Isabella has a slight build and a modest appetite. At four years old, she doesn’t like the texture of meat and isn’t fond of vegetables or many fruits. “She would live on pasta and cheese, given the choice,” says her mom, Christy Di Lello.
When Di Lello spoke to her paediatrician about Isabella’s diet, the doctor wasn’t worried because the little girl is healthy and active. She encouraged Di Lello to put something new on Isabella’s plate, along with the food she enjoys. Now Isabella is starting to enjoy rice, as well as some fruits.
Feeding preschoolers can be a challenge, acknowledges Montreal dietitian Louise Lambert-Lagacé, the author of Feeding Your Baby the Healthiest Foods. Many are finicky eaters or have a limited repertoire and, as parents, we worry that our children’s nutrition will suffer.
In all likelihood, however, if we offer the best choice of food possible and respect our children’s appetites, they will gradually expand their diets, says Lambert-Lagacé. “Parents should never force the issue, and they should keep in mind that children won’t starve themselves.”
How much should they be eating?
But how much food does the average preschooler need? “The need varies from one child to another, depending on their build and activity level. Boys tend to need a few more calories than girls,” says Lambert-Lagacé. “I don’t recommend that parents calculate calories for young children.” Still, bearing in mind that there is a wide range of normal, the average intake for three- to five-year-olds is 1,200 to 1,300 calories a day, to sustain a growth rate of about five pounds a year.
Rather than counting calories, Lambert-Lagacé stresses the importance of offering a varied and well-balanced diet. One source where parents can find help with this is Canada’s Food Guide, and suggested serving sizes are available on Health Canada’s website, hc-sc.gc.ca.
Lambert-Lagacé offers tips for encouraging preschoolers to eat well:
Serve milk instead of meat
As long as a meat hater is drinking milk (or a fortified soy equivalent), he’s OK, says Lambert-Lagacé. “A child who drinks 16 ounces [500 mL] of milk, or eats ¾ cup [175 g] of yogurt, plus 1½ ounces [50 g] of cheese a day is getting all the protein he needs.” Eggs, tofu, beans and legumes are also excellent sources of protein.
Introduce new food often
You’ve tried this, of course. But don’t give up — it often requires a fair bit of patience. “You may have to offer new foods 10 times or more before they’re accepted,” says Lambert-Lagacé. But, she counsels, “don’t repeat it over and over in the same week!”
Have a routine
Lambert-Lagacé encourages parents to aim for three meals a day at the table with the family, which allows junior eaters to learn from the example being set by others.
Lighten up on snacks
While important for young kids, snacks shouldn’t be hearty enough to interfere with a child’s appetite at mealtimes. “I’ve had clients whose children had a large snack at daycare, which meant they didn’t eat dinner at home,” says Lambert-Lagacé. “Some cut-up fruit, a cracker and peanut butter, or a small yogurt are good snacks for preschoolers.”
Don’t overdo treats
Not only do they leave less room for healthy food, but children who eat lots of sugary treats develop a preference for them over healthier options. Ice cream and cookies have a place in a healthy diet — as long as they are reserved for special times.
See dessert as a final course
Lambert-Lagacé likes to talk about a “good ending” rather than dessert, which, by the way, “should never be used as a reward for eating the main course.” She says: “A bowl of applesauce and a piece of cheese or glass of milk can add significantly to the nutrition of the meal.”