Congratulations! You made it to the preschool years! You have helped your child to eat and develop through infancy and the toddlerhood. With your help, he or she has learned to eat solid foods, and to enjoy regular people food. You have almost passed the scary stage when choking is at its highest risk. Also, your child has, hopefully, learned to eat a variety of colorful, interesting foods and to eat independently and sit at the table and enjoy being with the family. Your job is not over yet, however. Now you have to face the preschool years.
These years (ages 3-5 years) can be very rewarding. During this time, your child is learning at a very fast rate. He or she is rapidly expanding his or her vocabulary and learning to do a lot of self-care like dressing, brushing teeth and eating independently. Children of this age have a strong desire to please their parents and like to pretend to be the important adults that they know. They are very interested in their surroundings and want to learn, and they want clear guidelines and rules to follow. This is a good time, therefore, to teach good nutrition principles and eating habits.
Most of this teaching will happen as you and your child eat together. Preschoolers learn best through activity and experience, and they will learn a lot as you have your meals and talk about food and other topics that are interesting to a 3 to 5-year-old. Always try to keep in mind that a parent’s responsibility is to decide what foods should be offered to their children and where and when to offer it to them. When you provide nutritious foods in an attractive, non-distracting atmosphere at regularly scheduled times, your child notices and becomes accustomed to this. He or she is watching what you eat and what you give to him or her, and how the food is presented. Later, as your child begins to choose foods and to eat in situations outside of the home, such as preschool and day-care, he or she will remember the eating experiences they had with you and will choose and eat accordingly. So it is important to plan and prepare varied, nutrient-rich meals and snacks so that your child has a helpful memory bank to draw on.
So what should preschoolers eat? Basically, they need to follow a well-balanced meal plan just like everyone else. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they need the following amounts of food daily: 1-1 ½ cups of fruit, 1 ½ – 2 ½ cups of vegetables, 4 – 6 oz grains (breads or cereals), 3 – 5 oz meat and 2-3 cups of milk. Small servings of these foods should be provided at 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day. Specific, more individualized information about what to feed your child can be obtained at www.mypyrmaid.gov.
Don’t be surprised if your child does not always eat everything that is offered. It is your responsibility to make sure that he or she has a variety of nutritious foods available in appropriate amounts and at regularly scheduled times, but children are not always as hungry or as willing to eat. Try not to be worried, and remember that children should be allowed to decide how much of the offered foods that they are going to eat. That is their responsibility. They should even be allowed to refuse to eat foods. If you just calmly continue serving these foods, your child will eventually eat them. Studies have shown that sometimes you have to offer foods at least 10 or more times before your child eats them, but eventually he or she does eat them.
Teaching your child to eat well involves a lot of patience and repetition, but it can be fun. First of all, while you are modeling good eating habits, you can comment on how much you like the food and how it will help you to grow and be healthier. You could say things like, “I really enjoy carrots because they help my eyes.” Or “I just know my bones are getting stronger every time I drink milk.” It is OK to laugh and be humorous while you are eating, as long as you and your child are having a good time and building good eating memories. Try to teach good table manners while you are eating, but be patient. It takes a while to learn manners, and, again, they will learn from what they see you do at the table. A preschooler will love to help you prepare meals. They can do things like wash vegetables, wipe the table or tear lettuce. Eventually they can set the table and help to clear it and wash the dishes. Try to make the whole process of eating and cleaning up enjoyable. It will pay off in the long run. Above all, resist the temptation to force, bribe or trick your child into eating certain foods. Patiently trying foods again and again without comment other than how much you enjoy them is probably the best strategy.
If you have your child in day-care or preschool, get involved with what they are eating while at these places. Visit and talk with your child’s teacher. Find out what your child is eating and try to offer positive suggestions of what you would like your child to eat. Also, it is OK to make suggestions about how many times you would like to have your child eat “celebration foods” like cookies, cake and candy. Depending on the size of your child’s class, having a birthday treat for every birthday can add up to a lot of celebration-type foods being served at school. Nowadays many children are dealing with weight problems even when they are still young. So feel free to question and try to improve the food that is served at your child’s preschool/day-care.
Even if your child does not always get good foods away from home, do not despair. Relax and know that your child learns more from you than anyone else. And day-care, etc. can always be changed. Just keep modeling what you want your child to do and try to stay upbeat and positive. Preschoolers really enjoy being with their parents and will try to become more like you in many ways, including eating the way you eat.