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A Food Plan for Preschoolers

Let's face it. Feeding preschoolers is not always one of the more fun jobs of parenting. They can be opinionated, like one food one day and despise it the next. They can insist on all white food days or all red ones. They might hate anything with seeds or squishy foods. They might decide playing beats food meal after meal after meal.

While I've got friends whose kids will -- and do -- eat anything (a trait I had as a child), my kids inherited the finicky eating genes. I've always laughed at the experts who insist that kids will eat your food -- eventually -- if you try enough times and if they are hungry enough. They surely haven't met my vegetarian 4-year-old who's never in his life opted to actually try the "yucky" meat/chicken/fish we cook several times a week. And yes, he will wait out meals until you put something on the table he approves of -- like pasta -- and then scarf that down in large quantities as though it might be his last meal in awhile.

So, it's comforting -- helpful even -- to see a new MyPyramid Web site devoted to the nutritious needs of preschoolers. Over the past few years, the United States Department of Agriculture has developed interactive tools to make the food pyramid easy to apply to individual needs. There's a whole section, for instance, devoted to pregnant and nursing mothers and another for kids ages 6 to 11.

MyPyramid for preschoolers lets you enter your child's gender, age and activity level and generates general food guidelines. These range from about 1,000 calories for a fairly inactive 2-year-old girl to 1,600 calories daily for a very active 5-year-old boy. That food intake also depends on how fast your child is growing, the site says, adding that "between the ages of 2 and 5, the average child grows about 2 1/2 inches taller each year, and also gains 4 to 5 pounds each year."

But what I find most helpful are the general amounts of different types of foods these kids should eat. For instance, 2-3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk and between 3 and 5 ounces of grains are a day's portion. And by now, my active 4 year old should be eating about 5 ounces of meats or beans a day. One key for us parents to remember, though, is to take those daily amounts and multiply them out to cover a week. After all, preschoolers' day-to-day food intake varies tremendously.

In addition to these general recommendations, the site gives sample menu plans and a few food ideas for picky eaters such as graham cracker sandwiches and bagel snakes. And it lists healthy eating tips such as giving small portions, letting kids serve themselves and offering a variety of foods.

How do you manage your preschooler's food quirks? What snacks and meals have you found that pack a nutritious punch and are popular with your preschooler?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Food
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Comments


"And yes, he will wait meals out until you put something on the table he approves of -- like pasta -- and then scarf that down in large quantities as though it might be his last meal in awhile."

Sounds like the tail wagging the dog....fantastic future marriage material.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 27, 2008 7:44 AM | Report abuse

"the site gives sample menu plans and a few food ideas for picky eaters such as graham cracker sandwiches and
bagel snakes."

If you can get your kid to eat snakes, I figure that you can get him to eat anything. Picky eater - NOT!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 27, 2008 7:47 AM | Report abuse

I don't do "display food" for my kids. It's a bad habit to get into, because I'd think you'll end up worrying more about presentation. Some healthy foods my kids like include popcorn, steamed edamame, smoothies, yogurt, any kind of fruit, pepper strips, carrots, green beans, scrambled eggs, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal. Most of these pack well for lunches (except smoothies, scrambled eggs and oatmeal). I'm one of those mean moms who forces her children to have a no thank you helping of everything we're eating, unless it's something very spicy.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 27, 2008 7:57 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if our obsession with food isn't the problem instead of a symptom. I find the current american almost fetish with food to be quite interesting ,troubling and perplexing. Maybe if we went back to eating for nourishment and not entertainment, we'd all be better off. My 2 cents.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 27, 2008 8:12 AM | Report abuse

My kid loves pizza, so I'm trying to sneak veggies into the homemade stuff. She's not yet 2 and has started refusing vegetables and has never liked meat. We still offer both at lunch and dinner, hoping that the experts are right and she'll take to it eventually. In the meantime, I try for the highest fiber fruits and dairy and eggs for protein. She loves beans and rice when we eat TexMex out, but doesn't dig it as much at home. I know she eats differently at school, bowing to peer pressure in a good way, and for that I'm thankful. She's been known to eat other kids' chicken when offered. That's something. She eats reasonably well over the course of the week, getting the fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals she needs, so we're not in a stressful position. Thankfully.

Posted by: atb2 | October 27, 2008 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I don't worry too much about this (the whole "making food cute" concept is just waaaaay beyond my ability and energy level). My first was a healthy eater, pretty much naturally mirrored the food pyramid, and skinny as a stick. I figured I was brilliant, really had this food thing down. Then my second arrived. Round as a tub, and if given a choice, would eat only noodles, bread, butter, milk, cheese, and processed meat products. Same genetic source, same home environment, but I have Jack and Mrs. Spratt -- one McDonald's visit, she sat there peeling the breading off the nuggets to eat the meat, while he sat there peeling the breading off the nuggets to eat the breading.

In the end I figured out that it's not really up to me -- the kids just have very different tastes. So I make a variety of reasonable foods for dinner (the classic protein, starch, vegetable, and fruit, with milk to drink) and let them each choose what and how much they want. For now, my daughter has to try a bite of everything, but the boy doesn't; figure I'll wait until he's mostly through the terrible twos to pick that particular battle. :-) But really, more of the focus for both is on positive reinforcement for trying new things; we were so excited the first time my daughter ate sushi that she has now declared it to be her favorite food.

Best healthy snacks I know (which both kids will eat until the cows come home) are edamame and pistachios. We also go through a fair number of part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks, bananas, and probably 2-3 gals. of skim milk a week (the boy will drink his dinner if we let him).

Posted by: laura33 | October 27, 2008 8:33 AM | Report abuse

I don't stress too much about what my daughter's eating. Some days, she lives on pasta, milk, apples and string cheese (at least I use multigrain pasta). Other days, she'll eat whatever I put in front of her. I tend to avoid having junky snacks in the house, so usually she's eating her full measure of fruits for a day, and then some.

I do worry about her vegetable intake. She used to love peas, broccoli, spinach, edamame, carrots and sweet potatoes. Now, she rarely touches them. I figure I can't force to eat, but I try at least to make sure the veggies are on her plate so she can eat them if she wants. Sometimes she eats, sometimes she doesn't.

Posted by: newsahm | October 27, 2008 8:44 AM | Report abuse

If you're old enough to have a preschooler, you've outgrown the baby talk "veggies", etc.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 27, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

So far (kids are 7 and 10) what works for me is that I only serve/make available healthy foods. We do sometimes have dessert or brownies for snacks, but not all the time. And while I make an attempt to serve foods they like for meals, they don't agree on everything (except that neither is fond of vegetables). I make and serve one meal for dinner. It goes on the table and that's what you get. Fortunately for me that works.

I have occasionally had to say, "It isn't going to taste any better at breakfast time," but that is very rare. And I have never actually had to serve it at breakfast--the threat was apparently incentive enough.

The main thing, though, is that the snacks are healthy, and they don't snack close to meals. So at home, I don't worry so much about what they eat, since it is all healthy. And I don't worry about what they eat when they are not home, because that would be pointless.

I don't think you need to worry about kids eating meat, but I have discovered that mine eat meat better cut into tiny pieces. I mean minuscule. Beef in particular can be difficult for kids to chew, so it may be that they are rejecting it due to the difficulty eating it presents. So if it is important to you that your kid eats meat, you might try cutting it into 1/8 inch size cubes. And/or, cook it in the pressure cooker, which tenderized meat nicely.

Posted by: janedoe5 | October 27, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

I'm in the same situation as Laura -- one of my kids loves her fruits and veggies, the other when asked what she wants for breakfast, answers "steak."
I don't do anything special -- kids are lucky to get their food cooked, never mind garnished! They seem to be growing and reasonably healthy -- I think humans have a fair bit of flexibility in meeting their dietary needs.

Posted by: annenh | October 27, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

My twin 4 yr olds will basically eat anything - pork chops, steak, crabcakes, catfish, salmon, lamb chops, hummus, Chinese food, Mexican food (not just quesidillas), green beans, mango, you name it.

But I still get stressed out about whether they are eating enough fruits and veggies each day. I won't let them eat anything for breakfast (cereal, waffles, bagel, eggs...)until they've had some fruit. It can be a banana, half a mango, some grapes or strawberries, or some canned peaches. Whatever we have, basically.

I also have them eat a different fruit at lunch time. Maybe an apple or a plum. Then they eat a sandwich or a bagel, or just a meat and cheese "roll up." They do not get goldfish, sunchips, or another "treat" until the fruit is gone.

At dinner time, we break out the veggies. I give them whatever cooked veggie we are eating (green beans or peas. . .) and then some raw carrots and sugar snap peas. Or maybe cucumbers or red/green peppers. Both girls will eat the veggies, but sometimes they want to dip them in ranch dressing. So we let them. I buy the HVR Light dressing and give them about 1-2 TBSP. If they eat all their veggies, who cares that they are having ranch "dip" several days a week. And the same as lunch time, no dessert if you don't eat your veggies. We don't make them eat everything on their plates, but they must eat some of everything. Like two carrots, 1 sugar snap pea, and a few bites of chicken and rice.

This has worked for us for 2 1/2 years and we often get compliments about what good eaters the girls are. And how nice it is that they eat what we eat! This does not mean that some nights we don't open a can of Chef Boyardee and call it a meal! Or some nights dinner is a slice of pizza and a bowl of ice cream!

Posted by: LBH219 | October 27, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

fr LBH219:

>My twin 4 yr olds will basically eat anything - pork chops, steak, crabcakes, catfish, salmon, lamb chops, hummus, Chinese food, Mexican food (not just quesidillas), green beans, mango, you name it. ...

Oh, major YUM factor for crabcakes! You sound like you're doing a great job!

Posted by: Alex511 | October 27, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

My son is almost 15 months. He has good eating days and not so good eating days. He does eat his vegetables and loves fruit and crackers and such. He will eat some meat, but not much. He only has 6 teeth, so I expect his eating habits will change as he gets more teeth.
Somewhat off topic, does anyone have any advice for how to deal with throwing food, or simply picking up a piece of something and dropping it on the floor? We have this at practically every meal.
I don't want to "punish" him because I am not really sure that he understands, or maybe he understands perfectly well and only does it to get a rise out of mommy or maybe he does it to try to communicate (he doesn't have words yet.)...
Yes, you can see that I have no idea what, if anything, I should do. (I feel this way a LOT!) Currently, we say "No, don't throw food on the floor..." Maybe some one who has done this before can offer some wisdom to a newbie, clueless but trying mom? Thanks!

Posted by: VaLGaL | October 27, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

VaLGaL -- if you figure that particular problem out, make sure to patent it, and I suspect you'll be retiring a wealthy woman. :-)

Short answer is that I don't know that there is a solution. Both my kids were the same way: if I was lucky, the "bad food" went into the cupholder on the tray, but more often than not, it was not allowed anywhere in the vicinity of the "good food." At 15 mos., they're playing as much as eating, and they really enjoy getting a rise out of you.

I'd advise against punishing, because I think that's too young to expect them to get it. I just slowly started delaying retrieval of critical items, and then just not retrieving them at all, saying "oh well, all gone" -- they eventually learned not to drop the stuff they actually wanted! And a big plastic mat works well, too, in the interim. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | October 27, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

If you're old enough to have a preschooler, you've outgrown the baby talk "veggies", etc.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 27, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse


Why is "veggies" baby talk? lol

Posted by: snuggie | October 27, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Babygirl used to watch her very picky father before trying ANYTHING. And I think she still does it at 5 years old.

If your kid is in preschool, the odds are very good that they are not rejecting their snacks (as someone who formerly worked in Pre-K). In fact, it's generally a good bet that your kids are ONLY picking a food fight with you or other parents. You should talk to their teacher or group leader to see if they eat at snack time. A good school will have snack time set up so that it's unthinkable for the child to not participate, and it becomes a matter of ritual (which kids like) more than nutrition (which they don't care about).

Posted by: smrtrnu | October 27, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

jezebel3:

'Veggies' is not "babytalk"! It's called an abbreviation. Wrting out the word 'vegetables' over and over is kind of annoying. Restaurants and catering companies use this term all the time and I'm pretty sure their menus are not aimed at babies.

Posted by: LBH219 | October 27, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Valgal - two options in my book - #1 tell him no throwing and simply take away the food each time he does it. or #2 like Laura said, let him throw it all away then he's got no food. He should put two and two together soon. Good luck.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 27, 2008 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Valgal - two options in my book #1 - tell him no throwing food and simply take away the food when he throws it - food is for eating not throwing. #2 - Like Laura said, let him throw it all away, then he's got no food. He should put two and two together soon. Good luck - this too shall pass.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 27, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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