reading labels, checking dates and making sure fruit and vegetables are fresh.
- This also gives them information about the cost of foods.
- A trip to the market can be an enjoyable outing for everyone, not just a shopping trip.
- Let your children choose the food or a recipe for a meal once a week. When they are old enough they can shop and cook for it. They usually enjoy cooking and eating simple meals such as mince or pasta dishes.
- Encourage children to grow some foods such as carrots or herbs (in pots or in the garden) and then use them in cooking.
Don't punish children for what they eat or don't eat. Good eating habits are easier to learn if eating is not such a big deal.
- As long as your child is well and there is plenty of good food available for her there is no need to worry about what she eats.
Eating in the primary school years
- When they first start school, children are often too tense to eat their lunch or hot summer weather takes away their appetites, and then they may be very hungry when they get home. A healthy snack after school is a good idea.
- Children notice what their friends do and want to fit in. Often they start to eat a lot of different foods because they try them with their friends.
- You can expect them to start learning about how to behave at the table at this age so long as meals are not too late or too long.
- They will be learning about food and healthy eating at school and you can support this by providing some of the things they learn about.
- They will be learning to think critically about advertisements such as food ads.
- Towards the end of the primary years their appetites may increase a lot. It is helpful to have some inexpensive healthy foods available when they are hungry such as bread (sandwiches or toasted sandwiches), breakfast cereal, pieces of raw vegetable such as carrot sticks, yoghurt and fruit in season.
Soft drinks have been very clearly linked to increases in weight in children and adults as they have very high amounts of sugar in them and many people drink a lot of soft drinks. Avoid them. One special occasions you could give give children 'diet' soft drinks.
There is no need to avoid these foods altogether but do not give in to pressure to make them 'every day' foods. Make them 'sometimes' foods. Children who 'fill up on' soft drinks, cakes and sweets may not be getting enough nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables and dairy foods.
- Foods such as 'diet' fizzy drinks and chips are fine for special occasions such as parties - 'sometimes foods'.
- If you don't keep them in the house children won't be able to pressure you to give these foods to them.
- Many children's shows on TV have food advertisements which pressure children into wanting foods that are not always healthy. You can help your children to think about what this means by talking about the ads and what is really in the food in a humorous way rather than just criticising them.
- Don't make a big fuss if your children eat junk food occasionally - otherwise it tends to become too special to the children and they want it even more.
Children may skip breakfast because they get up late and have to rush to get to school, or because the parents don't eat breakfast so it just doesn't happen in their family. Children who don't eat breakfast may find it harder to settle to do their school work, they may not learn as well and they may not get all the vitamins and minerals they need for living and growing.
Here are some quick, healthy and not-too-expensive breakfast foods:
- cereal and milk with a piece of fruit in season
- Check the cereal pack to see that you get one that is not high in sugar or salt - offering a variety is good.
- A piece of fruit is better (and cheaper) than fruit juice because you get the fibre in the fruit as well. However, fruit juice is OK too if that is what your children like best.
- Limit fruit juice to a glass or two a day.
- toast with cheese or tomato or a spread, with a piece of fruit and a glass of milk
- a toasted sandwich with a glass of low fat milk and a piece of fruit
- Low fat milk is recommended for children over 2 years. Full cream milk has 4% fat. Low fat milks have 1% or 2% fat.
- Fat-free milk is available, but it is not recommended for children.
- toast and a "fruit smoothie" - milk and fruit (such as a banana) blended smooth in a blender.
- cut-up fruit with yoghurt, and a piece of toast
- Low fat yoghurts are recommended.
- on cold days, cereal with warm milk, baked beans on toast, eggs on toast, with a piece of fruit.
- You might find the Kid's Health topic 'Breakfast - a great way to start the day!' helpful to encourage children to eat breakfast.
Young children need a variety of healthy foods and many children eat much of their food away from home.
There are several topics about school lunches on the Raising Children Network - have a look in the section School age nutrition - healthy eating.
Fruit and vegetables are important for children's health, growth and development. National nutrition surveys show that Australian children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables. Here are some ideas for school lunches and after school snacks that include fruit and vegetables.
- sweet potato and cheddar muffins
- carrot and zucchini slice
- banana bread
- dried fruit with cheese and biscuits
- apple pancakes
- banana rice custard
- quick sesame apricot slice
- and of course fresh fruit.
Recommended fruit and vegetables for children each day:
(serves per day)
(serves per day)
For older children and adults it is recommended that 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables each day is best for health.
- 1 serve of fruit is a medium sized piece, eg. a medium apple, 2 small apricots or a cup of cut up fruit.
- 1 serve of vegetables is (for example) a small potato, a cup of cooked vegetables or a cup of leafy salad greens.
Encouraging children to eat fruit and vegetables
Telling your children that they may not have dessert until they have eaten their vegetables is usually NOT the way to go. It makes dessert seem like a real treat and vegetables a hardship to be endured. So what might help?
- Show your children that you enjoy eating fruit and vegetables. They learn a lot more from what you do than what you say.
- Don't force them. Research shows that children who are pressured to eat a food (even gentle pressure) often eat less of it.
- Expect children to at least try new foods that the rest of the family is eating. Make no comment if they don't eat it, but offer it again. It often takes several tries before children learn to like something new.
- Make it easy. Fruit is more likely to be eaten if it is peeled. A little lemon juice will help prevent cut fruit from going brown. Lightly cooked or raw vegetables (no hard pieces for children under 4) may be better liked than soft cooked vegetables.
Be positive. Children can enjoy eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
To grow and develop normally, children need to eat foods from all of the food groups such as breads and cereals, vegetables, fruits, meat and meat alternatives (foods rich in protein, Iron, Zinc and Vitamin B12) and dairy foods.
To avoid missing out on important nutrients, meat, chicken, fish and eggs need to be replaced with foods that will provide protein, vitamins and minerals. Planning is needed to make sure they eat a balanced diet.
To find out more about vegetarian diets for children have a look at the resource developed by dietitians at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, South Australia:
This is one of many resources that have been developed by Nutrition and Food Services department of the Women's and Children's Hospital
Teach your children some rules about food safety.
- Do not share cups or straws and do not drink out of a bottle or jug that is to be used by others.
- Wash hands after going to the toilet and before eating.
- Do not cough or sneeze around food.
For information about preparing food safely have a look at information on the South Australian Health Department website.
Snacks are important for children to meet their energy needs. Some suggestions for snacks for after school (and other times):
- rice cakes with margarine and vegemite.
- plain or fruit scones with margarine or jam.
- toast or raisin toast
- cheese sticks and raisins or sultanas
- dried fruit such as - apple, apricot, raisins, sultanas.
For more ideas, have a look at the pamphlet 'Snacks for children (easy read)'.
- Food advertising - it can be difficult for parents to convince their children of the benefits of healthy eating when they are competing with the powerful messages of food advertising. These pressures can cause children to pester parents to buy certain products. It is important to keep a balance between your family budget, choosing healthy foods and allowing children treats.
- Fat - don't provide too many foods that contain a lot of fat. It will help your children if they don't learn to love really fatty foods, as fat contributes to heart disease later on. Children under 2 need a reasonable amount of fat [including whole milk] because they are growing quickly so don't use low fat foods for them. Low fat milk is recommended for children over 2 years.
- Salt - start early in helping your children develop a taste for foods without salt. Try other spices and flavourings.
- Sugar - too much sugar is a major cause of tooth decay. If you keep sugary foods for mealtimes and not for snacks during the day, it will help protect your children's teeth. Teeth should be cleaned after meals or if this is not possible, finish a meal with a drink of water.
- Drinks - encourage milk and tap water drinks, they are the best drinks for every day. Children may enjoy water more with a slice of orange or lemon or iceblocks in it. Try not to let your children have drinks just before meals (especially cordial or soft drinks) because these fill them up and make them want to eat less of the foods that they need. Finish a meal with a drink of water.
- Alternatives - there is always something else to use if there are foods your child does not like. For example, for those who don't like milk try yoghurt or cheese. If they won't eat vegetables they can have fruit and will get B vitamins from bread, cereals, milk and meat. Keep enjoying vegetables yourself and encourage your children to try more as they grow.
- Food hygiene - teach children about food hygiene - eg putting left-over cooked food straight into the fridge and not using the same chopping board for chopping raw meat as for vegetables.
- Special occasion foods - don't keep foods like soft drinks, biscuits and chips in the house. Buy them in just for a special occasion if you need to.
There are several topics on the Kid's Health section of this website that might help when you are helping children learn about food and food choices 'Your food'
If your children have learned about healthy eating, shopping and food preparation through their childhood they will be well prepared to care for their food needs when they leave home.
- Parents are responsible for WHAT food they provide for children - but this works best if you take children's likes and dislikes into account.
- Children should decide WHAT and HOW MUCH they eat out of the foods provided.
- Food and meal times should be enjoyable and not times of conflict and stress.
- Children need warmth, encouragement and guidance without too much control.
- Avoid fad diets and complaining about your own body - or anybody else's.
- Children can accept the difference between every day foods and "sometimes foods" if they get the occasional treat.
- Children who are not sick will usually select a good balance of food for themselves over time if they are offered a healthy choice. They won't starve if they don't want to eat occasionally.
- For advice about food and nutrition contact a dietitian or nutritionist at a community health centre or hospital.
- For information about food safety, contact an environmental health officer at your local council or The Department of Health.
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 'Healthy eating for children'.
Raising Children Network
Women's and Children's Health Network (South Australia) Nutrition department publications
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.