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PLAYING: 14 ways to raise a toddler with healthy-eating habits

14 ways to raise a toddler with healthy-eating habits

The eating habits your toddler is developing now may stay with them as they get older. It’s as much about the way you offer food as what you offer them. Follow our guide to encouraging healthy-eating habits for a lifetime, with advice from Lisa Fries, PhD, a feeding behavior expert and scientist at the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences in Switzerland.

8 mins to read Dec 29, 2021

1. Consider how you feed your child 

Take a moment to think about feeding occasions with your toddler. Are you following the principles of responsive feeding—creating a warm, positive environment for family meals, respecting your toddler’s decision of whether to eat and how much, and leading by example when it comes to varied and nutritious food choices? If you are, great! However, if you recognize yourself falling into some of the less desirable feeding behaviours listed below, now’s the time to remind yourself of all the benefits of responsive feeding. Remember, it’s not just about what and how much your toddler eats. The way you offer food is essential for his healthy eating habits too. What Dr. Fries says: “Responsive feeding is the way to go. As well as reducing the potential for overeating, responding to your toddler’s hunger and fullness cues is linked to a healthier diet and body weight. Responsive feeding means pleasant and engaging mealtimes, without putting too much pressure on your toddler or encouraging him excessively. Parents who follow the principles of responsive feeding also offer their toddler healthy food choices at meals and snack times, set clear guidelines and expectations at mealtimes and are good role models by practicing and promoting healthy eating at home.”

2. Be careful not to pressure 

You probably have a clear idea of how much you want your toddler to eat. Perhaps you even push them to finish it all, even when they tell you they’re full. Just because you’re the adult, it doesn’t mean you know best when it comes to your little one’s appetite. Let your toddler decide how much they will eat. What Dr. Fries says: “Forcing your child to eat more foods than they want can have a variety of consequences. If your child is full, this can teach them to ignore their fullness cues, potentially leading to overeating in the future. In other cases, it can create a stressful environment, leading to negative associations with the food you want them to eat—potentially making them avoid it in the future. Children may eat more one day than another, and that’s OK; they’ll make up for it at another meal.”

3. Offer nutrient-rich foods and drinks 

Your toddler’s tummy is small, so it’s important that precious space isn’t taken up by foods that are high in salt and sugar, or with sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, offer a variety of foods that are rich in nutrients, along with milk (breast milk, whole cow’s milk) or water with every meal and snack. When sweets and desserts are served, offer them in  toddler-sized portions. Practice responsive feeding by not pressuring them to eat these foods, but also try to be relaxed about them having a taste. Your toddler will soon learn that sweet treats are fun and not part of their everyday diet. What Dr. Fries says: “Research in older children shows that when parents restrict what their children can eat (such as saying certain foods are never allowed), it makes certain foods more attractive because they are "forbidden", and children may be more likely to overindulge in these foods when given the chance.”

14 ways to raise a healthy eater


4. Check portion sizes 

Serve age-appropriate amounts of food. You can always offer them more if they shows signs of still being hungry after finishing their food. Avoid encouraging them to “clean up your plate” and instead respect their hunger and fullness cues. 
What Dr. Fries says: “There is evidence that providing large portions of appetizing, energy-dense foods increases the amount a child eats.”

5. Encourage gently 

When introducing a new food, a few words of encouragement can help convince your toddler to give it a try. 
What Dr. Fries says: “In one recent study, very few children were willing to try a new fruit or vegetable without encouragement. Rather than tricks or bribery, with a gentle parental suggestion to “try the peas”, a child will be more likely to taste the food.”

14 ways to raise a healthy eater


6. Be a good role model 

As often as possible, sit down as a family to enjoy a meal together. Your toddler learns from what they see you and other family members doing, so be a good role model by eating and enjoying healthy food. Let them see you eating a new food with pleasure and chances are they’ll want to give it a taste too. 
What Dr. Fries says: “What a parent eats is a powerful predictor of what a child eats. One recent study showed that modeling eating a food was the most successful technique to convince a child to eat something.”

7. Banish the bribery 

As tempting as it might be, don’t use food as a reward. Offering your toddler ice cream if they eat their vegetables, for instance, could create negative associations and put them off vegetables in the long term. 
What Dr. Fries says: “Try to offer all foods equally rather than give them the idea that some foods are less appetizing, and others are more appealing.”

8. Prevent “picky eating” 

Sometimes, you might feel so worried that your toddler is turning into a picky eater, only eating a limited range of foods, that you desperately plead with them to eat. This can make mealtimes stressful for you both and have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for. If they only like a few foods, put some of those on their plate alongside new or previously rejected foods. Children may have to taste a new food several times before they learn to like it. 
What Dr. Fries says: “Research shows that pressuring toddlers to eat any type of food actually makes them more likely to refuse it. If parents can keep a relaxed attitude towards eating, children may be more likely to taste foods."

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9. Take time to chew 

Offer your toddler food in small, bite-size pieces and make sure they have chewed what’s in  their mouth before you offer more. Also, don’t rush your toddler to finish their meal. Let them eat at their own pace. Getting into good habits now may help avoid future problems of overeating.
What Dr. Fries says: “Children who eat faster tend to consume more calories. This can be due to taking larger bites and chewing their food less. Research shows that these tendencies toward faster eating can emerge in preschoolers.”

10. Avoid using food to soothe

At this age, your little one may not have enough language skills to communicate their feelings with words, so may get frustrated and act out or have a tantrum. It can be tempting to bring out the emergency cookie, particular favourite food, or even a healthy snack to try to prevent a scene. However, this can have negative consequences in the long run.   
What Dr. Fries says: “Using food to soothe from an early age may contribute to the development of obesity in young children. Toddlers could begin to connect food with emotions instead of their own appetite cues, prompting them to eat when they’re not hungry.”

11. Remember that there’s no “perfect-sized” toddler

Don’t try to pressure a smaller toddler to eat more or withhold food from a bigger toddler in an effort to help him lose weight. It is a misconception that bigger babies are healthier babies. 
What Dr. Fries says: “Babies are born with natural instincts to recognize their own hunger and fullness. Respecting and responding to your child’s hunger and fullness cues leads to healthier eating habits and growth.”

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12. Learn to “read” your toddler 

Avoid putting too much food on your little one’s plate. Offer them a small portion and pay attention to signs from them that tell you if they’re full or still hungry. You can always offer them another small portion if they show you that they are still hungry.
What Dr. Fries says: “At 18-24 months of age, toddlers can use a combination of words (such as ‘want that’ or ‘all done’) and gestures (pointing, reaching, or pushing the food away) to let you know when they are hungry and full. Look out for these gestures and expressions, and listen to what they tell you when it comes to their appetite.”

13. Allow time for your toddler to practice chewing

By now your little one has likely moved on from lumpy purees to chopped family foods. You’ll still need to cut up food into bite-size pieces as they learn how to chew. What Dr. Fries says: “From birth to age four, children’s mouths double in volume. Their chewing muscles become stronger, allowing finer control of the food in their mouths. Learning to chew with appropriate textures has many effects on their overall eating experience, from taste, smell, and texture perception to feeling full and accepting a wider range of foods.” 

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14. Make mealtimes fun! 

Try getting your toddler involved in the cooking—there are many age-appropriate cooking tasks toddlers can help with, such as rolling out dough, snapping broccoli florets off the stalk, scrubbing potatoes, and pouring ingredients into a bowl. Make sure your toddler is supervised in the kitchen at all times. Your toddler will look forward to family meals that they have helped prepare.


  • Birch LL, Savage JS, Fisher JO. Right sizing prevention. Food portion size effects on children’s eating and weight. Appetite 2015; 88:11-16.

  • Black RE, Makrides M, Ong KK (eds): Complementary Feeding: Building the Foundations for a Healthy Life. 2017 Nestlé Nutr Inst Workshop Ser, vol 87, pp 153–165, (DOI: 10.1159/000448965)

  • Blissett J, Fogel A. Intrinsic and extrinsic influences on children’s acceptance of new foods. Physiol Behav 2013; 121:89–95. 


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