It sounds easy enough, but getting preschoolers to eat the food their growing bodies need can take patience and a strategy or two. Nutritionists Claire Turnbull and Sarah Peck explain what toddlers need to thrive and how to encourage healthy eating habits.
It’s natural to want to give your children the best start in life — it’s crucial they get plenty of nutrients to help them grow and develop. So establishing healthy eating habits from the start is one of the best things you can do for them but it’s not always straightforward. These tips and strategies for children aged two to five will help you through this potentially tricky time.
What do toddlers and preschoolers need?
The main thing is variety. Their appetites are determined by growth and development, so it’s important they have food providing the nutrients they need. If you decide what and when your child eats, try to let them decide how much. Trusting their appetite and hunger cues will help them develop a healthy relationship with food. Remember, your child has a small stomach so aim for three small main meals each day, with satisfying, healthy snacks in between.
Recommended daily food groups
Meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds
These are all good sources of protein and iron. Aim for at 1-2 servings a day. It’s recommended your child eats 2 servings of fish per week and at least one serve of oily fish such as salmon.
- Serving size: 2 slices of cooked meat (about 100g), 3/4 cup of mince or casserole, 1 medium fillet of fish, 1 egg, 3/4 cooked dried beans or 1/3 cup of nuts/seeds (although nuts and large seeds can be a choking risk so it’s important not to introduce them too early — chop them up very small or use ground nuts).
Vegetables and fruit
Offer these at each meal and as snacks. Aim for at least 2 servings of vegetables and 2 of fruit.
- Serving size for veges: 1 medium potato, 1/2 cup cooked veges/salad or 1 tomato.
- Serving size for fruit: 1 apple/pear/orange, 2 small apricots/plums/kiwifruit or 1/2 cup fresh fruit salad. Dried fruit is high in sugar so a small amount is okay, but fresh or frozen fruit is better.
Milk, cheese and yoghurt
Aim for 2-3 servings a day.
- Serving size: 1 cup reduced-fat milk, 1 small pouch or pottle of yoghurt, 2 slices or 1/2 cup grated cheese such as edam.
Breads and cereals
Choose wholemeal or wholegrain varieties for sustained energy and aim for at least 4 servings a day.
- Serving size: 1 roll, 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup oats, 2 Weet-Bix or 1 cup cooked pasta, rice or noodles.
Offer water as the main source followed by milk after meals or as part of a snack. Fruit juice is not recommended as it is high in sugar. Do not offer your preschooler soft drinks as they are high in sugar and often contain caffeine. Also avoid tea and coffee.
How to encourage healthy food habits
1. Eat at the table
If you’re not doing this already, try to eat as many family meals together as possible. Avoid eating on the run. Sit your toddler in a high chair or at the table without distractions such as smartphones or the TV.
2. Be led by your child’s appetite
The appetites of children aged up to about five are determined by their energy and growth needs, so it’s important to trust their hunger levels. Like us, they will be hungrier on some days than they will be on others. Remember, they have small stomachs so smaller, more frequent meals are usually the best way to keep your child satisfied. Encourage them to eat slowly and finish eating when they feel full — even if this means they haven’t finished everything on their plate. If your child is refusing to eat then a reminder that there is no more food until the next meal or snack is all that’s needed. If they have continuous access to the pantry or fridge, they are less likely to eat their food at meal times. Remember, you decide what and when and your child decides how much.
3. Involve your kids in food prep
This is a great age to get kids interested in food preparation. Ask them to help you pick fruit and vegetables from the garden or choose them at the supermarket. With older preschoolers, let them decide on a dinner option once a week and help you prepare dinner (washing or grating veges and setting the table, for example). The more exposure they have to food the better. This is especially true for veges as this is commonly where fussiness occurs.
4. Keep offering foods
It can take being exposed to a new food10-15 times before preschoolers learn to like it, so keep offering even if they don’t eat it. One day they may surprise you. For more tips on fussy eaters see the February 2014 issue of HFG.
5. Choose your words wisely
Talk positively about food to develop a healthy relationship with it. It’s helpful to use terminology such as ‘everyday foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’ and avoid terms such as ‘junk’ or ‘bad foods’. Talk about foods that help us grow, feel strong or give us energy to do the things we enjoy, rather than using language in reference to food and weight, such as ‘skinny’ or ‘fat’.
6. Avoid using food as a reward
During preschool years, it’s tempting to use food as a reward, particularly if tantrums become common! It can be the start of children learning to use food for comfort or to help them feel better. It’s much easier to set up healthy eating habits in childhood than break unhealthy habits later in life. Try to use non-food rewards such as stickers, stamps or a trip to the park.
7. Be a positive role model
If parents and older siblings have healthy eating habits then it is more than likely your toddler/preschooler will develop them too. Family meal times are a great opportunity to demonstrate that you are eating a variety of foods, trying new ones and can stop eating when full. And avoid bribing your child to eat food — “If you eat your broccoli you can have some ice cream”. It’s tempting because it can produce short-term results, but it also signals that the food must taste really bad if Mum or Dad needs to bribe me. Remember, the habits they learn in childhood will most likely stay with them as adults.
- Cooked oats with milk and chopped banana/grated apple
- Weet-Bix with milk and banana
- Toast with avocado and a yoghurt
- Boiled egg with toast soldiers
- Scrambled eggs with toast and cherry tomatoes
- Toasted cheese sandwich with carrot sticks
- Cheesy courgette or corn fritters
- Vegetable frittata
If your child needs a little extra, try offering a small serving of fruit or yoghurt after lunch.
Ideally offer the same food as the rest of the family (without any added salt). Lean meat, chicken or fish with a serving of soft-cooked vegetables and kumara or potato mash, rice or pasta.
- Salmon or tuna potato cakes with salad or vegetables
- Homemade meatballs (add grated vegetables to the mix) with brown rice or wholemeal spaghetti and extra veges on the side
- Tuna and vegetable pasta bake with salad or veges
- Chicken, leek and mushroom risotto with extra veges on the side
Along with these meals choose 1-2 healthy snacks.
Top 10 toddler snacks
- Fruit and vegetables, cut into fun shapes
- Wholegrain crackers with cheese or avocado
- Plain popcorn
- Homemade mini vege or fruit muffins
- Vege sticks with cottage cheese
- Pita bread with hummus or a yoghurt-based dip
- Unsweetened natural yoghurt and chopped fruit
- Wholemeal or fruit toast with peanut butter
- Melted cheese on toast
- Grapes and cubes of cheese
Packing a lunch
When you’re busy it can be tempting to buy packaged food for convenience. Using very few of these foods, which are often high in both sugar and salt, is a great start to providing a healthy packed lunch. And if you do use them, choose wholegrain, fruit or dairy-based items that have some nutritional benefits. It’s a good idea to prepare a healthy lunchbox and if mornings are rushed, prepare as much as you can the night before.
A balanced healthy lunchbox ideally contains:
- Whole grains such as wholemeal pasta, sandwich/wrap/pita, crackers, mini banana muffins
- Vegetables such as tomatoes, or cucumber and carrots cut into shapes
- Protein such as a boiled egg, tuna, salmon or leftover lean meat/chicken in a sandwich or wrap
- Dairy such as cheese sticks, yoghurt, cheese and crackers and vege sticks with cream cheese or cottage cheese as a dip
- Fruit, peeled and cut up
Article sources and references
- Ministry of Health. 2012 Food and nutrition guidelines for healthy children and young people (aged 2-18 years): A background paper. Wellington: Ministry of Healthhttps://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/food-nutrition-guidelines-healthy-children-young-people-background-paper-feb15-v2.pdf
- Savage JS et al. 2007. Parental influence on eating behaviour: conception to adolescence. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35:22-34https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17341215
- Shaw V & Lawson M. 2007. Clinical Paediatric Dietetics, 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, UKhttps://www.wiley.com/en-us/Clinical+Paediatric+Dietetics%2C+3rd+Edition-p-9781118699539