If you're parenting a 2- to 5-year-old, chances are you're all too familiar with the picky palates of preschoolers. Whether your tot is just occasionally persnickety or every meal is met with a scrunched-up nose, a stuck-out tongue, and a tantrum, no doubt you could use some nutritional advice, now and then, for feeding your discriminating little diner.
Enter the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with its brand new "MyPyramid for Preschoolers" website. Using guidance based on current scientific research and the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the government's most recent recommendations), the interactive site will help parents and caregivers:
- create a customized eating plan for preschoolers (using sample meals and snacks that can translate into a printable, fridge-door-worthy personalized plan)
- help kids develop healthier eating habits and be more physically active
- figure out if kids are growing as they should, by looking at things like Body Mass Index (BMI) and Height-for-Age charts
What This Means to You
Getting preschoolers to eat — and eat well— is often a test in patience, persistence, and creativity. But it all boils down to realizing (and learning to live with the fact) that eating or not eating is often how preschoolers express that they're becoming increasingly independent big kids with their own tastes and opinions.
"Food jags" — when kids will only consume certain things and reject most others — are a common, albeit aggravating part of early childhood, especially the age 2 to 5 set. Sure, you may want to throw in the dishtowel every time your 2-year-old hurls the peas on the floor or your preschooler sticks a nose up at the pork chops. But you can't let their perpetual pickiness rule the roost.
To help make preschoolers more open-minded about what they put in their mouths, try these tips:
- Set and stick to a daily meal and snack time schedule. Young children usually need three meals and two or three nutritious snacks a day.
- Pay attention to portion sizes and timing of snacks so they don't interfere with appetites for the next scheduled meal.
- Be creative with snack choices so you'll get the most nutritious bang for your buck. Combine two or more food groups — like graham crackers with cream cheese and bananas, pear slices with cheese, whole-wheat mini pitas with hummus and cucumbers or shredded carrots, or whole-grain crackers with peanut butter and jelly (if allergies aren't an issue at home or school).
- Include your preschoolers in the action. Look for recipes with ingredients your kids like and invite them to join you to shop for, cook, and serve the food. Preschoolers feel important when grown-ups welcome their assistance. Then they enjoy a sweet sense of pride in what they helped to prepare.
- Reel in the junk food, but don't ban it altogether. If you completely forbid certain foods, kids are much more likely to want them even more. So, it's OK to allow some special treats every once in a while.
- Don't cook special meals just for picky eaters. Serve the same thing for the whole family, but include new choices alongside something you know your kids like.
- Let them feel like they have a choice. That doesn't mean letting them pick out their snacks or meals. It means presenting them with healthy options, then allowing them to decide whether to eat, what to eat on their plates, and how much to eat.
- Don't expect kids to be "clean-platers." Let children recognize their own internal cues that tell them when they're hungry and when they're full.
- Encourage trying at least one bite of different nutritious foods at each meal, but don't bargain for bites or use dessert as a reward. If you tell kids they can have a cookie if they eat their spinach that only makes the treat seem that much more appealing than the veggies. Plus, it creates mealtime tension and sets the stage for a power struggle.
- Be persistent. It may take a while for little eaters to accept new tastes and textures — you may have to present a food up to 15 times before they'll try it.
- Say no to soda and too much juice (no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day for preschoolers). Water and milk are the only beverages kids really need. But avoid serving any drink right before meals that might spoil their appetite.
- Serve smaller portions, which are less overwhelming for kids. Plus, bigger portions may encourage overeating.
- Create positive peer pressure. Look for opportunities for kids to eat healthy with friends (at home, playgroups, or school).
- Set a good example. Sit down for family meals together and make sure your kids see you enjoying the same wholesome foods you're expecting them to eat.
- Get more inventive as they grow. Create food faces. Offer condiments, dressings, and dips (like peanut butter, applesauce, ranch dressing, yogurt, cream cheese, guacamole, or salsa dip) for dunking and decorating. Serve colorful fruits and veggies in a "food rainbow" or on a kabob. Cut cheese, veggies, and sandwiches into shapes.
And if your picky eater opts not to eat anything at all, don't make a big deal about it — your finicky kid won't starve. Simply offer nutritious choices again at the next scheduled meal or snack. But if your child is regularly skipping meals and snacks or you're worried that your little one isn't getting enough calories or nutrients, talk to your doctor.
Luckily, although lots of tots are picky eaters at some point, this often-frustrating phase too shall pass. In the meantime, get creative, be patient, stay positive, and stock up on snack and meal ideas from other parents, KidsHealth's recipe section, and tools like the USDA's new website (go to MyPyramid.gov and click on MyPyramid for Preschoolers). And, just think, in no time they'll be really big kids raiding the cabinets!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2008