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Understanding toddlers' needs for food and nutrition helps to turn meal time battles into whānau time.

A toddler’s eating habits can cause their whānau a lot of frustration. But understanding their child’s eating attitudes and behaviours is really important for their health and wellbeing.

Tamaiti might want to eat little and often rather than an adult routine of 3 meals a day. Parents can find it difficult to fit their toddler’s eating patterns into the whānau mealtime schedules.

A young child’s tummy is not very big – it’s about as big as their fist. And children have likes and dislikes when it comes to kai, just like adults. The idea that kids should eat all their dinner is not viewed as favourably as it was in the past.

Feeding time should never be a struggle or a battle. Studies looking at obesity in children, and eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, suggest that eating everything on our plates may not be the healthiest approach to take.

Food should never be used as a reward

There are ways of rewarding children that are better for their health and avoid creating unhelpful attitudes towards food.

An understanding of basic nutrition and a positive attitude towards parenting can lead to pleasant daily eating routines.

Toddlers need fewer calories than they did as babies because their physical growth rate has slowed. Providing small portions of a variety of healthy foods throughout the day can be more successful than trying to feed a child 3 substantial meals.

One idea that works for some whānau is to have their child’s intake of food for the day in the fridge. Most of this food is healthy with maybe 1 treat type item like a biscuit or chippies. This helps the child learn to make choices about what to eat and when, and the whānau knows how much the child has had through the day.

Children's mealtimes may be different

Children need to be fed when they are hungry, not when their whānau think they should be hungry. A mistake that parents sometimes make is confusing boredom for hunger. A toddler will find the cupboards or fridge very interesting and may take any opportunity to explore their contents without necessarily being hungry. This is another good reason for parents to monitor how much and what type of food their toddler is eating.

A good time for dinner for tired toddlers can be 4pm, with perhaps a light supper before bed time. This can result in supper time being a night-time ritual. The child doesn’t go to bed hungry and it can be a pleasant winding down and relationship-building time.

Mealtime is the perfect family time. It’s an ideal opportunity to share stories, to learn about family values and to participate in conversation. Of course toddlers don’t come to mealtime having learnt these things already. It’s an ongoing process, but remember, practice makes progress!

Other resources

Resource: Eating for healthy babies and toddlers – Ngā kai tōtika mō te hunga kōhungahunga | HealthEd (external link)

Feeding | Whānau Āwhina Plunket(external link)

Fussy or picky eating | Ministry of Health(external link)