Nutrition for the Preschool
Development of the
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
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
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
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
Family Meals With the
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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
I. Feeding guide for the preschool child.
||Suggested daily servings
||Suggested serving sizes
Dry beans and peas
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
- 1/2 cup of leafy raw vegetables
such as lettuce or spinach
Include citrus fruits or their juices regularly.
- 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
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
- 1/3 of a cup ready-to-eat dry
- 1/4 of a cup for hot cooked
|Milk, yogurt and
- 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
- 1 ounce of cooked lean meat,
- poultry or fish
- 1/2 egg
- 1/2 cup cooked beans
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter
Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC.
Martin, H. D. and Charlotte Kern. (1992). *Nutrition for the preschool
child.* Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative