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Supporting parents with their children’s nutrition needs

Childrens nutrition

Children and toddlers eating habits can be a mystery to parents, and a source of anxiety. Eight out of ten Australian parents are concerns about their child’s eating habits.

Normal eating for children and toddlers

Toddlers and children are recommended to eat a varied diet according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, including:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Grain (ceral) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese

The volume of food that children need to eat depends on their growth and level of physical activity, and as such their appetites can change from day to day.

Fussy and picky eating are generally normal childhood behaviours

Fussy and picky eating are two slightly different eating habits that have been associated with conflict at mealtimes and high levels of parental frustration. Picky eaters are selective about what they eat and will eat a limited variety of foods. In contrast, fussy eaters are inconsistent and will like a food one day and reject it the next. Fussy eating is part of childhood development, and may be a way of a child exploring their environment and asserting their independence.

When should parents be worried?

If a child has enough energy to play, learn and explore, they are probably eating enough. However, if a child eats in a very restrictive or selective way, won’t eat entire food groups, or has a small or reduced appetite, they may not be receiving enough nutrition.

If parents are concerned that their child is not developing and reaching milestones they should consult a GP, maternal child nurse, or paediatrician.

How can parents support their children’s nutrition?

Children are more likely to eat in low stress environments. Parents can support their children’s nutrition by:

  • Making mealtimes happy, regular and relaxed
  • Introducing new foods slowly and regularly
  • Nurturing independence by involving the child in food preparation
  • Supplementing their diet with Oral Nutritional Supplements provided there are no underlying causes, or concerns that a child is undernourished

Referral to a GP, maternal child nurse, paediatrician or a dietitian is recommended if there are concerns that a child is undernourished.

Oral Nutritional Supplements can support some children’s nutrition

Oral nutritional supplements (ONS) are supplements containing a combination of macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats as well as micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

The use of ONS may be appropriate to support the nutrition of children who are at risk of undernutrition due to fussy eating, who are not undernourished, or who have been recommended by a dietitian as part of a meal plan.

These may be incorporated as part of a meal, or are often given as a snack. Evidence shows that the addition of ONS in children at risk of poor nutrition results in improvement in appetite, catch-up growth, and diet.

If appropriate, these can be used:

  • With meals as a shake
  • Between meals as a shake
  • To fortify foods such as cereals and soups

Visit GuildEd module ‘Managing nutrition in children’ for more information on children’s nutritional needs, and supporting parents.


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