When your child graduates from toddlerhood to childhood, things change a little, food-wise. Your little one might be in preschool now or perhaps they’re in a dayhome or with a nanny (or maybe still at home with you). Either way, your little one most likely won’t be eating all of their meals at home anymore. Yikes! Does this give you anxiety? If it does, you’re not alone. What’s more, your child’s nutritional needs are ever-evolving (and their will and determination, too!).
Your child looks to you as their main role model for healthy eating. But at this stage, the foods they see their friends eating will also have an influence on them. If your child’s best friend is eating cookies and gummy bears at snack time (or at a playdate) while your kid is eating carrot sticks and hummus, you are so going to hear about it from your kid later! At this age, kids also know what they like and tend to be vocal about it, so it’s time to involve them in grocery shopping, food prep, and cooking so they have some control over their food choices - they crave that at this age.
The division of responsibility in feeding
I’m a big fan of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding (sDOR), which is a brilliant concept about the role of parent and child when it comes to feeding. It takes the pressure off both parent and child and allows the child to learn how to self-regulate, listen to their body, love a variety of foods, and establish a long-term healthy relationship with food.
The premise is that there are set roles for parent and for kid at mealtimes. A parent is responsible for what, where, and when food is served. A kid is in charge of if they eat and how much they eat. It might sound crazy, and you might think your child will starve (or eat copious amounts of bread) but trust me... it’s magical! If practiced consistently, it truly makes mealtimes more pleasant, it takes the pressure off of everyone, and it creates long-lasting healthy-eating habits.
Allowing your child to be an ‘intuitive eater’
You may have trouble believing your child can or should choose how much or if they want to eat - we’re part of a culture that tells kids to ‘clear your plate’ or ‘take one more bite.’ Too often, well-meaning parents don’t recognize the signs their child is full or choose to ignore those signs because they want to make sure their child receives enough nutrition. On the other hand, you may take food away too quickly from your child if you’re rushing through to get to the next task or if you’re worried your baby is eating too much. But kids are born intuitive eaters - they know how much they need and when to stop - so you need to trust this and not pressure them to eat more.
By offering five to six eating opportunities a day, with lots of variety, you can rest assured that your little one will meet their nutrition needs over a period of a week. This will make for a pleasant eating experience and nurture your child’s natural ability to eat intuitively.
What your child’s day should look like, food-wise
Preschool-aged kids are all over the place in terms of their interest in food. Some are distracted and can’t sit at the table for more than two minutes; some are intrigued by how ingredients blend together to form meals; some are experimental and are game to try anything; and others have six foods they enjoy (and only those six!). There’s no right or wrong - these kids are still learning!
Meal and snack times should be somewhat structured and spaced out about two to three hours apart on your schedule. There will likely be three meals and two to three snacks per day. Some kids like to have a snack when they get home from school or have one after dinner (maybe at 7:30pm) because they go to bed a bit later compared to when they were toddlers (and they get hungry again). This will depend on when dinner is served or if there are any after-school activities. Only you can determine the right schedule for your household.
Foods to serve your preschooler
At this stage, your child can eat mostly everything, but that doesn’t mean they will. There is a broad spectrum, from kids who enjoy a small handful of foods to kids who will try anything once. What’s most important is your child stays nourished by choosing foods that contain the nutrients their body requires for normal growth and development. This means real, nutritious, whole (or mildly processed) foods most of the time - things like vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy foods, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Sample meals and snacks for three to four year olds:
Oatmeal made with milk, topped with banana and almond butter
A few nuts
Lentils (mixed into meat sauce)
Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce
Junk food: Is it okay sometimes?
Reality Check: Kids this age tend to eat a lot of ultra-processed foods. After the US, Canadians are the second-largest buyers of ultra-processed foods in the world. Studies show that kids between the ages of two and nine get 51.9 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods. For context, Canadian adults get about 48 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods, so kids are eating even more junk food than their parents, yikes!
Why is this a problem? A high intake of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems. On the flip side, diets that contain less ultra-processed food and more whole food (vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, beans, nuts, dairy, meat, fish, and poultry) can reduce the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. What your child learns to eat really does matter! The bottom line is, serve your child real whole foods most of the time, and reserve treats, ultra-processed foods, and desserts for once in a while (make it random!).
Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian, writer, and author of the upcoming book, Food to Grow On (Random House). She is the founder of The Centre for Family Nutrition in Calgary, a nutrition counselling practice for babies, kids, parents, and families (prenatal, post-natal, starting solids, picky eating, family menu planning, etc.). For more information, contact 403-389-3284 or visit sarahremmer.com.
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