Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.
The Dietary Needs of Children Aged Two to Five Years
Most parents report feeling a deep sense of security and satisfaction when they see their children eating. That's no surprise. It satisfies a deep and ancient instinct. It shows us they're healthy and are likely to survive. So, when children are reluctant to eat it can be upsetting, confusing, even frightening for their parents.
But as children transition from one life stage to the next, they'll always need to adjust. Part of that adjustment may show in changes in their moods, behavior, and eating habits. If your preschool child seems off their food and you know they're not ill, don't panic.
Children between the ages of two and five years old have more complex dietary needs than they did in early infancy. Their growth slows down, and they may need to eat less. Day-to-day changes in appetite are normal and are often a result of growth spurts. One day your child can't get enough, and the next day they aren't interested in eating much at all. Many children at this age do well if you offer regular, healthy snacks in between meals.
The Psychological and Emotional Needs of Preschoolers
Our relationship with food and eating is formed at an early age. Most people have a more complex relationship with food and eating than just as a means of nutrition. This is as true for preschoolers as it is for older children and adults.
Preschoolers are developing more independence. They want to have a say. A young child may reject a tasty food item if they perceive it as obligatory rather than optional. Regard this change in attitude as an opportunity, not a challenge. Young children need nutritious food, but they also need to learn how to make choices.
While it can be a struggle when your child reaches this phase, it's also an opportunity to teach them a healthy emotional as well as physical relationship to food. Within the boundaries of promoting their positive nutrition, let them learn to develop judgement, the ability to make informed choices, and take a little responsibility for their own well-being.
Mealtime Challenges and Solutions
One way you can encourage them is to offer them food that is as interesting and varied as possible. If all the options are nutritious, they can have complete freedom to choose because whatever they choose to eat it will be good for them. Here are three easy ways to make food more appealing to preschoolers that you might want to try with your own child:
1. Make Food Interactive
Young children are often distracted at mealtimes. To get them to focus on eating and enjoying what they eat, it's a great idea to make meals more interactive and fun.
Cut food such as pizza, sandwiches, and tray bakes, into fun shapes. You can try stars, circles, and triangles; or if you have a real artistic flair, animals, and faces. Ask your child what they think the shapes are called. Encourage them to choose the one they prefer.
- Does it taste as good as it looks?
- Why did they choose it?
- Does the shape change the taste?
2. Make Food They Can Eat With Their Fingers
While most parents agree that table manners are still important (even in an age where many households don't eat at a table anymore) all rules were made to be broken. So long as you make sure they wash thier hands before they eat, why not let them eat with their fingers?
Small children love food they can eat with their fingers. Why not cut fruit and vegetables, such as apple, carrots, and cucumber, into finger-sized strips? Serve them with pots of cream cheese, hummus, or pesto. They'll enjoy choosing, dipping, and crunching these tasty, healthy snacks.
3. Get Them to Help You Prepare Meals
We often banish children from the kitchen. Maybe we think it's too dangerous or we're under time pressure and just want to get everything done without little ones "getting under our feet". But why not plan to get your kids involved in helping to make they food they eat once in a while?
No child is too young to help with preparing food in the kitchen. If you're making a salad, why not let your child tear up lettuce leaves or sprinkle grated cheese on top?
They may be too young to trust with sharp knives, but there's no reason they shouldn't stir a bowl of cold or dry ingredients. Having helped prepare the food, they will be eager to taste it and share it, too.
The Top Three Tips to Get Preschool Kids to Eat
1. Make Food Interactive
2. Make Food They Can Eat with Their Fingers
3. Get Them Involved in Preparing Their Food
Mental, Emotional, and Physical Benefits of Food Education for Preschoolers
While if your child continues to refuse food you should seek medical advice, in most cases becoming a "fussy eater" for a while is a natural phase in the process of growing up. Giving preschool-age children controlled choices, offering them variety, and making food fun and interactive, are great ways to teach them the foundations of food preparation, cooperation, and good eating.
These activities also teach them the relationship between ingredients and the final products they consume. If children associate preparing and eating good, healthy food with pleasure, approval, and affirmation from an early age, it will be a value they carry forward into adult life.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn