How can I encourage nutritious eating habits in my preschooler?



Parents can have a profound influence in establishing positive eating behaviors in preschool children. Early studies suggest that preschool children are more likely to eat foods if they see an adult eat the food. When adults select or ignore certain foods, they are often connecting to those same food choices parents made for them in early childhood. Parents are in control of the foods that enter the household, how the food is prepared, and when, where and how often the family eats outside the home. It is important to take this responsibility seriously and choose nutritious, well-balanced meals for children. There are a number of ways parents can positively influence their preschooler s eating behaviors. Consider these tips. • Offer three nutritious meals a day plus several snacks. If parents establish this routine, children are more likely to try a variety of foods. The food guide pyramid offers guidelines for choosing foods for children as well as adults. Serving size varies depending on the size of the child.

• Be aware of the value of snacks. Since they supply almost one fourth of a child s food intake in a day, it is important to be mindful of the nutrient value. Snack foods rich in vitamins and minerals help keep young bodies healthy. Candy and other treats should be eaten in moderation but not eliminated, since this often makes the child want them even more. These provide calories, which preschoolers often need. Extra calories usually won t hurt an active child as long as other nutrient requirements are met. Helping preschoolers practice moderation when these foods are occasionally offered can help prepare them to make wise food choices later in life.

• Try new foods. Studies have demonstrated that if mothers are unwilling to try new foods, children may model that dislike for the same foods. When children observe their mothers eating unfamiliar food, they are more receptive to trying the food. Therefore, based on the food socialization practices of the family, parents can influence whether the child receives a particular food optimistically or pessimistically.

• Avoid making children feel rushed. Give them plenty of time to eat. Eating in a hurry often spoils the pleasure of a meal, and short meal times may also encourage poor eating habits. If children are feeling pressured, they may choose to quickly consume their favorite food and ignore other nutritious foods. Eating too rapidly can lead to overeating and obesity in later life.

• Make mealtimes pleasant. Provide a relaxed, positive atmosphere. A nutritious meal is of little value to a child if it is not eaten and enjoyed. Reduce distractions by removing scattered projects, unfinished activities and the television from the eating area. Encourage social interaction and positive communication.

• Do not force children to eat. Let them decide if they will try a food and how much they will eat of it. Preschoolers may dislike a food one week and enjoy it the next. This is all part of asserting their independence. Be consistent in offering nutritious food choices and be patient with them as they choose. According to nutritionist, social worker and author Ellyn Satter, it is the responsibility of the parent to present nutritious food choices to the child and the child s responsibility to decide if and how much to eat.

• Serve family-style meals as much as possible. A meal where the table is set, food is passed around and the family sits together can benefit everyone. In addition to the family enjoying a nutritious meal together, advantages for preschoolers include enhancing motor skills, social skills, language skills, table manners, self-esteem and independence.

• Model nutritious eating habits. Parents who do this can have the most profound impact of all. Children observe what their parents do, and they often learn more from watching than from what they hear.

Posted on 4 Sep 2003

Georgia Lauritzen
Food and Nutrition Specialist

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