Nutrition in children aged 3-5 years old
Healthy eating habits now set your child up for a lifetime of eating well. And when you make healthy food part of your family life, it’s easier to give your child the nutrition he or she needs to learn, grow and develop.
In the end, it’s your job to make healthy food available on a regular basis. Your child can decide how much of the food they eat. If they sometimes chooses not to eat at all, that’s usually OK.
Healthy food for healthy children
Children need a wide variety of foods from each of the five healthy food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, grains and protein
. How much food your child needs depends on body size and activity levels.
At this age, your child will probably need around:
- 1½ serves of fruit – for example, 1 serve = 1 apple or 2 small plums or 1 cup diced fruit with no added sugar
- 4½ serves of vegetables – for example, 1 serve = ½ medium potato or ½ cup cooked vegies or 1 cup salad
- 1½-2 serves of dairy – for example, 1 serve = 1 cup milk or 2 slices of cheese
- 4 serves of grains – for example, 1 serve = 1 slice of bread or ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, noodles or porridge
- 1½ serves of lean meat, nuts, eggs and legumes – for example, 1 serve = 65 gm cooked lean beef or 100 gm cooked fish fillet or 30 gm almonds or 2 large eggs or 1 cup cooked lentils.
Children need lots of water
– especially on hot days. Avoid soft drinks, fruit juices, flavoured milk and water, sports drinks and energy drinks.
‘Sometimes food’ like cakes, chips and lollies aren’t needed for growth and development. Save these foods for special occasions.
How to make healthy eating easy
You might worry about whether your child is eating enough. Or you might be worried that your child is eating too much and going over a healthy weight. The most powerful way to send healthy food messages to your child is by letting her see you make healthy eating choices every day
. Children will want to do what they see you doing.
Here are some more tips to encourage healthy choices
in your child:
- Have healthy snacks handy for when you know your child will be hungry – keep a bowl of fruit on the bench, for example.
- Keep ‘sometimes’ foods and drinks out of the house.
- Aim to fill half the plate at main meals with salad or vegetables.
- If your child doesn’t eat part of the meal – for example, the vegies – this is their choice. It isn’t a good idea to offer extra serves of other food – for example, meat – to make up for missing vegies.
- Read books that have healthy food messages with your child – for example, books with pictures of fruits and vegetables. Get your child to point out different types, colours, shapes and so on.
Healthy breakfasts and lunches
A healthy breakfast gives your child the energy to concentrate, learn and play all day.
A healthy breakfast needs to have a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat to keep energy levels steady all morning. Wholegrain cereals like muesli or porridge give your child longer-lasting energy and are a better choice than processed, sugary cereals. You could also offer boiled eggs, fruit or yoghurt.
If your child goes to child care, preschool or kindergarten, he or she might need to bring food for lunch and snacks.
Good foods for lunches
include sandwiches with wholegrain bread and a filling like salad or cheese. You could also try dips and pita bread, or leftover dishes that your child can eat cold. For snacks try fruit or dried fruit, wholegrain crackers or yoghurt.
Children usually want to eat quickly so that they can play. Choose foods that are simple and easy to eat. Make sure that containers seal well but can be opened easily. It might be that your child isn’t eating lunch because it’s hard to get at!
Vegetables are part of a healthy diet, but encouraging children to eat them can sometimes be a challenge.
Some parents disguise vegetables – for example, putting pureed vegetables in pasta sauce. But to change your child’s behaviour and thinking about vegetables, it’s important to regularly offer vegetables in their original form
. This gives your child the chance to get familiar with and learn to like different tastes and textures.
Try these ideas:
- Keep trying with vegetables – but don’t punish your child for not eating them.
- Praise your child when she eats or tries vegetables – for example, ‘Peri, I love the way you tasted your pumpkin and broccoli!’
- Get your child involved in cooking with vegetables. They could put chopped vegetables in the steamer before you cook them, or arrange sliced capsicum, tomato and mushroom on a pizza base.
- Offer vegetables as snacks – try cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks or baby cucumbers.
Fussy eating is part of children’s development.
It’s a way of asserting independence. And it’s also because children’s appetites go up and down
depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are. It’s common for children to be really hungry one day and picky the next. Children also have different taste preferences from grown-ups, and they’re likely to get less fussy as they get older.
If your child is healthy and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, she’s probably eating enough. Avoid using unhealthy treats as a bribe
to get your child to eat healthy food.
Family life can be busy, and getting everyone to the table at once can be difficult. But it’s well worth the effort, because sharing regular family meals gives everyone a chance to connect
. Family meals are a good opportunity to model healthy food choices, and they can also help your child learn to communicate, as she takes turns talking and listening.
Here are some of our favourite family meal tips:
- Set aside regular times to eat together – with the television and phone turned off.
- Allow around half an hour for the family meal so your child has plenty of time to eat.
- If your child is too distracted to sit at the table, try having quiet time before meals so he or she can calm down before eating. Even the ritual of hand-washing can help.
- Some children this age are still learning to use cutlery. Choose dishes that your child can easily eat with a fork or spoon, or cut food into small pieces so they can enjoy eating independently.
This article was published with permission from the Raising Children Network.