Good nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy life. This is the case for adults and for children, even babies and toddlers. Eating healthy food helps children get the nutrients their bodies need to stay healthy, active, and strong. Children develop their eating patterns early in life. These early years are an opportunity for you to teach them healthy habits that will stay with them as they get older.
Path to improved health
Children’s eating habits start when they’re young, even as young as infancy. So it’s important for parents to encourage healthy eating from the start. Here are some ways you can help your child be a healthy eater.
For much of infancy, the most important thing your baby needs is breast milk or formula. They provide nearly every nutrient your baby needs during his or her first year of life. The AAFP recommends that almost all babies should be breastfed or receive human milk exclusively for approximately six months.
- If possible, breastfeed your baby for at least 6 months.
- Try to wait until your baby is 6 months old to start solid foods. Choose healthy foods like pureed vegetables, jarred baby foods, and infant cereals.
- When your baby is 8 or 9 months old, you can start offering small pieces of healthy finger foods. These could include grilled chicken, cooked carrots, or cut up fresh fruit.
- The best drinks for your baby are breast milk, formula, and water. Don’t be tempted to give your older baby (older than 6 months) juice, soft drinks, and sports drinks. These add extra calories and sugar that your baby doesn’t need. Only put breast milk or formula in your baby’s bottle.
Toddlers and preschoolers
Toddlers grow in spurts. Their appetites tend to come and go in spurts, too. They may eat a lot one day and hardly anything the next day. This is normal. Just continue to offer them a healthy selection of foods every day, and they should get the nutrients they need.
- Provide healthy snacks for your toddler throughout the day. Offer them small cubes of cheese, cut up fruit, low-fat yogurt, or whole grain crackers.
- Let your toddler choose between two healthy food options. He or she will be more likely to eat something they’ve chosen themselves.
- Be patient with a picky eater. Sometimes toddlers need to try a food 10 to 15 times before they’ll eat it. Don’t give up on a healthy food after only a few tries.
- Let your child help you prepare his or her food. They’ll be more likely to try healthy foods if they’ve helped make them.
- Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy foods and snacks. These could include string cheese, sliced apples, baby carrots, and peanut butter. Even if you’re in a hurry, you’ll still have plenty of healthy options to choose from.
- The best drinks for your toddler or preschooler are milk and water. Juice, soft drinks, and sports drinks add calories and sugar that young children don’t need.
Once your child goes to school, you may have less control over what he or she eats during the day. But there are still things you can do to help your child eat a healthy diet.
- Pack your child’s lunch every day so you can control what he or she has to eat.
- If your child buys lunch, go over the menu with him or her and talk about what you expect your child to eat. Encourage healthy choices.
- Continue to offer healthy snacks when your child gets home from school. Prepare balanced, healthy breakfasts and dinners.
- Remember your child learns by watching you. If you eat healthy, your child is more likely to make similar choices.
Things to consider
Good nutrition at an early age is not just about food choices. It’s also about helping your child form healthy habits around food. Here are some other ways you can help your child become a healthy eater.
- Don’t force your young child to eat.Children need to learn how to listen to their bodies so they can stop eating when they’re full. Forcing a child to eat usually results in him or her eating less overall.
- Skip the food reward.When you use food as a reward or to show affection, your child could start using food to cope with their emotions. Instead, give them hugs, praise, attention, or time together.
- Turn off screens during mealtimes.Don’t let your child watch TV when he or she eats. It encourages mindless eating, and your child may miss natural body cues signaling he or she is full.
- Make meals times about more than food.Use them as an opportunity to build strong family relationships. Talk with your child while you eat, and don’t let him or her eat alone.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How long should my infant eat only breast milk or formula?
- When should I introduce cereal to my baby?
- Can I give my baby fruits or vegetables before giving them cereal?
- What are good table foods I can give my infant?
- My toddler is a picky eater. What can I do to help him or her eat more foods?
- How can I help my child eat better at school?
- Where can I get ideas for healthy lunches to pack for my child?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.