Children often take the attitudes and habits they form during their preschool years into adulthood. The preschool years then are an excellent time to teach children that eating a proper diet is part of a healthy lifestyle. By the time they are 15 months old, most children can feed themselves without help-if they are allowed to try. It may be faster and less messy to feed a child, but helping him is not in the child's best developmental interest. Give him the chance to feed himself.
When preschoolers are allowed to choose from a variety of nutritious foods, they will take in adequate nutrients over time. Children need protein in order to grow. Milk, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and dry beans and peas all supply protein. They also need calcium for strong bones and teeth. Calcium is found primarily in milk and milk products, but it is also found to a lesser extent in green, leafy vegetables. Iron is an important mineral. It is supplied by such foods as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs; green, leafy vegetables; and iron-fortified cereals. Iron from cereal is absorbed better when it is served with a food rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits and their juices. Dark green or yellow vegetables are also good sources of vitamin C and vitamin A.
Small children need plenty of water for regulating their body functions. A higher percentage of children's body weight is water, so offer water to your preschoolers several times during the day.
Children also need a certain amount of fat in their diet. Fat helps to provide extra calories and needed nutrients for active and growing children. Don't restrict fat intake for children under the age of two. or children over two years old, fat should represent about 30 percent of total caloric intake. Limit foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol for children over the age of two. Sugary foods provide few nutrients and should be eaten on a limited basis. If left on the teeth, chewy, sticky, sugary foods may promote tooth decay. Give children the opportunity to brush after they eat, and teach them to brush properly to help diminish tooth decay.
Most preschoolers experience food jags. For a time, they may eat only a few self-selected foods. Finicky food habits are often temporary. They usually disappear if you don't make unnecessary rules about eating or make food choices an emotional issue. Don't make food the object of bribes or punishments. If a child rejects a food, don't make an issue of it. Your insistence may make the child more determined to refuse the food being offered. Offer the rejected food at a different time. Preschoolers, like adults, should be allowed to dislike certain foods.
If you really want to promote good food habits, set an example for the children in your care. Children learn by example, so take time to sit down and eat with them. If they see you enjoying nutritious foods, they will be more likely to give them a try.
The ABCs of Children's Nutrition. 1991. The American Dietetic Association.
Food for a Healthy Start Series. 1990. Minnesota Extension Service.
Nitzke, S., and S. Walker. Tots at the Table Series.1991. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.
Satter, Ellyn. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. 1986. Palo Alto: Bull Publishing.
How to Get Your Kid to Eat But Not Too Much. 1987. Palo Alto: Bull Publishing.