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How to Encourage Healthy Preschooler Eating Habits
Develop a positive feeding style. Did you know that how you feed your child is as important as what you feed them? Be consistent in offering meals and snacks at regular times and let children eat until they’re full. Plan the menu, make the meal (your Preschooler can even help!), choose the place and time, and let your child choose what and how much they eat. This will give them structure, boundaries, and choice, which will help your child stay in tune with their own eating hunger and fullness cues.
Be encouraging during mealtime with your Preschooler. Talk about who’s at the table, not who’s eating how much of what. Encourage your Preschooler to try something new on their plate because it’s fun, not because it’s what you want.
Avoid using food as a reward. Use kind words, hugs, and high-fives, not favorite foods, to celebrate good eating behavior. Stickers have been shown to be a winning non-food reward for little ones. Rewarding eating behaviors, or other behaviors, with tasty food (or punishing by taking favorite foods away) may make them want more and teach them to ignore internal hunger and fullness cues. Another tip—praise your child for tasting a new food, not finishing their serving.
Out of sight, out of mind. With young Preschoolers, it’s easy to manage sweets and treats by keeping unhealthy foods “out of sight” and “out of mind.” Young children under the age of two shouldn’t get sweets or empty calorie foods on a regular basis. They have small stomachs, and every bite counts to get the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development. Avoid sugary or artificially sweetened beverages, as these offer no nutritional value and will fill them up on sugars they don't need. As your Preschooler gets older and begins to ask for sweets, you can find ways to include them as part of a healthy balanced diet. Just be careful to set limits when you do have sweets around and don’t leave them in a place that tempts your child to fixate on them.
Expose your Preschooler to a variety of food. You want your Preschooler to try a variety of food from all the food groups—fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy—as well as a wide array of foods, including different flavors, cuisines and textures, and healthy fats. Giving them a broad range of foods from an early age will help help ensure they get the nutrients they need and increase their chances of liking all kinds of foods. Spread servings of each food group throughout the day to keep things interesting—including snacks. One third of the daily calories in a Preschooler's diet comes from snacking, so include a variety of food groups in your child’s snack choices. Also, involving your child in picking out and prepping food, can get them excited about trying something new. Remember, it can take up to 10 tries for a child to like a food (even longer for some), so keep up the good work and watch it pay off.
Be a healthy eating role model. It’s a lot easier for your Preschooler to try new foods and like them when they see their loved ones doing the same—eating with enjoyment. Make sure you smile and talk about how good the food tastes when you eat. You can help your child be more open and curious about foods by showing excitement for new tastes and variety. Also, plan consistent, family meals around the same time every day so your child can eat with the rest of the family.
Don't forget the fats. Fats are needed for growth and brain development, they can also provide much-needed Vitamin E. Include healthy fats by offering nut butters, avocados, olive oils and a variety of low-mercury seafood to make sure your child is getting the nutrients they need.