Is there any greater show of misplaced optimism than a food pyramid depicting a healthful toddler’s diet? As if parents have time and patience enough to translate each half-cup, government-issued recommendation into practice; as if toddlers and preschoolers are receptive and adventurous enough to let any non-noodle item pass their lips.
If you’re anything like me, when it comes to mealtime, you hope for the best, coaxing and bargaining with the most stubborn of your family members to take just one bite of that cauliflower. You push as many fruits and veggies your child’s way, silently hoping it amounts to the recommended daily portion.
If this sounds defeatist, you wouldn’t be wrong. I have all but come to terms with the fact that my strong-willed preschooler will ultimately eat what she wants to eat — all I can do is put food on the table.
For help getting on track, I reached out to a Childhood Nutritionist, Jessica Gust, MS, RDN for advice. As it turns out, I may be onto something with this surrendering approach.
“[The preschool age] can be challenging with picky eating and learning independence,” Jessica told me by email. “I always recommend parents try to reduce stress around mealtimes and understand that there will be meals (and days) when kids eat very little, and then other days when they eat a ton. Looking at the overall picture is important when it comes to how much food they eat. Keep a consistent meal and snack schedule and offer variety within the day and week.”
So what does a healthful, well-rounded diet look like for a small child? The United States Department of Agriculture has a firm plan in place for preschool-aged kids to meet their nutritional needs each day. But because we know that our children make mealtime anything but straightforward, Jessica is here to provide helpful tips and perspective. Spoiler alert: you’re doing better than you think you are!
For the preschool set (ages 2-5) the USDA advises 1-1.5 cups of fruit each day. One serving of fruit for your little one amounts to a 1/2 cup of diced apple or 4-5 large strawberries. While the USDA offers plenty of serving suggestions like this through ChooseMyPlate.gov, Jessica advises parents not to get lost in the weeds.
Instead of measuring out portion sizes, take Jessica’s advice, “I always encourage parents to offer one fruit and one vegetable at each meal and vary the colors throughout the day. This provides children exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Picky eater on your hands? Then you may find yourself negotiating most over vegetables. Before you brace yourself for another broccoli battle, know this, “Fruits and vegetables have very similar nutrient profiles,” Jessica wrote on her website, Element Nutrition Co. “This means that if your kid doesn’t eat many vegetables but they are eating a good variety of fruits, they can still get most of the key nutrients.”
As long as you’re offering variety with vegetables and you’re continuing to serve them, then you’re on the right track. “Don’t force, bribe or push [kids] to eat,” Jessica cautioned. “Simply prepare it and let them choose if they eat it or not. The best way to encourage intake is by repeat exposure.”
Another tip? Walk the produce aisle with your child and let him or her select something new to try. Have your little one help out at home by handing all the veggie prep over to your smallest sous chef. Even small children can assist with washing and drying veggies — and kids 3 and up can learn to wield a child-safe knife for chopping.
Ah, grains. The heart and soul of every young child’s diet. ChooseMyPlate.gov recommends 3-5 ounces of grains each day, encouraging parents to make at least half of them whole grains (think quinoa, barley, and buckwheat). But if your child could happily subsist on noodles alone, forgoing all else for another meal of mac and cheese, then variety is the key to breaking free.
“I usually tell parents not to worry too much about how much kids eat, as long as a good variety is offered,” said Jessica. “The problem comes in when parents are only offering grains on repeat based on a child’s demand, such as the same few foods in rotation.”
A one-ounce serving of grains equals one slice of bread or a 1/2 cup of oats or pasta. Go for a PB&J on sprouted bread or a bowl of creamy steel cut oats topped with all your little one’s favorite fruits.
Our little ones need 2-5 ounces of protein-rich food each day. While it’s easiest to default to that old standby, peanut butter, try mixing it up throughout the week. A hard-boiled egg, sunflower seed butter, and peas are all great kid-friendly options to help boost protein intake. When all else fails, add a tablespoon or two of chopped walnuts and chia seeds to a standard oatmeal bowl.
Children seem to naturally gravitate toward dairy: yogurt cups, string cheese, or milk with cereal all help fulfill your little one’s daily dairy needs. Aim for 2-2.5 cups of dairy each day. Vegan or dairy-sensitive? No problem.
“I recommend dairy-free kids get a dairy-free milk alternative that provides similar nutritional value to cows milk (fat, protein, calcium and vitamin D),” Jessica advices. “The best overall alternatives are soy milk or pea milk as long as they are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.”
To keep dairy-free kids growing strong, Jessica recommends parents look for alternative milks fortified with calcium carbonate — and bring in additional plant-based foods that boast higher calcium profiles, such as tofu, cruciferous veggies, and legumes.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to mealtimes, kids will be kids. The best you can do is continue to offer a variety of fruits and veggies (Jessica is big on a rainbow diet), and sidestep any food-related battles. Continue to offer good, healthful options, and sooner or later your little one will get on board.
What are some of your healthy staples for your family? Tells us in the comments!