Preschoolers are active, spirited tykes. A balanced and nutritious diet for your child is important for so many different reasons.
Sure, food nourishes the body and provides energy to grow and explore, but learning what to eat (plus when and how much) is an important aspect of developing and reaching milestones.
Nutrition during preschool years is an opportunity for parents to teach kids about healthy food options, plus it helps prepare kids for the next big step: kindergarten.
And while they're generally adorable and fun, it's perfectly normal for 3, 4, and 5-year-olds to be opinionated -- especially about eating.
During the preschool years, your child should be eating the same foods as the rest of the family, with an emphasis on those with nutritional value.
This includes fresh vegetables and fruits, nonfat or low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheeses), lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish, lean hamburger), and whole grain cereals and bread.
At the same time, limit or eliminate the junk food in your child's diet, and get rid of sugared beverages as well.
Here's some advice from the experts on how to avoid preschool food fights.
By the time your child reaches preschool, they should be (for the most part) able to feed themselves.
Your child should be eating from each of the food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and meat.
As a parent, it’s important to always offer different choices for your child to eat and to set a good example of healthy eating.
Offer your child new textures, colors and tastes to keep food appealing and fun.
How Much Food Should My Preschooler Be Eating?
Your job is to decide what foods are offered and when and where they are eaten. Plan regular meals and snacks and make sure to give your child enough time to eat.
Let your child decide which of the foods offered he or she will eat and how much to eat.
Day-to-day and meal-to-meal appetite changes are normal, so try not to get too hung up on that.
It’s important that you don’t make your child clean his or her plate at every meal. What’s most important is to offer food on a schedule and try to stick to that.
Generally, a preschooler should be eating between 1200 and 1600 calories per day.
However this will vary based on gender, weight and height, as well as activity level. Parents should discuss overall calories with a doctor or registered dietitian.
We do not generally recommend counting calories for children, rather focusing on offering a varied diet and instilling positive eating behaviors overall.
What's on the Menu?
Preschoolers can eat what the rest of the family eats. That's provided family meals feature a variety of healthy foods, in moderation.
Depending on their age, an active preschooler's energy needs rival those of some grown women. While there's no need to track a youngster's calorie consumption, it is important to make calories count.
A young child's eating plan should consist mostly of healthy foods, such as lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and legumes; whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and cereals; at least two servings of dairy foods daily; and fresh or lightly processed fruits and vegetables.
There is room for treats, but it's limited.
Keep junk foods like cookies and candy out of the house to reduce temptation. But don't go overboard. Kids can become intensely attracted to forbidden foods.
Make Time for Meals
Regular family meals provide opportunities for good nutrition, and much more.
Dining together encourages proper table manners and fosters language development and conversational skills.
When you minimize distractions by turning off the TV and turning on the answering machine, you show your child that mealtime is reserved for savoring healthy food and nurturing meaningful relationships.
While the ritual of regular meals is comforting to kids, dining with preschoolers can be chaotic and messy.
Expect spills and some sloppy eating as your youngster hones their self-feeding skills. Refrain from being a "clean freak" to minimize mealtime stress.
Being too strict about neatness at the dinner table may cause your little one to feel bad about knocking over his milk or getting food on his clothes.
What Is Healthy Food for Kids?
Healthy food for preschoolers includes a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy food groups:
- grain foods
- reduced-fat dairy
Each food group has different nutrients, which your child’s body needs to grow and work properly. That’s why we need to eat a range of foods from across all five food groups.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and veggies give your child energy, vitamins, anti-oxidants, fibre and water.
These nutrients help to protect your child from diseases later in life, including diseases like heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
Encourage your child to choose fruit and vegetables at every meal and for snacks. This includes fruit and vegies of different colours, textures and tastes, both fresh and cooked.
Wash fruit to remove dirt or chemicals, and leave any edible skin on, because the skin contains nutrients too.
Many children seem to be ‘fussy’ about eating fruit and veggies. You can help by being a healthy eating role model.
If your child sees you eating a wide range of vegetables and fruit, your child is more likely to try them too.
Grain foods include bread, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals, couscous, rice, corn, quinoa, polenta, oats and barley.
These foods give your child the energy they need to grow, develop and learn.
Grain foods with a low glycaemic index, like whole grain pasta and breads, will give your child longer-lasting energy and keep them feeling fuller for longer.
Key dairy foods are milk, cheese and yoghurt. These foods are a good source of protein and calcium.
Try to offer your child different kinds of dairy each day – for example, drinks of milk, cheese slices or bowls of yoghurt.
Children aged over two years can have reduced-fat dairy products.
If you’re thinking of giving your child dairy alternatives, it’s best to talk to your paediatrician, GP or child and family health nurse.
Protein-rich foods include lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts. These foods are important for your child’s growth and muscle development.
These foods also contain other useful vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron and omega-3 fatty acids from red meat and oily fish are particularly important for your child’s brain development and learning.
Try to include a few different food groups at every meal and snack.
Have a look at our illustrated dietary guidelines for children 2-3 years and our illustrated dietary guidelines for children 4-8 years for more information about daily food portions and recommendations.
You can also speak to a dietitian if you have concerns about your child’s eating.
Healthy drinks: water
Water is the healthiest drink for children. It’s also the cheapest. Most tap water is fortified with fluoride for strong teeth too.
Foods and Drinks to Limit
It’s best to limit the amount of ‘sometimes’ food your child eats. This means your child will have more room for healthy, everyday foods.
‘Sometimes’ foods include fast food, takeaway and junk food like hot chips, potato chips, dim sims, pies, burgers and takeaway pizza.
They also include cakes, chocolate, lollies, biscuits, doughnuts and pastries.
‘Sometimes’ foods can be high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre.
Regularly eating these foods can increase the risk of health conditions like childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes.
You should also limit your child’s sweet drinks. This includes fruit juice, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured waters, soft drinks and flavoured milks. Sweet drinks are high in sugar and low in nutrients.
Too many sweet drinks can lead to unhealthy weight gain, obesity and tooth decay. These drinks fill your child up and can make them less hungry for healthy meals.
If children regularly have sweet drinks when they’re young, it can kick off an unhealthy lifelong habit.
Foods and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for children, because caffeine stops the body from absorbing calcium well.
Caffeine is also a stimulant, which means it gives children artificial energy. These foods and drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate.
Healthy Alternatives for Snacks and Desserts
It’s fine to offer your child snacks, but try to make sure they’re healthy. Fruit and vegetables are a good choice – for example, thinly sliced carrots with dips like hummus, guacamole or tzatziki.
The same goes for dessert at the end of a meal. Sliced fruit or yoghurt are healthy options.
If you want to serve something special, try homemade banana bread. Save the seriously sweet stuff, like cakes and chocolate, for special occasions like birthdays.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Want your child to accept baked potatoes instead of fries, and to prefer milk to sugary soft drinks? Then you must, too.
Studies show that children adopt their parents' eating habits starting early in life. Don't expect your child to eat better than you do.
Little ones love to imitate adults, and they will mimic your eating habits, whether they are good or in need of improvement.
Capitalize on a youngster's natural curiosity by substituting healthier foods at the dinner table.
Chances are, they'll have what you're having, and you'll be broadening their food horizons while arousing a minimum of suspicion.
Here are some suggested stand-ins that offer variety and good nutrition:
Couscous instead of white rice
- Sweet potatoes for white potatoes
- Canadian bacon for bacon
- Mashed potatoes made with reduced-fat milk for french fries
- Fig bars for high-fat cookies
- Tube yogurt (freeze first for easier handling) for ice cream
- Reduced-fat cheddar for regular cheese.
Snacks Fill Nutrient Gaps
Scheduling meals and snacks helps ensure a healthy diet for preschoolers. Problem is, young children don't always follow a rigid eating plan.
Illnesses, including ear infections and colds; fatigue; and growth spurts can temporarily change the frequency and amount your young child consumes.
Healthy between-meal snacks help fill in nutrient gaps in a little one's diet. The best snacks are nutritious foods eaten in amounts that take the edge off your son or daughter's hunger.
Don't worry if they're not ravenous at their next meal.
When you offer nutritious snacks, your child gets what they need, so it doesn't matter if they don't eat a lot at dinner.
Feed your child in a designated area, preferably a kitchen or dining room table. Sitting down to eat, and only to eat, helps children pay attention to their feelings of fullness, Mitchell says.
Try these nutritious and delicious snack options for your preschooler:
- 1/2 sandwich
- Well-cooked vegetables and low-fat dip
- Whole grain crackers and cheese
- Fruit smoothies
- Chopped hard-boiled eggs or scrambled eggs
- Dry cereal; cereal with milk
- Low-fat microwave popcorn (starting at age 4).
Is There Anything I Shouldn’t Feed My Preschooler?
It’s important to be careful with foods that can cause choking.
We recommend avoiding:
- Slippery foods such as whole grapes, large pieces of meats, hot dogs, candy and cough drops.
- Small, hard foods such as nuts, seeds, popcorn, chips, pretzels, raw carrots and raisins.
- Always cut up foods into small pieces and watch your child while they eat.
Also, your child may have some food allergies, so it’s important to keep tabs on what they’re eating, how much and how they react to it.
The most common food allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, wheat, fish and shellfish.
If you think your child might have a food allergy, talk with your doctor to be sure.
Encourage a Healthy Weight
Your child is still young, but it's not too early to help them achieve a healthy weight.
Respecting a preschooler's ability to decide how much to eat and when is central to that effort.
An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study suggests how capable children are of regulating their intake – and how adults can interfere with that innate ability.
When researchers served preschoolers a double portion of macaroni and cheese, the children took bigger bites and ate more.
But when the researchers placed the double-sized portion in a serving bowl and let the children serve themselves, the children chose an appropriate amount of food for their ages: about a 1/2-cup portion for 3-year-olds and 3/4 cup for 4 and 5-year-olds.
Limiting television -- even educational shows -- also improves preschoolers' chances for a healthy weight.
Three-year-olds who watched two or more hours of television daily were nearly three times more likely to be overweight than children who watched less, according to recent research in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
It's tempting to allow a preschooler to watch TV so that you can get a few minutes to yourself, but it's a tough habit to break.
And while we do not expect parents to banish television, she is adamant about separating eating and the television set.
What's the problem with eating in front of the TV? Writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers recently found that preschoolers of normal weight who often eat while watching television tend to eat more, possibly because they are distracted from normal cues for fullness.
Fend Off Food Fits
Preschoolers can be picky eaters. They may favor the same few foods for weeks on end, in spite of your attempts at variety.
You can't stop children from fussing about food, but you can control the way you react to their demands for chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese every day.
The temptation is to prepare only the foods you are sure your young child will accept. But resist that urge.
Most children will eventually get bored and at least start picking at the other foods you offer, as long as you don't engage them in a power struggle at the table.
It's normal to become concerned when a child continues to choose the same limited diet.
While you're waiting for your child to snap out of their eating rut, put your mind at ease by offering a daily multivitamin appropriate for your child's age.
Multivitamins fill in small nutrient gaps in a picky eater's diet, particularly for iron -- a nutrient that's critical to a child's brain development, immune system and energy level.
What Do I Do If My Child Is a Picky Eater?
It can be tough when you’ve got a picky eater on your hands, especially if they’re preschool age.
Parents should be mindful about offering kids new foods one at a time, and remember that children may need to try a new food 10 or more times before they accept it!
Continue to offer the food on your child’s plate when it’s served at a meal, even if they have tried it in the past.
It may only be a matter of time before they try again and decide to like it.
Here are more tips for managing a young picky eater:
- Offer new foods at the start of meals when your child is hungrier and offer the new foods with foods they are already familiar with
- Avoid “short order cooking.” Serve at least one food you know your child will like, but then expect him or her to eat the same foods as the rest of the family.
- Make food simple, plain and recognizable. Some kids don’t like food that is mixed (like a casserole) or food that is touching.
- Be aware of child sized portions. 1 small piece or 1 tablespoon of a new food is all a preschooler needs. Sometimes more can be overwhelming for them.
What If My Child Is Gaining Too Much Weight?
It’s important to talk with a registered dietitian or your doctor about your child’s weight to decide if he or she really is gaining too much.
Also, keep in mind that often a child will gain weight before a growth spurt.
Here are a few tips to help prevent too much weight gain:
- Eat regularly scheduled meals and snacks. This will help keep your child from getting too hungry, which often leads to overeating.
- After your child turns two years old, it’s okay to start offering lower-fat foods, such as reduced-fat milk, low-fat cheeses and lean meats.
- Encourage activity!
- Start off a meal by giving your child smaller portions. If he or she is hungry for more, you can always give seconds.
Additional Tips for Preschool Eating
Keep this things in mind as you continue to work with your preschooler and teach him or her about healthy eating:
- Be a role model for healthy eating habits.
- Set meal and snack schedules. Discourage eating between these times.
- Give kids enough time to eat.
- Cook the same meal for the entire family.
- Don’t use food as a reward.
- Encourage kids to participate in grocery shopping and helping in the kitchen.
- Use “kid-size” plates, bowls and silverware.
- Continue to offer foods even if they did not like them the first time. Don’t give up!
Generally, a preschooler should be eating between 1200 and 1600 calories per day. However this will vary based on gender, weight and height, as well as activity level. Parents should discuss overall calories with a doctor or registered dietitian.
- Eggs. The protein and nutrients in eggs help kids concentrate, says Los Angeles-based chef Beth Saltz, RD. ...
- Greek Yogurt. ...
- Greens. ...
- Fish. ...
- Nuts and Seeds. ...
- Oatmeal. ...
- Apples and Plums.