Healthy eating for children

Picky eating and creating a healthy relationship with food

Why are some kids picky eaters?  
Your child may love certain foods but actively avoids others. Don’t be alarmed! Selective eating is a normal part of growing up. Children will often alternate between eating a lot at one meal and eating little at the next.  

Children can be selective because of: 

  • Growth. Children’s appetites change as they grow. This can make them hungry at one mealtime but full and refusing to eat at another.  

  • A fear of trying new things. Remember there are a lot of things that you have seen or tried before that your child hasn’t. Children may avoid certain foods because they are not familiar with them.  

  • Emotions. Children may not feel like eating because of their mood (e.g.: feeling angry or sad).  

Shared responsibilities to develop a healthy relationship with food  
As a parent, you may wonder if your child is eating enough healthy food, or maybe you have stressful mealtimes because your child refuses to eat what is offered. Feeding your child using the division of responsibility can help alleviate some of that stress, and it also helps to lay the foundation for them to have a positive relationship with food.  
Adult roles and responsibilities: 
Adult decidesHow to do it 

Aim for healthy food options that include different foods, colours and textures.  

Offer a variety of vegetables and fruits, protein foods and whole grain products at each meal and snack. 


At regular mealtimes (children need three meals and two to three snacks per day) 

While your child may not choose to eat at those times, it is your responsibility to stick to the schedule. One way to develop good eating habits is to distribute meals at fixed times, which will help to stimulate and regulate the child's appetite. 


At home and at the table as much as possible.  

Eating at the dinner table fosters healthy eating habits and signals the child that it is time to eat. 

Child roles and responsibilities:
Child decidesHow to do it
If they want to eat If they choose not to eat, try not to pressure them. Instead, you can remind them that the next meal/snack will be at the regular time (i.e. “You don’t need to eat your snack, but the next meal will be when we have lunch at noon.”) 
How much they want to eat Your child chooses how much they eat. Never pressure your child to eat more or less. Remember children are able to tell if they are hungry or full, so trust their instincts.

You can download and print our “Raise Healthy Eaters” poster. Post it on your fridge to serve as a gentle reminder for the whole family to work together towards raising healthy eaters.

Avoid using food as a reward or punishment 
Rewarding your child with treats can make them think those foods are exciting and other foods are boring. It can also teach them to want a treat each time they do something 'good'. This can get in the way of their natural ability to listen to their stomachs. Kids will eat the right amount of food their body needs. Try using non-food rewards to celebrate with your child: 
  • Stickers

  • Chalk

  • New book  

  • Fun shaped straws 

  • Colouring books  

  • Doing a special activity together  

Restricting food when disciplining your child can make them worry about not getting enough. Because of this, your child may try to eat whenever they can. Cutting out ‘treats’ as a punishment for bad behavior can cause your child to want that food more. Examples of punishing behavior with food:  

  • Not allowing your child to have dessert if they didn’t clean their plate or eat their vegetables.  

  • Not allowing your child their bedtime snack if they didn’t clean their room. 

When your child does something wrong, practice positive discipline and keep their meals the same. 

Keep mealtime free of pressure
The more pressure you put on your child to eat, the more stress they will feel towards food. For example, a child forced to eat broccoli may not want broccoli again. This can cause them to not want certain healthy foods more and more as they get older. Remember it can take tasting a new food up to 15 times before a child will accept it, so it is important to try to be patient. You can: 
  • Give them enough time to eat (usually about 15 minutes for snacks and 20 minutes for meals)  

  • Accept whatever foods they do or do not want to try without pressure 

  • Provide regular meals and snacks so they have other opportunities to eat if they aren’t hungry  at one of the designated meal times. 

Tips to help your child try new foods
  • Get children involved in preparing meals and snacks. Children are more likely to try meals they’ve had a hand in making.  
  • Prepare the same meal for everyone in the family and try to include at least one food that your child likes.  

  • Be patient. Children often need to taste a new food over 10 times before they will accept it, so don’t give up! Continue to offer a variety of foods, even if your child has refused them in the past. 

  • Be a good role model. If children see their parents and other adults eating a variety of healthy food, they will be more likely to do the same. 

  • Switch it up. Children tend to like some textures more than others. Get creative with the way food is prepared! 

  • Remove distractions. Television, books, games and toys at meal and snack time can cause children to become less focused on their food. 

  • Introduce children to a few new foods every week. This will help them try new things and become familiar with different foods. Allowing them to plan the weekly menu with you can motivate them to try new foods.  

  • Make family meals a priority. If a child chooses to not eat, they can still sit at the table during mealtime. This way, they can be involved in the quality family bonding that happens during meals.  

Be a positive role model 

You can be a positive role model by setting an example. Nourishing your body with nutritious foods and being physically active helps your child develop positive self-esteem and a preference for nutritious foods and active lifestyle.  

Children are more likely to eat colourful vegetables and fruit and other healthy foods and drinks when they see others eating and enjoying them. Children are always watching and listening. What you do and say can have a significant impact on what your child sees as “normal”.  

How to be a positive role model:  

  • Encourage healthy food choices by including a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits at meals and snacks. 

  • Try not to talk about personal dislikes for foods. 

  • Let children choose what to eat from the healthy foods offered, show them how to politely say “no thank you”. 

  • Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”. 

  • Don’t comment on the size, shape of appearance of your body and others. Healthy bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and healthy bodies look different for everyone. 

  • Focus on positive attributes that are not related to appearance such as attitudes, efforts, skills, talents and abilities.  

  • Eat regular meals and snacks, choosing a variety of foods from Canada’s Food Guide. 

 How to feed your littles

Canada’s Food Guide for children
Children watch and learn, and when they see adults eating well, enjoying physical activity, and feeling good about themselves, they learn from and copy these positive behaviours. 

Families are encouraged to follow Canada’s Food Guide and to make healthy foods part of the daily routine. Healthy meals and snacks will help children grow, develop and learn. Families can follow Canada’s Food Guide together by havingavariety of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods, and protein foods throughout the day.  

*Very few foods contain vitamin D, (seeUnlock Food for  a list of vitamin D rich foods)if you think your child is not getting enough vitamin D in their diet, they can take a supplement of 400 IU every day.  

For more information on Canada’s Food Guide:  

Vegetarian and vegan diets for children

Many people are including more protein from plants in their diet, which is great! Canada’s Food Guide recommends trying to choose protein foods that come from plants every day. Vegetarians' diets may include dairy, eggs, fish but not meat and poultry. A vegan diet is one that does not have products that come from an animal. This means no meat, dairy, fish, gelatin, or honey.  

Well planned vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy at all stages of life. You must however, pay special attention to the following nutrients:  

  • Protein 

  • Iron 

  • Zinc 

  • Vitamin B12 

  • Calcium 

  • Vitamin D 

  • Omega-3 fats 

This resource “What you need to know to raise a healthy vegetarianexplains in detail how to ensure that you meet the nutrients needs of a child following a vegetarian or vegan diet. For personalized advice, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or with your family doctor.

Make water your drink of choice
Water, water, water.  Plain water is best, for everyone and especially for young children.  Water is not only important for hydration but it is also needed by the body to: 
  • Carry nutrients and oxygen to working muscles, 

  • Remove toxins and waste products, 

  • Keep joints moving well, 

  • Regulate body temperature, and 

  • Maintain normal blood pressure and heart rate. 

What are some tips for my child to stay hydrated all day?  

  • Kids may drink more when it is flavoured water. Add frozen berries, slices of lemon, orange, cucumber or fresh herbs such as mint to the water bottle to give it flavour without the added sugar. 

  • Enjoy vegetables and fruits high in water such as cucumber, celery, watermelon, oranges and grapes. 

  • Carry a re-usable water bottle and label it with your child's name to prevent sharing. 

All About Sugar

Sugar is a carbohydrate that makes foods and drinks taste sweet. Sugar is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, fruit juice and dairy products. It is also added to many foods like desserts, sugar sweetened beverages, breakfast cereals and yogurts. Added sugar has many different names including: white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, maltose, glucose-fructose, fruit juice concentrate and fruit juice puree. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that added sugars make up less than 5% and a maximum of 10% of children’s daily calories. For a child aged 4 to 11 years old, 5% is equal to ~6 teaspoons (23 grams) of sugar and 10% is equal to ~ 11 teaspoons (45 grams) of sugar. Added sugars can quickly add up when eating sugar sweetened foods and beverages such as sweets, desserts, juice, pop, baked goods and even many other processed foods that could appear to be healthy.  

Having too much sugar can cause health problems in children because it provides extra calories but few nutrients. This means sweet foods could fill up a child’s stomach and take the place of healthy foods. Overtime, a diet rich in added sugars can increase the risk of cavities as well as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other preventable diseases.   

A healthy diet for children can include some sugar, but it is important to choose foods with little to no added sugars most of the time. Find out what you can do to limit the amount of sugar your child eats by reading Kids, Sugar, and Healthy Eating 

Healthy lunch and snack ideas

Packing healthy and tasty lunches for your child to bring to school is an important task. They spend the majority of their time at school and a healthy lunch will give your child energy to play and learn. 

Lunch Box tips: 

  • Involve your kids in your meal planning for the week. Nudge them to make healthy choices by letting them choose between two healthy options for lunch/snack. For example: “Do you want cucumbers or peppers with your sandwich?” or “Do you want apple sauce or yogurt for snack?”  

  • Plan school lunches on weekends when you have more time and ask your kids to help you prepare veggie and fruit snacks, make some sandwiches, put yogurt in containers etc.  

  • Plan some school lunches around what leftovers you will have from dinner the night before.  

  • Ask you kids to help you pack their lunch box the night before to avoid the morning scramble.   

  • Aim to include 2 food groups in your child's snack. For example, cheese and whole grain crackers or yogurt and a small oatmeal muffin. 

Healthy lunch ideas:  

  • Nut butter and banana wrap, cucumber sticks and milk 

  • Cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, carrot sticks and water  

  • Leftover pasta salad (whole wheat noodles, grilled chicken or beans, green peppers, corn) and milk

 Healthy snacks ideas: 

  • Yogurt and fruit 

  • A small muffin with an apple 

  • Vegetables and hummus 

  • Whole grain crackers and cheese 

For recipes and more ideas on how to involve your kids in the kitchen:  

Making the healthy choice the easy choice 

Planning even just a few meals and snacks a week will help reduce a lot of the stress. It can also help ensure that your family eats a more balanced and healthy diet. Look at your weekly schedule and find those crazy nights and plan and prepare for them ahead of time. These little tips can save you a lot of time! 

Meal prep shortcuts:  

  • Involve your children in the planning and preparation of the meals and snacks. They will be more likely to eat the food. 

  • When you have more time on the weekend, prepare a casserole. Precook some meats and freeze. You can also cook certain grains such as rice and quinoa and freeze them in proper quantities. 

  • Prepare your ingredients for a crockpot recipe the night before. Set it up the morning of and come back to a warm meal ready to go. When you are preparing meals, double up on the recipe for a meal the following week.   

  • Make your child's favourite muffins or homemade energy bars. Freeze them individually for quick snack in the lunch box, or after school or before and after the activity. 

  • Prepare and cut up your vegetables ahead of time. The same thing works for larger fruit such as cantaloupe or other melons. Place them in individual containers for snacks ready to go. You can add an individual yogurt or hummus to complete the snack. 

  • Slice some cheese and wrap individually. Add some crackers and you have another snack! 

  • Designate a drawer or area in the refrigerator for those cold snacks. Do the same for a drawer in the kitchen for your containers or for your non-refrigerated snacks. 

For more information on meal planning:  

How to get your child cooking – what to teach at each age 

Benefits of cooking as a family
Did you know that parents have the greatest influence on children when it comes to learning about food and cooking? Hands-on cooking activities can help children develop healthy eating habits and to build self-confidence and skills in the kitchen. Cooking is a skill that will be with them forever. The more you practice, the easier it becomes!Some of the benefits of family cooking include: 
  • Make mealtime faster; assign age-appropriate tasks to your children. 

  • Involving children in the kitchen gives them control over their food, making them more likely to eat it. It can help with picky eating. 

  • Spend time as a family. 

  • Pass on family and cultural traditions. 

  • Build confidence, independence and lifelong healthy lifestyle habits. What your child learns today stays with them in the future. 

  • Practical life skills. Your kitchen is a classroom where your children can learn about: 

    • Math: work with fractions, measure and count 

    • Science: how cooking changes food to make it softer, harder, tastier 

    • Social skills: work as a team and share tasks to do something concrete 

    • Language: read a recipe, write a grocery list 

    • ...and more! 

How to involve kids in the kitchen

You can involve your child at any age. Keep in mind their abilities as they are constantly developing. Assign a task that your child can complete independently. And make sure to allow extra time for them. Here are some secrets to success:  

  • Keep it simple. 

  • Select easy recipes with few ingredients. 

  • Read and review the recipe together. 

  • If working with more than one child, make sure they each get their turn to participate in the steps. 

  • Involve them from start to finish. It is important that they see ingredients in both a natural state and in a completed meal. 

  • Safety first: always mention that it is not a race and going slowly is okay. 

  • Note that by age 12, youth are responsible enough to handle most kitchen tasks. 

What to teach at each age

Keep in mind that each child is different. The tasks for each age listed are there to guide you, and not to restrict your child's development. Confidence and practice will help your child build their cooking skills. They may master some skills faster than others. Use your judgement to decide which tasks are appropriate for your child.  

2 to 3 years old 

  • Wash vegetables and fruits 

  • Count ingredients 

  • Add ingredients to a bowl, mix and pour  

  • Wipe tables 

3 to 5 years old 

  • Mash soft foods, bananas, cooked beans, potatoes 

  • Assemble foods:  making a simple sandwich or pizza, trail mix 

  • Cut soft foods with a strong plastic knife e.g. mushrooms, strawberries, cheese, tofu 

  • Beat eggs  

  • Set and clear the table 

6 to 8 years old 

  • Learn cooking vocabulary (mince, dice, chop, sift, beat, grill, broil, etc) 

  • Crack eggs 

  • Reading simple recipes and labels with help 

  • Fill and level measuring spoons and cups 

  • Grate cheese, carrots 

  • Set the table - encourage them to cherish the ritual of family meals 

  • Cut with scissors - if you can get smaller scissors or children's scissors, use them to snip herbs 

9 to 11 years old 

  • Work with simple kitchen equipment with supervision e.g. peeler, grater, toaster, blender or can opener, microwave, handheld mixer 

  • Make their own lunches 

  • Follow a simple recipe 

  • Use the stove, with supervision 

  • Cut with a sharper knife with supervision, take a look at the knife skills video 

  • Write a grocery list 

  • Wash dishes 

 Other information

Food allergies and Intolerances 

There are 10 “priority allergens”. That is to say 10 most common foods that can cause allergic reactions:  

Symptoms of Allergies vs. Intolerances
  • Rash/hives/itchy skin 

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Chest pain  

  • Sudden drop in blood pressure  

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing

  • Upset stomach 

  • Burning feeling in chest   

  • Headache  

  • Feeling angry or nervous

  • Feeling sick  

  • Pain in stomach  

  • Diarrhea  

  • Throwing up 

Food intolerance symptoms come on more slowly and may only happen when a lot of the food is eaten or if it is eaten often. They are not life threatening.  

Food allergies come on suddenly and a small amount of the food can trigger a large reaction. The reaction will happen every time the food is eaten. These can be life threatening. If you notice any allergy symptoms, speak to your doctor immediately. 

For more information on the difference between food intolerance or food allergy visit Unlockfood 


Anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction. Without emergency treatment, the person’s life is at risk. Anaphylactic reactions can start within minutes or hours of having contact with the allergen. Any food on the above list can cause this type of reaction.  

Anaphylaxis is an emergency and must be treated right away. If you have an auto-injector (EpiPen®, Allergect®), use this before heading to the hospital. Children with life-threatening allergies should have an auto-injector with them at all times. If you do not have an auto-injector, go to the hospital right away.  

For signs, symptoms and what to do, please see the child safety webpage. 

Can food allergies be outgrown 

It is possible for children to outgrow their food allergies after a few years. The most common food allergies to outgrow are milk, soy and egg allergies. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are more likely to last into adulthood. 

Managing Allergies Resources 

The following are additional resources to support you and your child in managing allergies:  

Marketing to Kids

Food marketing is all around us. Most foods advertised to children are highly processed, and are high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fats. This poses important health risks at a time when they are growing and developing lifelong dietary habits. 

Children are vulnerable to food marketing because their developmental age makes them susceptible, and they are highly targeted. They are easy-to-reach with child appealing ads placed everywhere they spend time during the day (schools, sports arenas, stores, etc.). 

For more information on Marketing to kids 

How to find information you can trust

Nutrition information is everywhere and as a parent you want to do what is best for your kids, but it can be confusing to know who and what to believe. Here are some tips to help you as you look for credible information on healthy eating.  

Want to speak with a Registered Dietitian?  

Call Health Connect Ontarioand ask to speak with a Registered Dietitian. Available Monday-Friday 9am-5pm by calling 811 (TTY: 1-866-797-0007) or starting a chat  

Do you have more questions about parenting? 

  • Speak with a Public Health Nurse. Call the Ottawa Public Health Info Centre at 613-PARENTS [613-727-3687]  (TTY: 613-580-9656) or email Ottawa Public Health at 

  • Connect with a Public Health Nurse and other parents on the Parenting in Ottawa Facebook page 

  • There are a variety of services to make it easier for your child to grow up healthy in Ottawa  

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