Most caregivers and parents have experienced the challenge of getting children to eat healthy and balanced meals. Young children’s stomachs can quickly feel full, so it is important to provide children frequent [or regular] opportunities to eat healthy snacks and mini-meals throughout the day.
Helping children meet nutritional requirements can be a challenge for childcare providers since you may not be trained in nutrition. It is a good idea to check with a registered dietitian when planning menus.
You may be able to locate a registered dietitian through hospitals, clinics, health departments, school systems, cooperative extension offices, universities, or fitness centers. Nutrition information to support you in planning meals for children is also available online through the USDA website that can help determine what the children in your care need by their age groups.
Main Food Groups and Recommended Servings
MyPyramid for Preschoolers divides foods into five main groups and provides recommendations concerning servings. The five groups include: bread, cereal, rice and pasta; vegetables; fruit; milk, yogurt and cheese; and, meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts. Small amounts of fats, oils and sweets are also included.
It is suggested by MyPyramid for Preschoolers that children consume at least 50 percent of their daily calories from the first group, bread, cereal, rice and pasta, with half this amount being whole grain products.
This group provides complex carbohydrates needed for energy and vitamin B complex for red blood cell development. One serving from this group might include one slice of bread, 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta, 1/2 cup cold cereal, 1/2 bagel or 1/2 English muffin.
Preschoolers should consume between 6-11 servings from this group each day. Requirements for each child may vary based on the child’s age, size, or activity level. Children also will have food at home, so balance your childcare program’s menu planning for snacks and lunch if the children eat breakfast and dinner at home.
The second group, vegetables, provides children with many nutrients needed for the utilization of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats as well as fiber. Without sufficient amounts of vegetables, nutrient utilization from other food groups is compromised because the body needs the nutrients from vegetables to process those provided by other foods. One serving equals 1/2 cup cooked vegetables or one cup raw vegetables. Children should consume 3-5 servings daily from this group.
The third group, fruits, is vital for vitamins A, B, and C and fiber. One serving equals one medium piece of fruit, 1/2 cup cooked or canned fruit, or 1/2 cup of 100% fruit juice. From this group, children (and adults, too) should have 2-4 servings daily.
Be careful when using fruit juice at times other than snacks or meals. If children are allowed to drink fruit juice all day, it can dull their appetite for the other foods and the additional sugar intake can lead to excessive weight gain and dental caries. Caregivers should provide water as an option or dilute juice with water to insure children get needed fluid without additional sugar from juice.
The fourth group, milk, yogurt and cheese, is an important source of protein and vitamins A and D. Vitamin D is important in absorption of calcium and phosphorus present in these foods. Calcium and phosphorus are important for bone and tooth formation as well as neurological and muscular function.
One serving equals one cup milk, one cup yogurt or 1-1/2 to 2 ounces cheese. From this group, children should have 2-3 servings daily. For proper growth and development, children should drink whole milk after 12 months of age until they are age two. After that, children should drink non- or reduced-fat milk and eat low-fat varieties of other dairy products.
The fifth group, meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, is needed for protein and minerals that will build strong bones and muscles as well for hemoglobin production. One serving equals 2-3 ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish, one egg, 2 Tbsp. peanut butter, or 1/2 cup cooked dried beans. Children should have 2-3 servings daily from this group.
The last group, fats, oils and sweets, should be served selectively. There are essential nutrients are found in fats and oils that help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, K, and beta-carotene. Unsaturated oils are preferred to saturated and trans-fat containing products.
However, children likely will have enough fats in their diets from a variety of sources, so extra servings probably are not necessary. Maintaining a fat intake of less than 30 percent of total calories is usually recommended, unless otherwise directed by a physician. Fat intakes should not be restricted for children under the age of two because this nutrient is necessary for proper brain and neurological development.
Putting it all together
Think about putting together a puzzle when planning to feed young children. Provide small meals during the morning, noontime, and evening and serve three snacks that are interspersed with the meals. Timing is important, so be sure that at least 2-3 hours have passed between small meals and snacks.
Children’s stomachs are small and will not hold much at a time. Listen to the child and respond to his or her hunger with wholesome foods. A good rule of thumb for most children (and adults) to follow is to eat when hungry, and stop when full. Avoid creating battles over food; for example, it is not really important if the child only wants peanut butter on bread and will not eat meat, poultry or fish.
Do not worry if children eat unusual combinations of foods that are still considered part of a healthy, balanced diet. Children often are picking tastes as well as textures that are pleasing to them, and opportunities to experiment and learn more about foods are educational and developmentally appropriate as well as important.
For more ideas on coping with children who are picky eaters, see MyPyramid for Preschoolers. One suggestion included on the web page includes involving children in food preparation to help them become familiar with new foods.
My Pyramid for Preschoolers, www.mypyramid.gov/preschoolers/index.html