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Tips for Feeding a Preschooler

During the preschool years, kids go from toddlers who throw tantrums to kids who cooperate and want to please their parents. They may want to do things themselves, but are willing to learn from mom and dad. This give-and-take means parents can teach kids about healthy food choices in new and exciting ways.

A balanced diet gives kids the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Eating right and being active lets preschoolers be healthy and have the energy to learn and explore.

What Should Parents Do?

Guiding a child's eating habits can be tricky. You want to encourage kids to make good choices, but without nagging or arguing.

Take charge by serving healthy foods. There's nothing wrong with serving foods you know your child likes, but they shouldn't always be on the menu. Serve a variety of foods instead. If parents ask, a preschooler may try new foods, especially if mom and dad are eating the same thing.

It’s best not to fix a special meal for your child that’s different from your own — before you know it, you will be fixing two dinners every night. Also, don't use some foods as rewards. This could lead to negotiating the number of bites of dinner that must be eaten to get dessert.

Serve a range of foods, even if your child refuses to eat sometimes. Of course you want your child to eat at dinner, but skipping one meal will not harm healthy kids. If kids don’t want to eat, let them know they can eat at the next regular meal or snack time.

How Can We Encourage a Healthy Diet?

To help your child eat well:

  • Offer a variety of foods, even ones your child has rejected in the past.
  • Keep healthy foods in the house.
  • Limit high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.
  • Let kids help make meals. Give them simple jobs, like tearing lettuce for a salad or helping set the table.
  • Set regular mealtimes and snack times so kids don't graze all day long.
  • Have regular family meals and make them pleasant times for the whole family to get together.
  • Set a good example by eating healthy foods yourself.

Letting Kids Have Some Control

Parents may feel uneasy about giving preschoolers control over how much they eat. But it's a limited kind of control. You still set the schedule for meals and snacks and decide what to serve. Young kids shouldn't get their own meals or snacks, but can choose from the healthy foods you offer. If your child chooses not to eat at a scheduled meal or snack time, don’t argue about it or insist they eat. 

Most kids naturally know when they're hungry or full. They can use these feelings to decide how much to eat. Kids who stop eating when they feel satisfied are more likely to keep a healthy weight. Kids who are encouraged to ignore these feelings — for instance, when parents insist that kids eat when they’re not hungry or clean their plate — lose the ability to know when they are hungry or full. This can lead to them gaining too much weight and being at risk for the health problems obesity can bring.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021