Healthy eating for young children


How you feed your young child can have a lasting impact on their health. That’s why it’s important to think about healthy eating right from the start.

If your child is a picky eater, talk about it with your child’s doctor. Don’t give your child unhealthy foods just to get them to eat. This could lead to bad eating habits that may be hard to break as your child ages.


Know what you’re feeding your child

Always read the ingredients listed on the food label. Make sure there’s no added sugar. It can sneak in through unlikely sources like ketchup or bread. Be sure these sugary products don’t make it home.

It’s easier with infants and toddlers because you’re trying one new food every few days. You’ll slowly learn what foods you want your child to eat and build from there.


Make smart food choices

Young children don’t need as much food as older children or adults. It’s important to know about correct serving sizes. (See the “Appropriate servings for babies” handout on our website.) 

Balance is also important. Fruits and vegetables should make up a large part of each meal. Choose whole grains instead of refined or “white” grains for bread, pasta and rice. Go for lean meats and try other proteins like tofu, beans and lentils, too.

Fat can be good or bad

Fat helps build the brains of young children. But not all fats are good. Try to stick to mostly unsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado, and nut or nut butters. 

Saturated fat is less healthy. It’s in butter, cheese and other full-fat dairy foods, as well as fatty meats. Whole milk or toddler formulas are good up to age two. After that, limit how much saturated fat is in your child’s food. Unsaturated fats may be healthy, but you still need to watch how much your child eats. If not, they may gain too much weight or get too full to eat healthier foods.

No juice is good juice

Juice is not a healthy way to give your child fruit. It isn’t like a serving of real fruit. Juice is just a serving of sugar. Real fruit also has fiber, which helps the body break the sugar down in a healthy, natural way. 

Drinking juice can also become a bad habit that may be hard to break later. Water and milk are good for children older than one year.

Snacks are good. Grazing isn’t.

Young children have small stomachs. Ideally, they need three meals and two to three snacks each day. Try to plan regular meals and snacks with enough time for your child to get hungry in between. Don’t give food every time your child asks for it. And don’t leave food out for kids to graze on any time they feel like it. Grazing all day can lead to kids eating more calories than they need. It can even lead to poor growth because the child is never hungry enough to eat a full meal. 

Regular meals and snacks will make sure children get enough to eat. They’ll also learn the healthy signs of hunger and feeling full.

Get your child moving

Children need exercise. Get them to go out and play every day. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under age two shouldn’t watch TV. And those older than two should watch TV no more than two hours a day. Limiting TV, video games and sitting around helps build healthy habits around being physically active. It may help to have a list of things your child can do indoors and outdoors and be active when it’s time to play. With young children you can play too. Go on a scavenger hunt, look for hidden toys or invent your own games.

Lead by example

It’s important for young children to see their parents modeling healthy behaviors. Giving good guidance is not enough. Kids learn by example. Don’t think they won’t notice if you’re not eating your veggies or you watch TV when you send them outside to play. 

The best way to teach healthy behaviors is doing it together as a family.

Don’t use food as a reward

It’s not good to use food as a reward for children of any age. Children shouldn’t get a sweet dessert as a treat for finishing their veggies. Don’t give cookies to your child for turning off the TV or going out to play. Teach your child that these are normal healthy behaviors, not something you need to bribe them to do.