Nutrition for children below school age
This page contains information and links concerning topics related to food for young children.
A healthy diet is recommended for all family members. Parents act as examples for their children when exploring new flavours and ingredients. The whole family can eat the same food, but the portion size should vary depending on each individual’s energy needs. Children are able to determine a suitable portion size for themselves, but they should be offered food more often than adults, which is why the quality of snacks is important.
In situations requiring specialist expertise, families with children can also make an appointment with a licensed nutritional therapist. Referrals can be provided by nurses at maternity and child health clinics, for example.
Children’s eating habits accumulate with age (source: Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, in Finnish)
Children have different temperaments and develop at different rates. Whilst one child may be able to sit still for the course of a meal from a young age, another serial fidgeter might not be able to stay in their chair for the whole meal; little daydreamers may need reminding to focus on eating when they begin to drift off and get distracted.
Things that can help with focusing on the meal include making sure no toys are brought to the table, or stopping reading and TV watching whilst eating.
Where possible family meals should be pleasant, unhurried times spent together, where the child is not only fed but also gets the opportunity to learn different eating skills little by little. Children also pick up eating habits – both good and bad – from those closest to them.
1–2 years old
Children aged 1–2 years old can sit at the table with the rest of the family. If they do not yet have many teeth, their food should be mushed up for them. However, avoid mushing up the food too much – chewing helps to develop the fine motor skills in the mouth and is beneficial in the development of teeth and speech.
The child can put a suitable amount of food in their mouth and practise using a spoon, sometimes using fingers too, to help. At this stage they won’t always get the food in their mouth – they will need encouragement to keep trying! If necessary you can help the child, and gradually they will be able to eat more and more independently.
If the child does not want the parent’s help and is not managing to eat independently, you can try using two spoons: the parent feeds the child with one and the child practises with the other. Bibs are handy to protect clothes. Children can drink from mugs that they can hold onto with two hands. Familiar meal-time rituals are often important.
Children aged 2–3 years can feed themselves with a spoon. Some children want to start trying to use a fork too, at this age. Children are able to chew their food well, and you can teach them not to talk with food in their mouth.
Children learn to regulate how much food they put on the spoon. Practise saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at the table. At about three years old, children often don’t need to wear a bib any more. The child can practise taking at least some of the cutlery to the agreed place after the meal.
A child exercising their own will and having outbursts of defiance at the dinner table can come as a surprise, with the angry screaming child not having an appetite for food. In such situations it can be better to take a step back to calm down and sort out the situation elsewhere.
3–4 years old
At 3–4 years old children try to eat more tidily, wiping food away from their mouth and not throwing food, for example. When they are familiar with using a spoon and fork, they can gradually practise using a knife too.
Children can learn to cut up soft foods for themselves, but will still need some help with cutting up meat. Children learn to butter their own bread and put their food onto their plate for themselves at this age. An adult’s help will still be needed with hot food. Children will still find it difficult to assess suitable portion sizes, but this is something that can be practised – they can take a little to begin with, and then add more if they are still hungry.
At this age children often find it easier than before to focus on sitting in their seat for the duration of the meal. Forgetfulness and dawdling are still common, however – sufficient time should be set aside for the meal. On the other hand, remaining at the table for a long period of time is not a good idea – half an hour is usually sufficient for meals.
Children enjoy being involved in preparing meals: setting the table, helping to make the food, emptying shopping bags. Children say ‘thank you’ when they get down from the table – sometimes they will need to be reminded. After eating the child can leave the table; they may still find it difficult to wait until others have finished.
Hunger can vary from day to day and meal to meal. Children should not be offered milk, juice or snacks between meals, as this can ruin their appetite for the next meal.
5–6 years old
Children of 5–6 years old can practise eating with a knife and fork and serving their own food. At this age children learn to butter bread and peel potatoes.
Determining a suitable portion size is still not easy, but it can be practised.
Independence is increasing and this is a good thing: soon they will have to cope at mealtimes at school. Children are already familiar with good manners and rules when it comes to food, and they often adhere to them. However, pushing the boundaries is also normal behaviour: such as asking for ice cream instead of potatoes! The adult’s job is to stick to sensible rules.