Nutrition for the preschool child

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Nutrition for the preschool child

The preschooler’s growth is slower than that of an infant. An average child age two through five years will grow about 2 1/2″ and gain four or five pounds each year. Because growth rate is slower, appetites may decrease. The preschool period is an excellent time to help your child become familiar with the idea that eating a proper diet is part of a healthy lifestyle.

Attitudes and habits formed during preschool years are likely to be carried into the future. By 15 months of age, most children have developed enough fine motor skills to feed themselves without help.

Basic nutritional needs of children are similar to the nutritional needs of other family members. Amounts needed differ because of age. Offer your child a variety of foods from the basic food groups: breads, cereals, rice, pasta, vegetables, fruits, milk, yogurt, cheese, meats, poultry, fish, dry beans, dry peas and eggs.

Over time, the preschooler will take in adequate nutrients when allowed to choose from a variety of healthy foods. Protein is needed for growth. Protein in the diet is supplied by milk, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and dry beans and peas. Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. Dietary calcium is primarily found in milk and milk products and to a lesser extent in leafy green vegetables. Iron is an important mineral you get from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, green leafy vegetables and iron fortified cereals. Iron from cereal will be absorbed better when served with a food rich in Vitamin C. Citrus fruits and their juices and dark green or yellow vegetables are good sources of Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Breads and cereals contribute minerals and vitamins.

Plenty of water is needed to regulate body functions in small children. As a percentage of body weight, children have more water in their bodies than adults; therefore, their bodies can become dehydrated more quickly than adult bodies. Offer water to your preschooler several times during the day.

Fat is a necessary nutrient in a child’s diet. Fat helps provide extra calories and needed nutrients for active and growing children. No fat restriction should be applied to children below the age of two years. For children over the age of two, fat intake should represent about 30 per cent of the total caloric intake. As with the adult diet, limit foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol for children over the age of two. Help your child develop beneficial low-fat dietary habits such as drinking skim or low-fat milk instead of whole milk. Remember, these recommendations for fat intake are not for children under the age of two years or those children who have special dietary needs.


Sugary foods provide few nutrients and should be eaten on a limited basis. Chewy, sticky, sugary foods may promote tooth decay. Teach children to properly brush their teeth daily to help diminish this effect.

Make meal times pleasant experiences for your young child by following these tips:

Involve your child in meal preparation. By allowing your preschooler to take part in meal preparation, you may help increase your child’s interest in a new or unfamiliar food.

Include at least one of your child’s preferred foods. Offer a choice of foods. The meal should have at least one food that you know the child will select and eat.

Offer a variety of colors and textures. This will create interest and increase the number of foods your child will accept.

Keep portions child size. One way to consider portion sizes is to have one tablespoon of each type of food for each year of the child’s age.

Play it safe with foods. Round cuts of hot dogs, cherries, grapes, carrot chunks, tortilla chips, peanut butter or nuts may cause a child to choke. Simply cut hot dogs into fourths lengthwise; cook and mash carrots; cut grapes and cherries into fourths. Don’t serve peanut butter by the spoonfuls, combine it with other food items to improve consistency. Nuts and chips should be cut finely or crushed.

Expect and tolerate child-like table manners. Let a child be a child Children are always learning from your table manners.

The eating environment is important. Comfort is important at meal time. Select chairs, tables, dishes and silverware suitable in structure and size for the preschooler. Do not expect the young child to sit still at meals; yet some reduction in activity is desirable. A child may be excused from the table if finished or disinterested in eating.

Serve meals and snacks on a dependable schedule. Try to schedule meals before your child becomes overly hungry, tired or irritable. Most children require planned nutritious snacks to safeguard an adequate intake of nutrients and calories.

Offer a variety of healthy foods and children will eat what they need. Remain calm if your child leaves a portion or an entire meal untouched.

Meal time can be a family time. Meal time is a good time to teach nutrition by example. Good eating habits that preschoolers learn from their parents can develop into lifelong patterns.

Most preschoolers experience food jags and may for a time eat only a few self-selected foods. When a parent prods, the child is less likely to try new foods. Finicky food habits are often temporary and will disappear if not reinforced by emotions and unnecessary rules. Food should not become the object of bribes or punishments. If a food is rejected, do not make an issue of the situation as this may make your child more determined to refuse the food being offered. Try the rejected food at a different time. Allow preschoolers as well as adults to dislike foods. Watch family behavior. Are some foods rejected by adults in the family? serve a variety of foods even if rejected by some adult family members.

Give special consideration to providing foods that appeal to the child’s senses. Include finger foods; foods that crunch or crackle when you eat them; foods that differ in texture; foods with different flavor. Foods that are too hot or too cold may be refused. Children may try a new food if it is prepared to be attractive to a child, such as cut in animal shapes. Present new foods at the beginning of the meal when your child is really hungry. Brightly colored vegetables may also attract a preschooler. Many times the true flavor of foods is overwhelmed with sauces, gravies, syrups, herbs and spices. A favorite or familiar food served with the new food may encourage the acceptance of different foods.

It is hard for preschoolers to eat enough in three meals to provide the nutrients and calories they need. Offer snacks between meals. Snack time may be a good time to introduce new foods. Many times children will refuse food at meal time, but accept it at snack time. Snacks should provide more than just calories. Some good snack foods include: dry cereal with milk; meat or peanut butter sandwiches; vegetable or fruit breads such as pumpkin or banana; fresh, dried or canned fruit; fruit or vegetable juices; plain yogurt or yogurt with fruit; cheese and crackers; or oatmeal cookies and milk.

To promote a positive attitude towards good food habits, it is important that parents and caregivers help children understand they are “good kids.” What children “do” may be unacceptable at times, but who and what they ‘are” inside are normal, healthy and okay kids.

Source: NebGuide, Nutrition for the Preschool Child, used with permission.

Updated August 22, 2017 7:10pm