Nutrition for the Preschool Child
H. Darlene Martin
Extension Nutrition Specialist
Northeast Research and Extension Center
University of Nebraska
University of Nebraska
Development of the Preschool Child
The preschooler's growth is slower than that of an infant. An average child age 2 through 5 will grow about 2 1/2 inches and gain 4 or 5 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.
Nutritional Needs of Preschoolers
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 and pasta
• Milk, yogurt and cheese
• Meats, poultry, fish, dry beans and 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. For children over the age of two, fat intake should represent about 30 percent 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.
How Do I Know My Child Is Growing Properly?
A growth chart is a reliable way to tell if your child's diet is meeting body needs. These charts are available from pediatricians, public health clinics, and child health agencies. Since children grow in spurts, their needs vary. Changes in appetite may reflect these needs. Allow preschoolers to eat until they are full, regardless of how much or how little. To examine what you offer your child to eat, keep track of everything your child eats for two or three days and compare it to the following Feeding Guide (Table I).
Family Meals With the Preschooler
Make mealtimes 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 mealtime. 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.
• Mealtime can be a family time. Mealtime is a good time to teach nutrition by example. Good eating habits that preschoolers learn from their parents can develop into lifelong patterns.
Food Jags and New Foods
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 child attractive, 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 are 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 mealtime, but accept them 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.
A Final Word
To promote a positive attitude towards good food habits, it is important that parents and care givers 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.
Table I. feeding guide for the preschool child.
Food group Suggested daily servings Suggested serving sizes
Dry beans and peas
Other vegetables 3-5 servings
Include all types regularly. Serve dark-green leafy and deep-yellow vegetables often. Serve cooked dry beans and peas several times a week • 1/4 cup of cooked vegetables
• 1/4 cup of chopped raw vegetables
• 1/2 cup of leafy raw vegetables such as lettuce or spinach
Include citrus fruits or their juices regularly. 2-4 servings • 1/2 whole fruit such as an apple, banana or orange; or a melon wedge
• 1/2 cup of juice
• 1/4 cup cooked or canned fruit
• 1/4 cup of raisins
Breads, cereals, rice and pasta 6-11 servings
Include several servings of whole grain products daily. • 1/2 slice of bread
• 1/2 roll, biscuit or muffin
• 4 crackers, saltines
• 1/4 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta
• 1/3 of a cup ready-to-eat dry cereal
• 1/4 of a cup for hot cooked cereal
Milk, yogurt and cheese 4 servings • 1/2 cup of milk or yogurt
• 3/4 ounce of natural cheese
• 1 ounce of processed cheese
Meats, poultry, fish, dry beans and peas, eggs and nuts 3-5 servings • 1 ounce of cooked lean meat,
• poultry or fish
• 1/2 egg
• 1/2 cup cooked beans
• 2 tablespoons peanut butter