Nutrition for young children

We recommend that your child eat three meals per day plus snacks in between, from a variety of foods. Most children will eat when they’re hungry, although they may eat very little at times. If your child is rejecting certain foods and drinks, there’s a range of things you can do to encourage their eating.

Your young child’s diet

A healthy diet includes a range of foods and snacks such as:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables (raw or cooked)
  • Cereals, crackers, breads & small sandwiches
  • Meat
  • Dairy products e.g. cheese and yoghurt

Offer your child plenty of variety, and don’t worry if they refuse some things - they’ll make up for it by eating other foods. For example, they might reject some vegetables but gobble up plenty of fruit instead. Try and offer the rejected food lots of times on future occasion as they often change their minds.

Tips for your child’s eating

  • Avoid offering snacks close to mealtimes. A one or two hour gap is best.
  • If your child asks for food but doesn’t seem hungry, try to keep them busy.
  • Eat as a family at least once a day. Children like to copy their parents.
  • It’s best to ignore leftover food - praise for trying is a better plan.
  • Try to serve meals before your child is tired, or have your evening meal earlier.
  • Offer a variety of foods during the day, as your tired child may not eat well at night.
  • Present your child’s food in different ways, like offering meat as hamburgers or meatballs.
  • Involve your child in the preparation, as it may increase their interest.
  • Keep food choices simple (e.g. apple or banana). This gives children a feeling of control.

To help prevent choking, avoid small, round, hard foods like nuts and grapes, and encourage your child to sit down while they’re eating and drinking.

Snacks and treats

Children need fat in their diets for energy and growth, but it’s important not to have high-fat and high-sugar foods every day (such as chips, lollies and ice cream). Avoid talking about them as ‘bad’ foods however, and teach your child to enjoy them as an occasional treat.

Try to offer them well before mealtimes so your child has time to get hungry again. Children who eat ‘treat’ foods too often tend to eat less healthy food. Sweet foods can also cause holes in teeth.


It’s best to offer drinks in a cup rather than a bottle. Milk and water are the best drinks; milk after meals and then water in between meals.

While milk is great, you can overdo it. If your child drinks more than two cups (500 mls) a day, they may not eat well because they’re already full. Less milk should increase their interest in food. You can encourage them by drinking water yourself.

Try to keep flavoured milk, juice and fizzy drinks for occasional treats. If you are giving children juice, add plenty of water - 1 part juice to 10 parts water.

If you’re worried about your child’s appetite or diet, talk to your Well Child nurse or call PlunketLine on 0800 933 922.

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