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Serve Up Good Nutrition for Preschool Children

Get even picky eaters to eat healthfully – with a minimum of fuss.
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WebMD Feature

Preschoolers are active, spirited tykes. And while they're generally adorable and fun, it's perfectly normal for 3, 4, and 5-year-olds to be opinionated -- especially about eating.

Here's some advice from the experts on how to avoid preschool food fights.

What's On the Menu?

"Preschoolers can eat what the rest of the family eats," says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a pediatric nutrition expert and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. That's provided family meals feature a variety of healthy foods, in moderation.

Depending on his or her age, an active preschooler's energy needs rival those of some grown women. While there's no need to track a youngster's calorie consumption, it is important to make calories count.

A young child's eating plan should consist mostly of healthy foods, such as lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and legumes; whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and cereals; at least two servings of dairy foods daily; and fresh or lightly processed fruits and vegetables.

There is room for treats, but it's limited, says Kathy Mitchell, MD, a practicing pediatrician at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Watertown, Mass.

"Keep junk foods like cookies and candy out of the house to reduce temptation," she advises. "But don't go overboard. Kids can become intensely attracted to forbidden foods."

Make Time for Meals

Regular family meals provide opportunities for good nutrition, and much more. Dining together encourages proper table manners and fosters language development and conversational skills. When you minimize distractions by turning off the TV and turning on the answering machine, you show your child that mealtime is reserved for savoring healthy food and nurturing meaningful relationships.

While the ritual of regular meals is comforting to kids, dining with preschoolers can be chaotic and messy. Expect spills and some sloppy eating as your youngster hones his self-feeding skills. Refrain from being a "clean freak" to minimize mealtime stress.

"Being too strict about neatness at the dinner table may cause your little one to feel bad about knocking over his milk or getting food on his clothes," Johnson says.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Want your child to accept baked potatoes instead of fries, and to prefer milk to sugary soft drinks? Then you must, too.

"Studies show that children adopt their parents' eating habits starting early in life," Johnson says. "Don't expect your child to eat better than you do."

Little ones love to imitate adults, and they will mimic your eating habits, whether they are good or in need of improvement. Capitalize on a youngster's natural curiosity by substituting healthier foods at the dinner table. Chances are, he'll have what you're having, and you'll be broadening his food horizons while arousing a minimum of suspicion.

Here are some suggested stand-ins that offer variety and good nutrition:

  • Couscous instead of white rice
  • Sweet potatoes for white potatoes
  • Canadian bacon for bacon
  • Mashed potatoes made with reduced-fat milk for french fries
  • Fig bars for high-fat cookies
  • Tube yogurt (freeze first for easier handling) for ice cream
  • Reduced-fat cheddar for regular cheese.

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