A Parent’s Nutrition Guide for the Preschool Years

August 1, 2023

As your child ages from a toddler to a young child, food and nutrition goes through many phases in their lives in just these few years. Use this guide to help you as you work with your child to develop their eating habits for life!

Co-author: YeaJin Kim 

I am personally so glad we stopped using the term “terrible twos”. These are actually some of the best years! Watching your child go through the rapid growth and development of ages 2 to 5 can be really fun and exciting. As they discover themselves and the world around them, and especially as they explore their eating habits and what activities they enjoy. 

Navigating the nutritional needs of your children at this age is dependent on your child’s preferences, their developing skills – motor and cognitive, as well as how they learn to communicate with you. 

Check out our nutrition guide below of what to keep in mind during these years. 

  • Cultivating environment. Where, when and how are just as important to a child’s eating as is the what. You can develop healthy eating habits in your child by focusing on:
    • 1) where they eat – at a table, minimal screens and with family
    • 2) when they eat – at designated meal and snack times, as in with boundaries, so they understand they are not always eating,
    • and 3) how they eat – with the proper utensils and table manners. 
    • And as a bonus – 4) with an understanding of what they are eating – discussing what the meal is and probing them to share their thoughts and opinions.
  • Quality of diet. The habits your child builds now when it comes to food will be impactful on them in their later years. Take this time to introduce them to a wide variety of whole foods – grains (e.g., wheat, rice, oats), colorful vegetables, fruits (fresh or frozen), low-fat dairy, and protein sources like lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans. Be mindful of their intake, likes and dislikes, and prepare the food to meet their developmental age.
  • Avoid ultra-processed and high calorie foods. These are the years where your child is developing their taste preferences and the more exposure they have to a variety of whole, natural ingredients, will give them a better foundation for healthy eating as adults. Serving large amounts of energy dense, nutrient-poor foods such as soda and candy, can hinder this process. Educate your children about the importance of including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to all their meals. And be mindful to teach them that ultra-processed foods are rare treats.
  • Meeting their needs. Children are always in growth mode – some stages are more rapid than others. As a result keeping up with their micronutrient needs is essential. Focus on vitamins and minerals such as calcium (found in dairy & fortified products), vitamin B12 and iron (found in animal products), vitamin D (fortified dairy and eggs, and exposure to sun), zinc (meat and fish), and fiber (fruits, veggies, and complex carbs).

And lastly, don’t overlook the importance of how you talk about food and eating with your children at this age – not labeling food as “good” or “bad” rather using appropriate, open-minded language, encouraging them to express their preferences and hunger/fullness levels.

By creating a relaxed mealtime environment, offering a balanced and varied diet, being mindful of diet quality, and monitoring nutrient intake, during the preschool years – you can have a lifelong impact on your child’s eating habits and their overall health.

This is a learning process for you as a parent and for your child, don’t hesitate to seek out help and support during this period of dietary transitions. To learn more about what Dining With Nature offers for working with this population  – take a look at our Services page.