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Feeding Your Preschooler

MyPlate for Preschoolers

MyPlate for Preschoolers

MyPlate for Preschoolers

Are you and your preschooler having problems at mealtimes? Then you are not alone in the challenge to get your child to eat well!

It’s hard to know what to do when your preschooler is a picky eater or goes on an eating jag and wants only one food. It’s also difficult to handle conflicting advice from well-meaning relatives, who want to tell you how to feed your child.

The MyPlate for Preschoolers can help. It is designed specifically to help parents and caregivers help two to five-year-old children eat well, stay active and be healthy. The information is written in parent-friendly terms and based on advice from leading experts in nutrition for preschoolers.

A copy of the MyPlate for preschoolers is available at the end of this fact sheet and at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/health-and-nutrition-information. The MyPlate for Preschoolers website features these materials:

MyPlate Tips for Preschoolers: Provides information about the foods and drinks your preschooler needs throughout the day, which are important for his or her health. Fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy are a part of a healthy eating style and together provide the nutrients their bodies need. Limit the amount of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat in your preschooler’s meals, drinks, and snacks. This page offers tips on what type, how to serve, and how much to serve of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, dairy products. This page also offers resources for parents on How to be a healthy role-model and Kid-friendly Veggies and Fruits.

Growth During the Preschool Years: Because toddlers and preschoolers grow at a slower rate than infants, they need fewer calories and tend to eat less. The average two to five-year-old gains 4 to 5 pounds and grows about 2½ inches taller each year.

Proper growth is one of the best signs of good health and nutrition in children. Factors that cause children’s heights and weights to vary include: their family history; their sex; nutrition; amount of sleep and health status. You and your preschooler’s doctor are partners in maintaining your child’s health, so discuss your child’s growth with them.

Growth charts are a good way to monitor your child’s growth and health. Visit your child’s doctor regularly. As part of the visit, your doctor will weigh and measure your child and plot their information on a growth chart.

  • Over time, the curve of the growth chart will show your child’s growth pattern and whether their height and weight are changing at the right rate.
  • Your doctor will monitor the growth chart to be sure your child follows the same curve over time and that their growth pattern stays on track. Your preschooler’s growth is an important sign of good health and nutrition.
  • To see how your child compares to other children their age and sex, use the growth chart link on the webpage and add your child’s sex, age, weight, and height to view their growth chart.

Tips for Picky Eaters: Is your preschooler a picky eater, who refuses to eat anything green just because of the color? Or, do they go on food jags and only eat one food, such as peanut butter sandwiches?

In the early years, children are very impressionable. Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping preschoolers develop healthy eating habits and positive attitudes toward food, which are likely to stay with them later in life. It is important for your preschooler to establish good nutrition and lifestyle habits that can reduce their risks for obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Typical Picky Eating Behaviors

  • Your child may refuse a food based on a certain color or texture. For example, he or she could refuse foods that are red or green, contain seeds, or are squishy.
  • For a period of time, your preschooler may only eat a certain type of food. Your child may choose 1 or 2 foods he or she likes and refuse to eat anything else.
  • Sometimes your child may waste time at the table and seem interested in doing anything but eating.
  • Your child may be unwilling to try new foods. It is normal for your preschooler to prefer familiar foods and be afraid to try new things.

How To Cope With Picky Eating

Your child’s picky eating is temporary. If you don’t make it a big deal, it will usually end before school age. Try the following tips to help you deal with your child’s picky eating behavior in a positive way.

  • Let your kids be “produce pickers.” Let them pick out fruits and veggies at the store.
  • Have your child help you prepare meals. Children learn about food and get excited about tasting food when they help make meals. Let them add ingredients, scrub veggies, or help stir.
  • Offer choices. Rather than ask, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” ask “Which would you like for dinner, broccoli or cauliflower?”
  • Enjoy each other while eating family meals together. Talk about fun and happy things. If meals are times for family arguments, your child may learn unhealthy attitudes toward food.
  • Offer the same foods for the whole family.  Serve the same meal to adults and kids. Let them see you enjoy healthy foods. Talk about the colors, shapes, and textures on the plate.

Trying New Foods

Your child may not want to try new foods. It is normal for children to reject foods they have never tried before. Here are some tips to get your child to try new foods:

  • Small portions, big benefits. Let your kids try small portions of new foods that you enjoy. Give them a small taste at first and be patient with them. When they develop a taste for more types of foods, it’s easier to plan family meals.
  • Offer only one new food at a time. Serve something that you know your child likes along with the new food. Offering more new foods all at once could be too much for your child.
  • Be a good role model. Try new foods yourself. Describe their taste, texture, and smell to your child.
  • Offer new foods first. Your child is most hungry at the start of a meal.
  • Sometimes, new foods take time. Kids don’t always take to new foods right away. Offer new foods many times. It may take up to a dozen tries for a child to accept a new food.

Physical Activity: Physical activity is anything that gets your child moving. On most or all days, children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity, but it doesn’t have to be all at once. Add physical activity into your preschooler’s day.

Parents are role models in physical activity as well as in healthy eating behaviors. Habits are “caught, not taught,” so show your child what you want them to learn by being physically active yourself.

On the Physical Activity page, there are resources and tips on how to improve your child’s and your family’s activity levels and the benefits of physical activity.

Tips To Help Your Preschooler Be Active:

  • Encourage your preschooler to play actively several times every day.
  • Limit TV, tablet, and other screen time to less than 1-hour total per day, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Preschoolers need quiet time but make sure your preschooler is not inactive for too long. Read a book together or create a craft rather than unwinding with screen time.
  • Be a role model and limit your own inactivity. 
  • Look for active childcare settings that engage children in play and regular physical activity.
  • Make active play fun for the whole family. 

Food Safety: Preschoolers’ immune systems are still developing, which makes it easy for them to get sick. It is very important to follow food safety guidelines to avoid foodborne illness.

This section includes both general food safety advice and specific messages for preschoolers. A few of the topics are: the importance of hand washing; foods that should be avoided, and foods that can be choking hazards.

Sample Meal & Snack Patterns: There are two different sample meal and snack patterns available at each of these four calorie levels: 1,000; 1,200; 1,400 and 1,600. Each one shows how to divide a MyPyramid daily eating plan into three meals and two snacks.

Several menu ideas are included for each meal or snack in the pattern, and the recommended amounts from each food group are shown. Ideas for planning meals for preschoolers also are included.

Food Groups & Amounts Needed

Food Recommendations for Preschoolers: Children need to eat a variety of foods every day, because each food group provides some, but not all, of the nutrients and energy preschoolers need.

Here is a general guideline for how much a preschooler should eat from each food group. The child’s age, gender and activity level determine the exact amounts needed.

Two to Three-Year-Olds:

Daily:

  • grain – 3 ounces (or ounce equivalents). Half of them should be whole grains.
  • vegetables* – 1 cup
  • fruit – 1 cup
  • milk and milk products – 2 cups
  • meat and beans – 2 ounce equivalents

*Vegetables are divided into subgroups. It is not necessary to eat vegetables from all subgroups every day. However, over a week, try to consume the amounts listed from each subgroup in order to reach your daily intake recommendation.

Weekly Amounts of Vegetables:

  • dark green vegetables = 1 cup
  • orange vegetables = ½ cup
  • dry beans and peas = ½ cup
  • starchy vegetables = 1½ cups
  • other vegetables = 4 cups

Oils are not a food group, but a small amount is needed for good health. Aim for your preschooler to get 2-4 teaspoons of oils a day. Choose oils from fish, nuts, and oils that are liquid at room temperature (e.g. olive oil, corn oil, soybean oil and canola oil). Limit extra fats and sugars.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a low-fat eating plan is not advised for children less than two years of age. Fat is an essential nutrient that supplies energy, or calories, that they need for growth and active play. As children eat with their family, they should be encouraged to gradually choose foods with less fat and saturated fat. By age five, their overall food choices should be low in fat like older members of the family.

Four to Five-Year-Olds:

Daily:

  • grain – 4 to 5 ounces (or ounce equivalents) Half of them should be whole grains.
  • vegetables* – 1½ cups
  • fruit – 1 to 1½ cups
  • milk and milk products – 2 cups
  • meat and beans – 3 to 4 ounce equivalents

*Vegetables are divided into subgroups. It is not necessary to eat vegetables from all subgroups every day. However, over a week, try to consume the amounts listed from each subgroup in order to reach your daily intake recommendation.

Weekly Amounts of Vegetables:

  • dark green vegetables = 1½ cups
  • orange vegetables = 1 cup
  • dry beans and peas = 1 cup
  • starchy vegetables = 2½ cups
  • other vegetables = 4½ cups

Oils are not a food group, but a small amount is needed for good health. Aim for your preschooler to get 2-4 teaspoons of oils a day. Choose oils from fish, nuts, and oils that are liquid at room temperature (e.g. olive oil, corn oil, soybean oil and canola oil). Limit extra fats and sugars.

Child-Sized Portions: Serve child-sized portions and let your child ask for more if they are still hungry. A good rule of thumb for a toddler serving size is about 1 tablespoon of food for each year of age. According to the CDC’s Healthy Children, Healthy Choices, these are considered child-sized portions for two to six-year-olds:

  • 2 small cooked broccoli spears
  • ½ cup tomato sauce
  • 5 to 7 cooked baby carrots
  • ⅓ to ½ cup melon
  • 5 to 7 strawberries
  • ½ cup apple sauce
  • 1 small tangerine
  • ⅓ to ½ cup frozen or fresh berries
  • 1 cup (8 fl. oz.) low-fat yogurt or nonfat milk
  • ⅓ to ½ cup macaroni-and-cheese, rice, pasta or mashed potatoes
  • 2 oz. hamburger
  • ¼ cup ground meat such as turkey or pork, browned and drained
  • 1 or 2 drumsticks

Promote Healthy Eating Choices With Books

Books allow children to read about food and build experiences to encourage healthy food choices. As you look at picture books or read stories to your child, involve them in identifying foods, colors, tastes, food groups and healthy food choices. Select story books with colorful illustrations of healthy foods that promote MyPyramid and the Dietary Guidelines. Here are a few good choices.

Grains: Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris and The Little Red Hen by Margo Zemach

Vegetables: Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens and Oliver’s Vegetables by Vivian French

Fruits: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert and Oliver’s Fruit Salad by Vivian French

Milk: Milk from Cow to Carton by Aliki and Cow by Jules Older

Picky Eaters: Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban and DW the Picky Eater by Marc Brown

To find additional books, visit the following web sites:

  • Michigan’s Team Nutrition Website at www.tn.fcs.msue.msu.edu/booklist.html
  • University of Missouri Family Nutrition Education Programs at http://outreach.missouri.edu/fnep/childrensbooks.htm
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension Office at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/wnep/p3/mmpdfs/9809a.pdf

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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