Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood - Family Book

Making mealtimes positive, relaxed and social

Page last updated: 06 June 2011

Mealtimes provide an opportunity for children to develop good eating behaviours, as well as learn about nutrition and food variety. They are also an important time for social interaction. It is important to sit with children at meal and snack times, and talk with them in a relaxed way.

Expect a little mess when children (especially very young children) are eating. Do not react negatively to any mess, which is a normal part of children learning about food and eating. At the same time, discourage behaviours such as throwing or spitting food. It is common for some children to refuse food, and this should not cause stress or concern at mealtimes. Children can be encouraged to try foods, but should never be forced to eat.

Is it okay to reward my child with food?

Using food to reward children can contribute to unhealthy attitudes towards eating. Do not link food with behaviour, and do not give food as a reward or remove or deny food as punishment. Also, do not use food to comfort a child, as this can lead to the child relying on food for comfort.

Identify ways to reward your child that do not involve food. Praise and encouragement are often what a child needs most from an adult, and small non-food rewards such as stickers or stamps can also be used. It is never appropriate to reward children for eating or punish them for not eating.

Why do young children need a variety of foods?

The early childhood years are a critical time for experiencing new foods and developing eating behaviours and food preferences. The greater the variety of foods that children are exposed to in their early years, the more likely it is that they will enjoy a variety of foods as adults.

Mealtimes should provide a safe environment for children to try new foods. Offer and encourage new foods regularly, and include a variety of tastes, textures and colours. Include familiar foods as well as new foods, and encourage children to taste the new ones. Even if your child doesn’t taste a new food on the first few occasions you offer it, continue to make it available. Being around other children at mealtimes can also encourage your child to try new foods, as they see others eating and enjoying them.

Do I have to eat my vegetables too?

Children learn a lot from watching and listening to adults. Parents are role models. Your children watch what you do, and are likely to copy it. Be sure to model the healthy eating habits that you would like your child to develop.

Some tips to help you model good eating behaviours include the following:
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  • Try to include the whole family at mealtimes.
  • Sit with your child during meal and snack times.
  • Whenever you can, let your child join you at the table as soon as he or she is eating solids and can share the family meal (usually from around 12 months).
  • Allow children to choose what and how much they eat from the options available.
  • Encourage children to taste all the foods offered at each meal.
  • Keep the mealtime environment calm and positive.

Why is it important for children to choose how much they eat?

Adults are responsible for offering safe and nutritious foods in appropriate amounts. Children can then decide what foods they will eat, and how much, from what is offered. This allows children to eat according to their appetite, and learn to respond to their body’s signals of hunger and fullness.

Adults can decide the types of food made available at meals, and either serve individual plates of food for each family member or place bowls and platters where everyone can help themselves. In both cases, children can choose what and how much they eat.

If two courses are offered at a meal, both should be nutritious and based on foods from the food groups. This means that children can eat the second course regardless of whether they finish the first course. If your child refuses to eat at any meal or snack, do not force them to eat.