Home > Health & Wellness > Health Library > Healthy Eating for Children
Healthy eating means
eating a variety of foods so that your child gets the
nutrients (such as
minerals) he or she needs for normal growth. If your
child regularly eats a wide variety of basic foods, he or she will be
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
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
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.
Learning about children, weight, and healthy choices:
Helping your child eat well:
Ongoing concerns and health issues:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
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
Healthy Eating and
Help your child learn to
make healthy food and lifestyle choices by following these steps:
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
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
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
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
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 (2003, reaffirmed 2006). Policy statement: Prevention of pediatric overweight and obesity. Pediatrics, 112(2): 424–430.
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.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerJohn Pope, MD - PediatricsKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerRhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Current as ofNovember 20, 2015
Current as of:
November 20, 2015
John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2016 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
I want to...
1111 Duff Avenue Ames, Iowa 50010
515-239-2011 Email us
Anywhere in Iowa 800-524-6877