Develop Healthy Eating Habits
Many things influence what and how much your child eats.
As a parent, you have the most influence on your child. You can do a lot to help your
children develop healthy eating habits for life:
--Set a good example
--Start with a small portion
--Help them know when they’ve had enough
--Follow a meal and snack schedule
--Make meal time a family time
--Cope with a picky eater
--Help them try new foods
--Make Food fun
Set a Good Example
Your child picks up all of your attitudes and behaviors ―
including your eating habits!
Preschoolers love to copy what their parents do. They are likely to mimic your
table manners, your likes and dislikes, your willingness to try new foods, and
your physical activities.
Kids learn from watching you. Eat fruits
Tips for setting a good example: and veggies and they will too.
• Eat together. Eat meals with your child whenever possible. Let your child see you enjoying fruits, vegetables and whole
grains at meals and snacks.
• Take it with you. Show your child how to make healthy choices when you are on the run. Put oranges, bananas, or other
fruits in your bag for quick snacks. Let your child see that you like to munch on raw vegetables.
• Share the adventure. Be willing to try new foods, and try new foods together.
• Cook together. Encourage your preschooler to help you prepare meals and snacks. Teach your child to tear lettuce or add
veggie toppings to pizza. Cooking together can mean more “mommy (or daddy) and me” time on busy days.
• Keep things positive. Discourage older children and other family members from making yucky faces or negative
comments about unfamiliar foods.
• Set a good example for physical activity, too. Make play time a family time. Walk, run, and play with your child rather
than sitting on the sidelines.
Offer a Variety of Foods
As a parent or caregiver, you play an important role in helping your child learn about food. It is
your responsibility to provide a variety of healthy foods for your child.
Offering a variety of foods helps preschoolers get the nutrients they need from every food group. They will also be more
likely to try new foods and to like more foods. When preschoolers develop a taste for many types of foods, it’s easier to plan
Tips for offering a variety of foods:
• Mix it up. Change your typical foods. Try something new with your family. Here are just a few ideas: fresh pineapple,
green peppers, low-fat cheese, canned salmon, or a whole wheat pita with hummus.
• Let your child choose a new vegetable to add to soup. Only an adult should heat and stir hot soup.
• Add different ingredients to your typical salads. Try adding mango, Swiss chard, or tuna to your green salad.
• Vary the cereals, types of bread, and sandwich fillings you buy week to week.
• Add fruit to your preschooler’s breakfast by using it to top cereal.
• Put rinsed and cut fruits and vegetables on a shelf in your refrigerator where your child can see them.
Start with Small Portions
Offer your preschooler small, easy-to-eat amounts to make eating easy and more enjoyable.
• Use smaller bowls, plates, and utensils for your child to eat with.
• Don’t insist that children finish all the food on their plate. Let your child know it’s okay to only eat as much as he or she
wants at that time.
• As children are able, allow them to serve themselves.
○ Even your 3 to 5 year old can practice serving from small bowls
that you hold for them. They’ll learn new skills and feel “all
○ Teach them to take small amounts at first. Tell them they can
get more if they are still hungry.
○ Serve foods that are “too hot” for your child to serve
themselves safely (for example, soups). Ask your child how
much they want. Make sure food isn’t too hot for children to
Help Them Know When They've
Babies know when they have eaten enough. Help your children keep listening to their bodies as
Kids who “listen” to their own fullness cues stop eating when they feel full and are less likely to become overweight. Give
your kids a chance to stop eating when they feel full, even if you think they aren’t. They’ll feel more independent and you’ll
help them keep a healthy weight.
• Let them learn by serving themselves. Let your children serve
themselves at dinner. Teach them to take small amounts at first.
Preschoolers can practice serving from small bowls that you hold for
them. Tell them they can get more if they are still hungry.
• Avoid praising a clean plate. Your child should stop eating when he or
she is full, rather than when the plate is clean.
• Reward your child with attention and kind words, not food. Show your
love with hugs and kisses. Console with hugs and talks.
○ Giving your child sweets when they feel sad or as a special treat Patience works better than pressure.
can teach your child to eat when he or she is not hungry. This may Offer your children a variety of foods.
cause your child to ignore body signals of fullness and overeat. Then let them choose how much to eat.
○ Rewarding with sweets also lets your child think sweets or dessert
foods are better than other foods. For example, telling your child
“no dessert until you finish your vegetables” may make them like
the vegetable less and the dessert more.
• Try not to restrict specific foods. If that restricted food becomes available to your child, he or she might eat it despite
feeling full. This can lead to a habit of overeating. Also, don’t restrict sweets or other treats as punishment for bad
• Use phrases that help not hinder (attached) when helping them know when they’ve had enough.
Follow a Meal and Snack Schedule
Regularly scheduled meal and snack times help your preschooler learn structure for eating.
Your child is more likely to eat healthy meals and try new foods if snacks are not offered too close to mealtime.
Tips for setting a mealtime schedule:
• Plan for 3 meals and 1 or 2 snacks each day. Preschoolers often do
not eat enough at a meal to stay full until the next mealtime.
• Make sure that the foods offered at each meal and snack contribute
toward your child’s needs.
• Set reasonable limits for the start and end of a meal. When you can
see that your child is no longer interested in the meal, excuse him
or her from the table.
• Do not let your child have “extras” such as candy or cookies to
make up for the meal not eaten.
• Although schedules are helpful, it is also important to listen to your child. For example, if your child
says he or she is hungry, offer a small, healthy snack. It’s important to allow children to recognize
when they are hungry or full
Healthy snacks are essential for preschoolers.
It is difficult for them to get the nutrients they need from just three meals. Plan snacks as part of the daily menu and
use them to help kids meet their nutritional needs.
As a general guideline, make snacks that include at least two food groups. For example, pair apple slices with cheese or
a mini bagel with peanut butter.
Snack Ideas from the Food Groups
Grains dry cereal, whole grain crackers, mini rice cakes, sliced bread, mini bagels, graham
crackers, whole wheat tortillas
Vegetables veggie “matchsticks” (thin sticks) made from carrots* or zucchini,* bell pepper rings,
cherry tomatoes*, steamed broccoli, green beans, sugar peas, avocadoes
Fruits apple slices*, tangerine sections, strawberry halves, bananas, pineapple, kiwi, peach,
mango, nectarine, or melon, grapes*, berries, dried apricots*
Dairy low-fat cheese slices or string cheese, mini yogurt cups, fat-free or low-fat milk, low-fat
Protein Foods egg slices or wedges, peanut butter*, bean dip, hummus, slices of lean turkey* or
chicken*, shelled pumpkin seeds
* If not prepared correctly, these foods could be choking hazards.
More snack ideas that combine two or more of the food groups:
• yogurt topped with diced peaches or berries
• whole grain bread spread with peanut butter and sliced bananas
• graham crackers to dip in yogurt
• a small portion of last night’s leftovers (Make sure leftovers are safe to eat.)
Make Mealtime a Family Time
Family meals allow your preschooler to focus on the task of eating and give you a
chance to model good behaviors.
It takes a little work to bring everyone together for meals. But it’s worth it and the whole family eats better.
• Start eating meals together as a family when your kids are
young. This way, it becomes a habit.
• Plan when you will eat together as a family. Write it on your
• You may not be able to eat together every day. Try to have
family meals most days of the week.
Make family meals enjoyable
• Focus on the meal and each other. Turn off the television.
Take phone calls later.
• Talk about fun and happy things. Try to make meals a Cook together. Eat together. Talk together.
stress-free time. Make mealtime a family time!
• Encourage your child to try foods. But, don’t lecture or force
your child to eat.
• Involve your child in conversation. Ask questions like:
○ What made you feel really happy today?
○ What did you have to eat at lunch today?
○ What’s your favorite veggie? Why?
○ Tell me one thing you learned today.
○ What made you laugh today?
• Have your child help you get ready to eat. Depending on age, your child may be able to:
○ Help set the table
○ Put pets, toys, or books in another room
○ Turn off TV
○ Put down place mats
○ Hand out napkins and silverware
○ Pick flowers for table
○ Clear the table
Wipe the table
Ideas for fast family meals
• Cook it fast on busy nights. Try stir-fried meat and vegetables, quick soups, sandwiches, or quesadillas.
• Do some tasks the day before. Wash and cut vegetables or make a fruit salad. Cook lean ground beef or turkey
for burritos or chili. Store everything in the fridge until ready to use.
• Find quick and tasty recipes that don’t cost a lot to make.
Do any of the statements below remind you of your preschooler?
"Michael won’t eat anything green, just because of the color.”
"Ebony will only eat peanut butter sandwiches!”
“Bananas used to be Matt’s favorite food, now he won’t even touch them!”
"Maria doesn’t sit still at the table. She can’t seem to pay attention long enough to eat a meal!”
“Emily will eat any food — as long as it’s white."
You are not alone. Picky eating is a typical behavior for many preschoolers. It is simply another step
in the process of growing up and becoming independent.
As long as your preschooler is healthy, growing normally, and has plenty of energy, he or she is most likely
getting needed nutrients.
If you are concerned that your child’s picky eating has lasted for a long time or is very restrictive, speak with your child’s
• What are some common types of picky eating?
• What can you do to cope with your preschooler’s picky eating?
• What can you do to get your preschooler to try new foods?
What you say to your preschooler affects his or her eating behavior. View the list of common phrases that help and hinder
healthy eating habits. (attached)
Common Types of Picky Eaters
There are many types of picky eating behaviors.
Children often want to explore food rather than eat it. Many children will show one or more of the following behaviors during
the preschool years. In most cases, these will go away with time.
• Your child may be unwilling to try new foods, especially fruits and vegetables. It is normal for your preschooler to prefer
familiar foods and be afraid to try new things.
• For a period of time, your preschooler may only eat a certain type of food. Your child may choose 1 or 2 foods he or she
likes and refuse to eat anything else.
• Sometimes your child may waste time at the table and seem interested in doing anything but eating.
• Your child may refuse a food based on a certain color or texture. For example, He or she could refuse foods that are red
or green, contain seeds, or are squishy.
How to Cope with Picky Eaters
Picky eating is temporary.
If you don’t make it a big deal, it will usually end before school age. You can do many positive things to deal with picky
eating and help your child learn to try new foods.
• Let your kids be “produce pickers.” Let them help pick out fruits and veggies at the store.
• Kids like to try foods they help make. It’s a great idea for helping your picky eater try fruits and vegetables. Children
also learn about fruits and vegetables when they help make them. And all of that mixing, mashing and measuring makes
them want to taste what they are making. See the following list of kitchen activities that your child can do.
• Try to make meals a stress-free time. Talk about fun and
happy things. If meals are times for family arguments,
your preschooler may learn unhealthy attitudes toward
• Offer choices. Rather than ask "Do you want broccoli for
dinner?" ask “Which would you like for dinner: broccoli or
• Offer a variety of foods and let your child choose how
much of these foods to eat.
• Offer the same foods for the whole family. Don’t be a
“short-order cook,” making a different meal for your
preschooler. Your child will be okay even if they don’t eat a
meal now and then.
• Make food fun! Get creative in the kitchen!
A child that helps in the kitchen:
• Tries and likes more foods
• Gains confidence, feels important and proud
• Learns early math and science concepts
• Learns new vocabulary
• Develops small muscle skills
• Learns responsibility with cleanup
Having your preschooler help you in the kitchen is a good way to get your child to try new
Kids feel good about doing something “grown-up.” Give them small jobs to do. Praise their efforts. Children are much less
likely to reject foods that they helped make.
As preschoolers grow, they are able to help out with different tasks in the kitchen. While the following suggestions are
typical, children may develop these skills at different ages
At 2 years: At 4 years:
• Wipe tables All that a 3 year old can do, plus:
• Hand items to adult to put away (such • Peel eggs and some fruits, such as oranges and bananas
as after grocery shopping)
• Set the table
• Place things in trash • Crack eggs
• Tear lettuce or greens • Help measure dry ingredients
• Help “read” a cookbook by turning the • Help make sandwiches and tossed salads
• Make “faces” out of pieces of fruits and At 5 years:
vegetables All that a 4 year old can do, plus:
• Rinse vegetables or fruits • Measure liquids
• Snap green beans • Cut soft fruits with a dull knife
At 3 years: • Use an egg beater
All that a 2 year old can do, plus:
• Add ingredients
• Talk about cooking
• Scoop or mash potatoes
• Squeeze citrus fruits
• Stir pancake batter
• Knead and shape dough
• Name and count foods
• Help assemble a pizza
Make sure that they wash their hands before helping.
Make Food Fun for Picky Eaters
Picky eating is temporary and there are many things you can do to deal with picky eating in a
positive way. One way is to make food fun!
Get creative in the kitchen:
• Name a food your child helps create. Make a big deal of serving “Dawn’s Salad” or “Peter’s Sweet Potatoes” for dinner.
• Cut a food into fun and easy shapes with cookie cutters.
• Encourage your child to invent and help prepare new snacks or sandwiches. For example, make your own trail mixes
from dry cereal and dried fruit.
• Have your child make towers out of whole-grain crackers, spell words with pretzel sticks, or make funny faces on a plate
using different types of fruit.
• Jazz up the taste of vegetables with low-fat dressings or dips. Try hummus or bean spread as a dip for veggies.
Choose smart, fun snacks and meals:
• Bagel snake ― Split mini bagels in half. Cut each half into half circles. Spread
the halves with toppings like tuna salad, egg salad, or peanut butter. Decorate
with sliced cherry tomatoes, or banana slices. Arrange the half circles to form
the body of a snake. Use olives or raisins for the eyes.
• English muffin pizza ― Top half an English muffin with tomato sauce,
chopped veggies and low-fat mozzarella cheese. Heat until the cheese is
• Smiley sandwiches ― Top a slice of bread with peanut butter and use an apple slice for a smile
and raisins for eyes.
Frozen bananas ― Put a wooden stick into a peeled banana. Cut large bananas in half first.
Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze. Once frozen, peel off the plastic and enjoy.
• Potato pal ― Top half a small baked potato with eyes, ears, and a smile. Try peas for eyes, a halved cherry tomato for
a nose, and a low-fat cheese wedge as a smile. Be creative, you’ll be surprised at how many foods can turn into eyes,
noses, and smiles!
• Frozen graham cracker sandwiches ― Mix mashed bananas and peanut butter, spread
between graham crackers and freeze.
Fruit smoothies ― Blend fresh or frozen fruit with yogurt and milk or juice. Try 100%
orange juice, low-fat yogurt, and frozen strawberries.
• Frozen juice cups ― Pour 100% fruit juice into small paper cups. Freeze. To serve, peel off the
paper and eat.
• Ants on a log ― Thinly spread peanut butter on narrow celery sticks. Top with a row of raisins
or other diced dried fruit.
Trying New Foods
Many preschoolers are hesitant to try new foods.
It is completely normal for young kids to reject foods they have never tried before.
Here are some tips on how to get your preschooler to try new foods:
• Sometimes, new foods take time. Kids don’t always take to new foods right away. Offer new foods many times. It may
take up to a dozen tries for a child to accept a new food.
• Small portions, big benefits. Let your kids try small portions of new foods that you enjoy. Give them a small taste at first
and be patient with them. When they develop a taste for many types of foods, it’s easier to plan family meals.
• Be a good role model by trying new foods yourself. Describe its taste, texture, and smell.
• Offer only one new food at a time. Serve something that you know your child likes along with the new food. Offering too
many new foods all at once could be overwhelming.
• Offer new foods first, at the beginning of a meal, when your child is the most hungry.
• Serve food plain if that is important to your preschooler. For example, instead of a macaroni casserole, try meatballs,
pasta, and a vegetable. Also, to keep the different foods separate, try plates with sections. For some kids the opposite
works and serving a new food mixed in with a familiar item is helpful.
What is physical activity for preschoolers?
Physical activity includes playing actively, family fun such as hiking or swimming, and anything that gets your child moving!
• helps your child stay healthy.
• helps your child learn good habits early in life.
It gives them an outlet for their natural energy.
Why Is Physical Activity Important?
Being physically active helps your preschooler learn healthy habits.
• Active preschoolers are less likely to be overweight.
• Some physical activities, such as running and jumping rope, help bone growth.
• Active children are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
• Physical activity helps children develop motor skills and coordination. Some activities that help are:
○walking, running, hopping
○balancing, dancing, stopping
○throwing, catching, kicking
• Physical activity helps children learn to feel good about themselves. For example, they feel proud after learning how
to bounce a ball or ride a bike.
• Active preschoolers are more likely to be happy.
• Physical activity can also help in mental development. For example, pretending to be wild animals lets children use
their imagination and be creative.
As preschoolers run, climb, dance or stretch they build endurance, strength and flexibility.
• Walking, running, and similar activities help build endurance.
• Climbing and lifting help build strength.
• Playing on playground equipment and stretching help maintain flexibility. If they don’t
make use of their flexibility, it starts to decrease as they get older.
If you are concerned about your child's ability to move and play actively, talk with your child's doctor.
How Much Physical Activity?
Your preschooler loves to move!
Encourage your preschooler to play actively several
times every day. Preschoolers' activity may happen
in short bursts of time and not be all at once.
Physical activity does not always have to be led by adults.
• Free play is unstructured physical activity that is chosen by the child. For example, preschoolers are engaging in free play
when they play on the playground, play tag with friends, or pretend to be wild animals.
• Adult-led activities are structured to have a purpose, such as encouraging flexibility, focusing on strength, or
concentrating on endurance.
Do you wonder if your preschooler is getting enough physical activity?
Ask yourself the following questions as a general guide:
Does your preschooler play outside several times a day or in a room inside where they are
free to run around?
Does your preschooler watch less than 2 hours of TV daily (including all screen time)?
Do you make sure that your preschooler doesn’t sit for more than 60 minutes at one time?
When actively playing is your preschooler breathing quickly and/or sweating?
If you can usually answer yes to these questions, your preschooler is probably getting enough physical activity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website provides more information about physical activity for
How Can You Help with Physical Activity?
Active parents tend to raise active children.
You influence your child’s behavior, attitudes, and future physical activity habits. Set an
example by using safety gear, like bike helmets.
• Make physical activity fun for the whole family and involve your children in the
• Focus on fun not performance. Not all children are athletes. But all can make
activity a lifetime habit.
Set a good example for your • Learn more about your own physical activity needs.
preschooler; they look up to you.
There are many activities you can do with your preschooler. As children grow, their motor skills and coordination
improve. Here is a general guideline of when your preschooler may be ready for certain activities:
• Age 2: running, walking, galloping, jumping, swimming with adult help and
• Age 3: hopping, climbing, riding a tricycle or bicycle with training wheels
and a helmet, catching, throwing, kicking a ball
• Age 4: skipping, tag, sledding, swimming, obstacle course
• Age 5: riding a bicycle ― wearing a helmet, somersaulting, rollerblading or ice skating,
gymnastics, soccer, virtual fitness games (such as Wii)
Here is a list of indoor activities you can do with your preschooler:
• Follow the leader
• Treasure hunt
• Playing with a dog
• Hide and seek
• Ring around the rosy
• Simon says
• Walking around the shopping mall
Here is a list of outdoor activities you can do with your preschooler:
• Games in the yard or park
• Family walks after dinner
• Walking the dog together
• Freestyle dance
• Playing catch
• Family bike rides on the weekend
• Building a snowman
• Throwing a Frisbee
• Swimming at the pool or beach
It is okay for your preschooler to have quiet time.
Here are some tips for making sure your preschooler is not inactive too often:
• Limit TV and screen time to less than 2 hours daily, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
• Try to make inactive time reading time rather than TV time.
• Quiet time is best before naps or bed.
As a parent, you have an impact on your preschooler’s behaviors and activities. Be a role model and try to limit your own
time spent sitting, such as watching TV. Your preschooler will learn that being physically active is part of a healthy life.
• After 60 minutes of inactivity (such as watching TV) have your child get up and do something active for a while.
• Avoid having the TV on during mealtimes.
• Only put TVs in family rooms. Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom. This helps your preschooler spend less time