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From Mealtime Chaos to Mealtime Calm

From Mealtime Chaos to Mealtime Calm – Here’s how…

Mealtimes and toddlers can be a challenging time for parents. While parents want to provide the best food choices for their young children, sometimes toddlers don’t agree with their parents food choice – that can be trying! The toddler years are a key time in the development of lifelong healthy eating habits and a child’s sense of autonomy. Encouraging toddlers to choose healthy foods at this time can make all the difference to their lives in the future.

Child learning to chop vegetables, capsicum, from mother

The toddler years are a time of change. Once your child has turned one year old you might notice that they:

  • Start to show some food preferences eg preferring different textures, tastes, and colours
  • Like to feed themselves and be more independent
  • Suddenly change what foods they like and dislike
  • Are less interested in trying new foods (this usually improves as they approach 5 years of age)

Sometimes these changes make life a little frustrating for parents as they continue to try to provide a healthy balance of food for their children. Here are some tips to help keep family mealtimes, happy and relaxed for toddlers and the rest of the family:

  • Eat together as a family as often as possible – toddlers learn by watching what and how parents and siblings eat
  • As a parent you decide which foods to provide, but it helps your toddler develop their independence if you let them decide how much to eat
  • Offer food from the Five Food Groups every day – to ensure a healthy balance of nutrients for your child
  • Have a meal routine and get your child involved in preparing for mealtimes – eg setting the table; helping to prepare food; washing their hands
  • Offer water as the main drink in addition to the recommended amount of milk or milk alternatives, and offer drinks in a cup
  • Avoid offering food as a reward.

Children are born with ‘neophobia’ (fear of the new). This means they may prefer to be a bit familiar with a new food before they are ready to accept it. Letting children experience new foods using all their senses including seeing, touching, smelling, and then finally tasting food, can help decrease their anxiety and increase their food acceptance.  Remember it might take 10 times or more of trying a new food before your child can really decide if they like it or not – don’t give up the first time they refuse a new food, offer it again soon, at another mealtime.

What do children aged 1-3 years need to eat?

Once children are over 12 months of age they will have developed to a stage where they can eat family food – it just needs to be chopped up into small pieces and then they can manage to feed themselves with child-friendly utensils. While you might still need to help 1-2 year olds a little at mealtimes it is important to encourage them to feed themselves.

Young children need foods that help their bodies to grow and thrive to ensure they will be healthy and happy. The types of food a child needs are the same as for adults. If we look at the Australian Dietary Guidelines it becomes clear that just like adults, children need foods from the 5 food groups every day, and it’s important to limit the intake of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt – what we often call ‘sometimes’  foods – which means not every day.

For information on serve size and the amount of food form each food group that toddlers need to eat visit: www.eatforhealth.gov.au

6 Questions to ask about eating in childcare:

  • Is a copy of the menu available and has it been reviewed by an accredited practising dietitian or appropriately qualified nutritionist?
  • Ask about meal routines
  • How is the food served – does the mealtime routine encourage independent eating?
  • Are vegetables offered as a snack and at the lunchtime meal every day?
  • What drinks are offered with meals? (best practice is that only water or milk or milk alternatives are offered)
  • Ask for a copy of the nutrition and food safety policy

For more information contact: foodfoundations@naqld.org

Aloysa Hourigan, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Nutrition Program Manager, NAQ Nutrition

E: ahourigan@naqld.org


This article was published in Issue 12 of our print magazine, October/November 2015.

Photo of author

Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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