Children in their toddler and preschool year are very impressionable, which makes it the perfect time to help them form good eating habits. Children are never too young to establish a foundation of good nutrition and healthy eating habits.
Toddlers and preschoolers grow at a slower rate than infants. They need enough energy or calories to fuel their active play and their various stages of growth, but they do not need adult-size portions. Large portions can overwhelm their small appetites and are too big for their small stomachs. Servings for these children should be a quarter to a third the size of an adult portion. Children do not need as much food as an adult. They really only need enough to satisfy their hunger, so listen to their cues. When children say they are done, remove the food or let them leave the table.
Make mealtime enjoyable and pleasant for you and your child and not a source of constant struggle. To help make sure your child eats well, do not allow him or her to drink too many beverages at meals—such as milk, juice, or water—so that they are not hungry for solid foods. Refrain from forcing your child to eat when he or she is not hungry or from forcing unwanted foods. Also avoid giving large amounts of sweet desserts, soft drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, sugarcoated cereals, chips, or candy. These foods have little to no nutritional value and will fill a child up quickly, leaving little room for more nutritious foods.
The following tips can make mealtime more pleasant for both you and your child:
- Plan a quiet time before meals and snacks. Children tend to eat better if they are relaxed.
- Encourage children to sit at the table when they eat, and give them plenty of time to eat their meal. Even if you are not eating with your children, sit at the table with them. Young children should be supervised while they eat, to aid in encouragement and in case of choking.
- Don't use food as a reward or as a punishment. This can lead to unhealthy attitudes toward eating and food.
- Respect your children's food preferences, and let them choose or reject foods as adults or older children do.
- Get your children involved in preparing certain parts of the meal. Make every effort to make eating, and not watching television, the main focus of the family meal.
- Use child-size dishes and utensils that the child can handle with ease. Using too large a plate can be overwhelming.
- Offer foods with kid appeal. Younger children usually like plain, unmixed foods, as well as finger-foods that make eating easier.
- Offer plenty of variety from each of the food groups. If your children don't like spinach, don't assume they don't like vegetables. Just offer another vegetable.
Should I worry that my child is not getting enough to eat?
Probably not. Children will generally eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Young children don't need a whole lot of food and will generally get what their body needs. If you are worried, speak to your pediatrician.
How Much Food Is Enough?
Children do better on an eating schedule. Even though you should offer the child three balanced meals a day, they will probably only eat one or two. Because children have a limited stomach capacity, it is best to feed them five to six small daily meals. Plan nutritious snacks as part of the day's meal schedule. Children's appetites change from day to day, which is completely normal.
To help stimulate a good appetite, children should be active and spend time outside in the fresh air. Children will not eat well if they are tired. Schedule mealtimes and playtimes accordingly. It doesn't take much to satisfy a child's small appetite, so plan meals well. If they snack right before a meal, their intake at that meal will not be as good. Children should not be given any food or drink within an hour and a half of a meal.
As long as a child is growing normally, he or she is getting enough calories. A child's food intake usually increases just before a growth spurt.