How often does my child need to eat each day?

Young children have a limited capacity to eat at each mealtime, and need regular opportunities to eat in order to maintain energy levels and get enough nutrients throughout the day.

A regular meal pattern forms the basis of a healthy, balanced diet. Three meals and two snacks a day is ideal for young children. Snacks are just as important as meals to children’s nutrition.

Snacks should offer nutrients in proportion to their energy value. Snacks which provide energy (kilojoules) without adequate nutrients are not good value for children and should not be offered on a regular basis. These are ‘sometimes foods’.

Most foods offered at meals can also be offered as snacks – some of the most common suitable snacks include bread, cereals, fruit, vegetables and milk-based drinks. Snacks do not have to be large – one or two savoury biscuits with cheese, a small piece of fruit, steamed vegetable sticks with dip, or a small glass of fruit smoothie all make good snacks. Make sure to offer water regularly, or have it available for children to help themselves.

Children are less likely to eat more than they need at a meal if they know that there will be a snack at a predictable time – which means they are more likely to start taking notice of their appetites. Parents often feel uncomfortable if a child does not eat, or eats less than what parents think is required. Knowing that a snack will be available in a reasonable amount of time will help you to let children decide how much to eat without worrying.

Remember, the idea is that parents provide healthy foods and children decide what and how much they will eat.

There can be some flexibility with snack times, but don’t allow your child to get too hungry as this can often cause irritability. On the other hand, letting your child graze constantly interferes with them learning to recognise hunger and eat in response to it.

How important is breakfast?

Breakfast is a very important meal, mainly because it is difficult for children to manage and enjoy their day if they start off hungry. Eating breakfast every day is part of a good healthy eating routine.
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If children don’t eat breakfast:
  • it is more difficult for them to control their behaviour and enjoy their day
  • it is very difficult for them to get enough nutrients for the day
  • they become hungry later on and will often eat less nutritious snack foods because they are available at the time
  • they are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Breakfast does not need to be costly or time-consuming – rather, it can be simple, nutritious and easy. For example, a meal of wholegrain cereal with milk and fruit is nutritious and quick to prepare. It is not necessary to go to a lot of trouble, especially during a busy time of day.

Some mornings, we run out of time for breakfast. How can I make sure my child has something to eat?

Sometimes children can be very slow in the morning or claim they do not feel hungry. As part of setting up good long-term habits, try some of these ideas.

Do you have breakfast yourself? If not, it is hard to insist that your child eat breakfast. Try to make some time for everyone in your family to have breakfast. This may be hard to begin with, but after a few weeks you may be pleased to see that you feel better in general and are less hungry later in the day.
  • Be matter of fact about breakfast being part of the daily routine.
  • Start the day a little earlier and make sure there is enough time for breakfast, to avoid feeling rushed while eating.
  • Offer something quick for breakfast and give your child some choices – for example, let your child choose between two suitable brands of breakfast cereal when you do the shopping.
  • Occasionally offer something quite different for breakfast, such as a bowl of yoghurt with some chopped fresh fruit or canned fruit.
Many things can happen that may delay your start in the morning. If your child arrives at the early childhood setting without breakfast, make sure you let someone know. Most settings will have something available for your child to eat for breakfast.