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Five ways to help your child become a confident eater

With all the focus on what to eat have we forgotten about how we eat? We share five ways you can help young children to develop a healthy relationship with food.

When your child refuses dinner or their lunchbox comes back uneaten yet again, it can feel like an uphill battle. How can we support children to eat a wide range of foods from a young age?

Although it’s important to tick all the nutrition boxes and offer children plenty of foods that nourish their bodies, the way in which they eat and behave around food is just as important.1 Young children are like sponges – they soak up everything around them, repeat the words they hear, and mimic their actions.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen an increase in research showing the importance of eating behaviours and how they can support positive dietary habits and good health.2

Whether you’re a parent, aunty, uncle, grandparent or educator, here are five ways you can help young children to develop a positive relationship with food:


  1. Take away the pressure to eat
  2. Teach children about hunger and fullness
  3. Talk about food in a balanced way
  4. Let children decide what to eat first and serve themselves
  5. Try not to bribe or reward with food

1. Take away the pressure to eat

Kids do best when they can eat food in a relaxed environment without any kind of pressure.1

There are two types of pressure and each type can lead to a child eating more or less than what they need.

  • Negative pressure: over-restricting certain foods or amounts of food, making a child finish their plate, bribing a child to eat, i.e, “if you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert”. 1,3
  • Positive pressure: over-encouraging, reminding a child repeatedly how good and ‘healthy’ a portion of food is for them.3

Praising your child for trying new foods, role modelling by eating the same food with your child and talking about what the food helps their bodies do are all ways we can avoid pressure at mealtimes.

2. Teach children about hunger and fullness

One of the best ways we can support a young child to develop a good relationship with food is to teach them about their appetite and encourage them to “listen to their tummy."2  Talk about how they feel when they’re not hungry anymore and respect that they know their bodies better than we do.

They won’t always get it right (just like us) but if they do eat too little or too much it becomes a fantastic learning opportunity.

We want children to be in tune with their bodies and recognise the feeling they get when they are hungry and how they feel when they have eaten the right amount. When we encourage a child to keep eating we are teaching them to override their hunger and fullness cues.1

3. Talk about food in a balanced way

The words you use every day can influence how a child acts and feels around food now and in the future.

The foods we eat usually sit on a continuum and the context of what else we eat across a day or week is lost when we label a food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Children can then feel negative emotions about eating ‘bad’ foods despite the context they are eaten in.

When we let go and talk about food in a balanced/neutral way we acknowledge that all foods fit into our diet but we just need more of some and less of others.

These ideas may help to shift your conversations around food:1

  • What does it taste like?
  • What does it feel like in our mouths?
  • Why are we eating it (culture, tradition, special time of the year)?
  • What do we like about the food?

Whether it’s baking or helping cook dinner, getting your kids involved in preparing food can also help them to learn valuable skills and improve their food literacy.2

For more advice on how to talk about food with your children, download the following resource:


How to support food explorers (PDF)

4. Let children decide what to eat first and serve themselves

Responsive feeding is one of the most important feeding practices for encouraging healthy eating behaviours and appetite regulation early in life.4

The Ellyn Satter feeding model is a great tool to help you think about feeding your child. This is where the adult decides where, when, and what is offered to eat and the child has responsibility for choosing how much they would like to eat and whether they want to eat anything at all.4

Evidence shows that maintaining this division of responsibility allows children to self-regulate their hunger and reduces common mealtime behaviour struggles.4

Letting kids serve themselves may not always be a practical or appropriate option but where you can allow it to happen and try to remove any pressure around selecting or eating certain foods.

5. Try not to bribe or reward with food

It can be tempting to offer food to stop a child from crying, to keep them entertained or to control behaviour. However, this interferes with a child’s relationship with food and how sensitive they are to their own hunger and fullness cues because it normalises eating in the absence of hunger.3

When we offer food outside of regular mealtimes for a reason other than hunger it can have a knock-on effect and may mean your child isn’t hungry for their next meal or expects you to always respond to their needs with food.

The end goal

Ultimately, we want to give our kids the opportunity to learn how to eat in a way that works for their bodies. Changing the way we talk and behave around food takes practice and you won’t always get it right! You may also need to remind other family members if their language or approaches are unhelpful.

What’s most important is that you’re doing what you can to foster an environment that is free from pressure, labels and bribes so that your child can become a happy, confident eater.

When to get help

Remember, it’s common for children to go through phases where they refuse to try new foods. Here are some practical tips for helping reluctant eaters.

Children may also have varying appetites and different food preferences day-to-day. They may eat more or less at certain meals and during certain stages. This is all completely normal.

If you’re concerned about your child’s eating or growth it’s important to talk further with your GP, practice nurse, Well Child nurse, Plunket nurse or a registered dietitian/nutritionist.

Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.


  1. Haines J et al. 2019. Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating: Position Statement. Appetite. 137;124-133.
  2. Gerritsen S and Wall C. 2017. How We Eat: Reviews of the evidence on food and eating behaviours related to diet and body size. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
  3. Ellyn Satter Institute. Positive or negative, it’s still pressure.
  4. Orr G. 2021. Raising Healthy Kids. Support for a ‘how we eat’ approach in early learning food environments. A literature review.