The Path to Healthy Eating for Preschoolers

Start your preschooler on the path to healthy eating with these basic strategies:

1. Be a good role model. Plan, prepare and enjoy regular family meals based on nutrient-rich food group foods like Milk + Milk Products, Vegetables, Fruits, Grains and Meat + Beans. Your child watches what you eat, so make sure you’re a good example of healthy choices yourself!

2. Establish routines. When it comes to mealtimes and snacks, consistency makes young children feel secure. Be sure to allow children enough time at the table—aim for 20 minutes. And try to create a calm and nurturing setting…your child can’t focus on eating with multiple distractions (e.g., television).

3. Relax. Don’t force, cajole, persuade or trick your preschooler to try to get him or her to eat—that creates a battleground where no one wins. You may have to offer a food 10 to 15 times before it’s accepted. Try to add just one new food to a meal with three or so healthy foods your child already enjoys. Eventually your child will begin to accept new foods—don’t give up.

4. Watch for signals. If your child starts to play with their food, they are probably full and finished eating. Offer him or her nutritious food and do not let them fill up on junk food, they will naturally regulate the amount they eat. Simpler foods are usually preferred. And make sure the temperature and texture of the food you offer is easily handled by your child.

5. Divide the responsibility. Both you and your child have choices to make when it comes to eating. You determine what foods are served and when. He or she should decide which of those healthy foods offered he will eat and how much. Don’t be concerned if your child doesn't finish all of the food you offer at any one meal or snack. Over several meals, his or her intake will likely be enough. Read more on division of responsibility.

Preschooler Drinking Milk6. Offer healthy snacks. Young children have small stomachs. They need to eat less, and more often. Regularly scheduled healthy snacks are like "mini-meals". They can provide up to one-quarter of the nutrients your child needs each day as well as enough calories (energy) to sustain them through a busy day of school and/or play. Try to combine foods from at least two food groups that partner protein and carbohydrates sources. Peanut butter and whole-grain crackers or fresh fruit chunks mixed into low-fat yogurt make great snacks with staying power.

7. Make physical activity a part of your family's health routine. Children should be active at play for at least one to two hours each day. Consider options like a simple outing to the park to play or more organized classes or age-appropriate sports. And don’t forget to limit TV time for young children…that’s a healthy habit you’ll want to establish early!

For more ideas, print Start Your Preschooler on the Path of Healthy Eating.