How to Choose Healthy Food for Your Preschoolers
Wondering how to introduce good eating habits to your little one? Concerned about making healthy eating the norm for your preschooler?
We know that mealtimes can be stressful for parents—in Singapore, a survey found that one in two parents struggled with mealtimes!
These were some of the biggest worries mentioned by parents in Singapore:
- Is my child getting a balanced diet?
- Is my child eating ‘properly?’
- Why does it take so long for my little one to finish a meal?
At Shaws Preschool, we get asked these questions all the time, and as parents ourselves, we can totally relate. That is why we’ve sprinkled some of our experiences into this guide for you. Together, let’s turn mealtimes into happy—and healthy—times!
Why do Preschoolers Need Healthy Food?
Good nutrition is important at every age, but more so for young preschool-aged children—to help their bodies grow and work well!
Here are just some of the benefits of healthy eating for children:
- Support healthy growth
- Support brain development
- Support muscles
- Strengthen bones
- Boost immunity
- Keep the digestive system functioning well
- For healthy eyes, teeth, and skin
What is Healthy Food for Preschoolers?
There is plenty of information out there about the best foods for kids, which can be confusing. What’s more, many kid-friendly foods in the supermarket that are labelled as ‘healthy’ are not healthy at all!
To keep it simple, you can think of ‘healthy foods’ in terms of five food groups:
Group 1: Fruit
Fruit provides nutrients to keep our bodies healthy, such as potassium, dietary fibre, and Vitamin C:
- Potassium helps us to maintain a healthy blood pressure, while dietary fibre helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels—and may lower the risk of heart disease. Fibre also helps to improve digestion!
- Vitamin C is essential for growth and tissue repair.
What’s included in the Fruit group? Any type of fresh fruit that you like, be it apples, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, or melons!
For children aged two to four, they should have 1-1.5 cups of fruit per day. For five and six year olds, the recommended fruit intake is 1-2 cups a day. (Get more information here!)
Children generally enjoy fruit, so usually fruit goes down well. We do recommend giving a variety of fruit, in addition to your children’s favourites.
Although a cup of 100% fruit juice, including apple juice and orange juice, can count as a cup of fruit, it is much better to eat whole fruits, which have more fibre, instead of drinking juice.
Group 2: Vegetables
Like fruit, vegetables are an important source of nutrients like potassium, dietary fibre, and Vitamin C. They also contain Vitamin A, which keeps our skin and eyes healthy, and protects us against infections!
Did you know that there are five main groups of veggies that you can include in your preschooler’s diet? These are:
- Dark green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, spinach)
- Red and orange vegetables (e.g. carrots, red and orange bell peppers)
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes)
- Other types of vegetables, such as avocados, cabbage, and even mushrooms!
For children aged two to four, the recommended daily intake of vegetables is 1-2 cups a day. For five and six year olds, try to give them 1.5-2.5 cups of veggies per day. (Get more information here!)
Group 3: Grains
Grains are important for children, because they are so full of nutrients! Apart from dietary fibre (see above), they also contain:
- Iron, which is used to carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.
- Vitamin B, which helps the body convert what we eat and drink into energy
- Magnesium, which supports our muscles and nerves, and also gives us energy
There are two kinds of grains to know about:
- Whole grains, which contain the entire grain kernel, and are more nutritious
- Refined grains, which have been milled (for a finer texture and longer shelf life), and are less nutrient-rich
Grain products are foods made from wheat, rice, oats, or another type of cereal grain. Common examples include bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals—for better health, choose the wholegrain versions where possible!
In general, children aged two to six are advised to consume 43-85g (1.5-3oz) of wholegrains per day. (Get more information here!)
Group 4: Protein Foods
Proteins are the building blocks of our cells, organs, muscles, and more! We also need proteins for all the repair processes that go on in our bodies.
Protein foods are foods made from:
- Poultry and eggs
- Beans, peas, and lentils (which are also part of the Vegetables group)
- Nuts, seeds, and soy products
Children aged two to six need about 57-156g (2-5.5oz) of protein per day. (Get more information here!)
Group 5: Dairy
Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium, which helps your child build strong bones and keep the teeth healthy. They also contain vitamin A, which helps the body resist infections, and is needed for healthy skin and eyes.
From the ages of two to six, children should have 2-2.5 cups of dairy each day. (Get more information here!)
However, if your child doesn’t like milk—or if milk products don’t agree with them—there are lots of healthy alternatives that you can consider.
Common Mealtime Challenges and What Parents Can Do
Remember that your little ones have small tummies, so they can’t eat like grown-ups just yet! However, children will eat when they’re hungry, and for the sake of your child’s health, it’s good to introduce healthy eating habits as soon as possible.
Below are some common mealtime challenges, and how to deal with them.
#1 My Child Won’t Eat!
At Shaws Preschool, some parents are surprised when we tell them how much their child eats, while at school. In contrast, they’ll tell us that their child hardly eats at home!
Our advice to such parents is to make mealtimes a happy experience. We don’t eat just to absorb nutrition—we want to enjoy our food, and share the experience with others. When you eat as a family or in a group, mealtimes provide a chance to bond. And that’s why children may eat more in school, because they’re enjoying their snack or lunch while chatting with their friends.
Also, do think about what your child has eaten prior to each meal. If they have had lots of snacks, they probably won’t be hungry when it’s time for the next meal!
For more tips on making eating fun for kids, read our guide!
#2 My Child is a Picky Eater!
What parents think of as ‘picky’ eating is actually a part of normal child development! After all, most of us adults have foods that we don’t like to eat as well. If your child is refusing many foods, however, the attitude that you adopt towards food—and the language that you use to talk about food—will make a big difference.
As a parent, you are your child’s biggest role-model for everything, including food! So if your child sees you visibly enjoying a new food, he or she may be tempted to try it too.
And if your child is hesitant to try a new food, don’t say “Why are you so picky?” Instead, say “This is really good, it tastes like [insert a food that your child likes]. Would you like to try a bite?”
Another popular parent hack is to make smoothies, because this is a quick-and-easy way to sneak in some foods that your child might refuse, if served on a plate. Refer to this list of 15 Kid-Friendly Smoothies, or create your own. However, don’t give all meals as a smoothie, because chewing is an important part of brain stimulation and children need to chew their food too!
For more tips on encouraging children to be adventurous with food, read our guide.
#3 My Child is Playing with Food or Taking Too Long to Eat!
Playing with food isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in one study of preschoolers, researchers found that kids who engaged in sensory play with fruit and vegetables ended up consuming more than kids who didn’t!
For preschoolers, play actions—such as making funny faces using food, mashing, poking, and stacking—offer a safe way to explore a new food that’s on their plate.
By limiting your own expectations about your child’s table manners, as well as the amounts that your child should consume, you will remove some of the power struggles that turn mealtimes into a battleground. If you’re concerned about food consumption and wastage, serve up a larger portion of foods that your child enjoys and will finish, and a smaller portion of something that you want your child to try—with no rules.
Is your preschooler taking an hour (or longer) to finish a meal? There could be several reasons for this, such as:
- Your child has just had a snack and isn’t hungry
- Your child is trying to avoid the foods on the plate
- There are too many distractions at the dinner table, such as books, games, or devices
- Your child is expressing a need for attention
You can try setting a reasonable time limit for mealtimes, such as 45 minutes, and commit to clearing the plates after, without emotion or fuss. Let your child know five minutes before time that you are about to put away the dishes. If your child does get hungry afterwards, offer a healthy snack.
We hope the above ideas will help to make mealtimes enjoyable for the entire family!