What Should My Preschooler Be Eating?

A guide for parents
healthy preschooler lunch with fun shapes

A balanced and nutritious diet for your child is important for so many different reasons. Sure, food nourishes the body and provides energy to grow and explore, but learning what to eat (plus when and how much) is an important aspect of developing and reaching milestones.

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Nutrition during preschool years is an opportunity for parents to teach kids about healthy food options, plus it helps prepare kids for the next big step: kindergarten.

Pediatric dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, CSP, LD, shares some suggestions for good nutrition during preschool years, ages 4 to 5 and how to raise a healthy eater.

Preschool nutrition

By the time your child reaches preschool, they should be (for the most part) able to feed themselves. Your child should be eating from each of the food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and meat.

As a parent, it’s important to always offer different choices for your child to eat and to set a good example of healthy eating. Offer your child new textures, colors and tastes to keep food appealing and fun.

How much food should my preschooler be eating?

Your job is to decide what foods are offered and when and where they are eaten. Plan regular meals and snacks and make sure to give your child enough time to eat. Let your child decide which of the foods offered he or she will eat and how much to eat.

“Day-to-day and meal-to-meal appetite changes are normal, so try not to get too hung up on that,” says Hyland. “It’s important that you don’t make your child clean his or her plate at every meal. What’s most important is to offer food on a schedule and try to stick to that.”

Generally, a preschooler should be eating between 1200 and 1600 calories per day. However this will vary based on gender, weight and height, as well as activity level. Parents should discuss overall calories with a doctor or registered dietitian.

“I do not generally recommend counting calories for children, rather focusing on offering a varied diet and instilling positive eating behaviors overall,” says Hyland.

Meal plan for preschoolers

Grain group

About 6 servings each day.

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  • 1 slice of bread.
  • 4 to 6 crackers.
  • ½ cup cooked rice, pasta or cereal.
  • ½ bun or muffin.

Fruit and vegetable group

At least 5 servings each day (2 fruit and 3 vegetable).

  • ½ cup cooked, canned, chopped or raw.
  • ½ or 1 small fruit/vegetable.

Milk group

About 3 servings each day.

  • ¾ cup milk or yogurt.
  • ¾ cup unsweetened milk alternative
  • 1 ounce of cheese.

Meat group

2 to 3 servings each day.

  • 1.5 to 2 ounces lean meat, chicken or fish.
  • 4 tablespoons dry beans or peas.
  • 1 egg.

Fat group

3 to 4 servings each day.

  • 1 teaspoon oils, butter or salad dressings.
  • 1 tablespoon nut butter.
  • 2 tablespoons avocado or humus.

Added sugars: The goal should always be as little added sugars as possible

Is there anything I shouldn’t feed my preschooler?

It’s important to be careful with foods that can cause choking.

Hyland recommends avoiding:

  • Slippery foods such as whole grapes, large pieces of meats, hot dogs, candy and cough drops.
  • Small, hard foods such as nuts, seeds, popcorn, chips, pretzels, raw carrots and raisins.

Always cut up foods into small pieces and watch your child while they eat.

Also, your child may have some food allergies, so it’s important to keep tabs on what they’re eating, how much and how they react to it. The most common food allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, wheat, fish and shellfish.

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If you think your child might have a food allergy, talk with your doctor to be sure.

What do I do if my child is a picky eater?

It can be tough when you’ve got a picky eater on your hands, especially if they’re preschool age. Parents should be mindful about offering kids new foods one at a time, and remember that children may need to try a new food 10 or more times before they accept it!

Continue to offer the food on your child’s plate when it’s served at a meal, even if they have tried it in the past. It may only be a matter of time before they try again and decide to like it.

Here are more tips for managing a young picky eater:

  • Offer new foods at the start of meals when your child is hungrier and offer the new foods with foods they are already familiar with
  • Avoid “short order cooking.” Serve at least one food you know your child will like, but then expect him or her to eat the same foods as the rest of the family.
  • Make food simple, plain and recognizable. Some kids don’t like food that is mixed (like a casserole) or food that is touching.
  • Be aware of child sized portions. 1 small piece or 1 tablespoon of a new food is all a preschooler needs. Sometimes more can be overwhelming for them.

What if my child is gaining too much weight?

It’s important to talk with a registered dietitian or your doctor about your child’s weight to decide if he or she really is gaining too much. Also, keep in mind that often a child will gain weight before a growth spurt.

Here are a few tips to help prevent too much weight gain:

  • Eat regularly scheduled meals and snacks. This will help keep your child from getting too hungry, which often leads to overeating.
  • After your child turns two years old, it’s okay to start offering lower-fat foods, such as reduced-fat milk, low-fat cheeses and lean meats.
  • Encourage activity!
  • Start off a meal by giving your child smaller portions. If he or she is hungry for more, you can always give seconds.

Additional tips for preschool eating

Keep this things in mind as you continue to work with your preschooler and teach him or her about healthy eating:

  • Be a role model for healthy eating habits.
  • Set meal and snack schedules. Discourage eating between these times.
  • Give kids enough time to eat.
  • Cook the same meal for the entire family.
  • Don’t use food as a reward.
  • Encourage kids to participate in grocery shopping and helping in the kitchen.
  • Use “kid-size” plates, bowls and silverware.
  • Continue to offer foods even if they did not like them the first time. Don’t give up!

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