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Making mealtimes happier

For many families, mealtimes can be challenging, with children often going through stages of fussy eating and pushing boundaries with their behaviour. Here are some ways to help make mealtimes much more enjoyable for everyone.

Improving children’s eating at mealtimes

  • Put the food on the table. If, after 15 to 20 minutes, your child hasn’t eaten it, just take the food away without comment. Don’t nag them to eat. However, if they haven’t eaten, avoid offering an alternative option or dessert, instead waiting until the next planned snack or mealtime before offering food again. Limit your mealtimes to 20 to 30 minutes only
  • Avoid giving your child crisps, biscuits and sweets between meals, instead offering small healthy snacks such as crackers, fruit and vegetable sticks. The NHS has a food scanner app that you can use to find healthy food alternatives
  • Children copy adults and other children, so try to make sure everyone sits down together to eat, showing them that everyone is having the same food
  • Avoid screen time at meal times as they can be very distracting
  • Children love eating outside, so have fun with summer picnics, BBQs or a teddy bears’ tea party in a nearby park
  • Use a reward chart to encourage children to show good behaviour at mealtimes, but make sure your rewards aren’t food related. Go for things like watching their favourite TV show or going to play at the park
  • Persevere with these steps as improving your child’s behaviour can take time. Talk to your health visiting team for further tips if you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere

Getting the balance right

Good eating habits are established early in life, so encourage your child to eat a variety of different foods in their diet, including fruit, vegetables, lean meat, fish, chicken and wholegrain cereals.

If your child is a fussier eater, involving them in meal preparation can help. Have fun rolling and cutting dough, making patterns and faces with salad vegetables or fruit pieces, baking cakes or biscuits and making animal shaped sandwiches. You can even get them to grow their own cress, herbs and lettuce to cook with.

Child and mother cooking in the kitchen

Healthy Start is a national scheme that aims to help improve the health of families on benefits and low incomes. If you qualify for the scheme, you’ll get vouchers for food and vitamins. Talk to your health visitor for more information.


The best drink for your child is water. If a child feels full of drink they’re less likely to eat properly, so be careful with giving large drinks before a meal. The best drink for your child is either water or milk. If you offer juice, make sure it is a well diluted, unsweetened fruit juice. One part juice to ten parts water is recommended for young children, because fruit juice contains lots of natural sugars which can be bad for teeth.

Children get much of the calcium, protein, vitamins and energy they need from milk and from foods like yoghurt or cheese which are made from milk. The recommended amount of dairy for a child is 350mls of milk a day or two servings of food made from milk or dairy alternatives.

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Page last reviewed: 14-05-2024

Next review due: 14-05-2027