Feeding Your Preschooler

Learn about good nutrition for your preschooler and find out how you can be a healthy role model for your child.
Table of contents

In this article, you will find:

Calorie and fat consumption

Feeding Your Preschooler

As your child moves toward six, his nutrient needs continue to evolve into a more adultlike diet. Pound for pound, youngsters require less energy with increasing age. Since the amount of fat kids need to flourish depends on their calorie intake, fat requirements gradually go down with advancing age, too. In fact, now is a good time to start nudging your child toward a lower fat diet.

Parents often find daily guidelines for fat and calorie intake helpful because they provide a benchmark for a child's progress. While the suggested intakes for calories and fat are based on scientific research, the numbers apply to groups of children, not to individual youngsters. In fact, they are not intended to be used as a guideline for your child. That's because each child's calorie needs are unique. Plus, a preschooler's appetite may be all over the map for a variety of reasons, which makes a daily quota out of the question. It's best to loosely monitor calorie and fat consumption over the course of a few days, or even a week. Don't become too concerned unless a pediatrician diagnoses your preschooler as underweight or overweight, or at high risk for heart disease.

Milk: When, What, and How?
Starting at age two, most children can safely drink reduced-fat milk, including 1% low-fat and 2% reduced-fat. That's because your youngster requires less of the fat and cholesterol concentrated in full-fat milk than she did during her first two years. That's not to say that you must serve skim or 1% low-fat or light milk, however. Your daughter may still need the calories that full-fat dairy products supply. Whatever milk you choose, make sure your child drinks enough to get the calcium required by growing bones. Three-year-olds need 500 milligrams of calcium a day, the equivalent of about 14 ounces of milk or fortified soy beverage. Four-, five-, and six-year-olds need much more: 800 milligrams of calcium daily, or about 24 ounces of milk or fortified soy beverage.

Fat; Don't Go Too Low
For the first six months of life, breast milk or infant formula provided the primary fat source for your baby. During infancy, your baby needs about 50 percent of his calories from fat in order to get the calories and essential fats to fuel brain and body development. By the time kids reach the age of five, experts say that they require only about a third of their calories as fat, however. That's the same amount as adults should eat for good health.

Yet, in spite of the recommendation for slowly reducing fat in a child's diet until it accounts for about 30 percent of the total calories consumed, parents should know that there are no proven benefits to going lower than the suggested amount. In fact, restricting a preschooler's fat intake can be dangerous. According to the AAR consuming less than 30 percent fat calories is typically unnecessary, and may make it difficult for children to get the calories and other nutrients they need to grow and develop properly. That's not to say that higher fat diets are always healthier ones. Depending on the fat sources, high-fat diets can be quite unhealthy for kids and can prove just as detrimental to growth as very low-fat eating regimens.

Parents who serve a variety of high- and low-fat foods are on the right track with their children's eating. It makes little sense to exclude nutrient-packed kid favorites such as beef, cheese, and peanut butter based on their fat content. In fact, it's foolish to omit these foods, since they are also rich in vitamins and minerals. Cutting back on snack chips, French fries, and cookies makes more sense for controlling fat because these foods lack nutritional benefit.

Counting on Calories
This may come as a surprise, but depending on their age, preschoolers require as many calories as some sedentary men and women.

A three-year-old needs an average of 1,300 calories daily, or about 45 calories for every pound of body weight. Four- and five-year-olds require on the order of 1,300 to 1,800 calories a day. That translates to about 41 calories per pound of body weight. Although your preschooler may need as many calories to grow as you do to maintain your weight, when you compare calorie needs on a pound-per-pound basis, youngsters require three rimes as many calories as adults. Why the difference? They're growing and you're not. That's why a preschooler's energy demands are far greater for their size than an adult's, who is physically mature.

In My Experience: Check Body Image Talk at the Door
Children become keenly aware of their bodies at about age four. At the same time, they may hear negative talk about how you, your babysitter, or someone on television feels about their weight or body shape. Young girls are particularly tuned in to "body talk." That's why you must take care to avoid making negative remarks about your build, your spouse's, or anyone else's you may encounter. Surely, few women reading this book are completely satisfied with their bodies, so it may prove difficult to contain your displeasure. But try to keep it to yourself. Four- and five-year-olds are intelligent enough to pick up on your dissatisfaction and wonder about the adequacy of their own bodies. They look to their parents to feel good about themselves. Knowing that you feel positively about your shape provides a certain security, if you are unhappy with your weight or shape, speak with a registered dietitian about changing your eating and exercise habits for the better. Or, discuss your feelings with a mental health professional to help improve your body image.