From the time they are born and throughout childhood, children gradually discover the different smells, textures and flavours of foods. This journey of discovery can be difficult at times. You can overcome these difficulties to make sure the atmosphere stays pleasant at mealtime.
Overcoming mealtime difficulties
Depending on their age, children react differently to foods. Some children will not like any new food they try. Others will no longer like a food that they ate enthusiastically a few weeks previously. Other children will sort foods that have been mixed together or examine them for a long time.
Some children refuse to try new foods. This reaction is called food neophobia and is completely normal. It is caused by the child’s fear of unfamiliar foods. Your child may need to see a new food twenty times or more before he wants to eat it or even try it.
Food neophobia goes away over time, but here are a few tips to help you deal with it:
- Eat the same food as your child and show him that you like what you are eating. He will be reassured and soothed and will be more open to trying different foods.
- Keep giving your child foods that he enjoys less but give them to him in a meal with other foods that he knows and likes. Do not replace a food that he refuses with another food.
- Vary the way you prepare or present food, make colourful dishes and do not mix everything together on the plate.
- Encourage, but do not force, your child to try every food. Congratulate him when he does.
- Teach your child words to describe what he tries: soft, hard, spicy, sweet, salty, smooth, crunchy, etc.
- Cook with your child sometimes so that he can discover new foods.
- Do not use food as reward or punishment or as a negotiation tool (e.g., if you eat this, you can have that).
- Be reassuring and talk about positive subjects during meals so that mealtimes are enjoyable. Getting exasperated or scolding your child will not improve the situation.
Offer your child a variety of nutritious foods
Offer your child a variety of nutritious foods at each meal and snack, as recommended in Canada’s Food Guide.
- plenty of vegetables and fruits;
- wholegrain foods;
- protein foods, including, in particular, milk and enriched soy drinks.
Go to the page Healthy eating to find out more.
Offer your child water throughout the day. Replace 100% pure fruit juice, fruit drinks, soft drinks and other sugary drinks with water. Go to the page Water, the drink of choice to stay hydrated to find out more.
Respect your child’s hunger and fullness signals
From the time they are born, children feel hungry and also feel full, that is, they feel they have eaten enough. Know how to recognize your child’s signals so that you will know how he feels and respect his needs.
A child is hungry when:
- he chews his hand;
- he says that he is hungry;
- he says that he has a burning sensation in his stomach;
- he has difficulty concentrating;
- he is irritable;
- his tummy rumbles.
A child has eaten enough when:
- he turns his head away;
- he pushes the bottle or spoon away with his tongue;
- he says that he is not hungry anymore;
- he says that his tummy is full;
- he shows less interest in his meal or plays with the food;
- he wants to leave the table, go play or do something else.
Don’t worry when your child eats less than usual. Remember that he won’t starve himself and that his appetite can vary from one day to the next. Do not pressure him pointlessly to eat more and do not scold him or get exasperated.
If a dessert is made from nutritious foods such as fruits, wholegrains and dairy products, it is preferable to give the child a dessert irrespective of whether or not he has eaten the main dish. It completes the meal.
Some children may leave food on their plate to save a little room for dessert. This behaviour is a clear indicator that the child is paying attention to his hunger and fullness signals.
Share responsibility for eating with your child
Have your child participate in decisions about meals and snacks. Let him decide how much food he wants to eat. This will allow him to listen to his hunger and fullness signals and help him develop a healthy relationship with food.
The parent decides:
- where and when, that is, the place and time of meals and snacks;
- what, that is, the foods and dishes that will be served.
The child decides:
- how much, that is, the amount of food he will eat depending on his appetite and preferences.
If your child does not finish what is on his plate, do not force him to eat more. Do not use food as reward or punishment or as a negotiation tool. For example, do not deny your child dessert if he does not eat his vegetables or forbid him from playing outside if he does not eat his chicken.
Indeed, restricting food or using food as a reward can increase your child’s attraction to and enjoyment of the food in question. Things that are forbidden are often more attractive to children than things that are allowed. When a child is somehow forced to eat foods he refuses, he may see it as a punishment and his dislike of the food might increase. Using food as reward or punishment can undermine the child’s relationship with food.
Enjoy meals together as a family
Eating nutritious meals as a family and having fun at the table usually helps children develop healthy eating habits. Meals and snacks are ideal opportunities to spend some enjoyable time together as a family, laughing and having fun. Make sure the atmosphere at the table is pleasant, for example by avoiding arguments and turning off the television.
Be a model
Eat the same nutritious foods as your children with interest, curiosity and enthusiasm and don’t hesitate to say the food is good. Children tend to be more open about food when their parents, brothers, sisters or friends eat it at the same time as them and show they like it.
You can get additional information on nutrition for children at the following websites:
- Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux
- Institut national de santé publique du Québec
- MonÉquilibre, organisme ÉquiLibre
- Parent (in French only)
Food preferences and neophobia
- Nos petits mangeurs, Centre de référence en alimentation à la petite enfance
- Naître et grandir, Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon
Last update: January 10, 2023