While proper nutrition matters at any age, it’s especially important when your child is young. If your preschooler was a picky eater previously, they may continue to be. However, at this point your child may become even more vocal about what they will and won’t eat. If you continue to provide well-balanced meals, they'll have enough healthy choices to meet their nutritional needs. Preschoolers are still reliant on you to provide meals, and this allows you to make sure your child is eating well. Keep in mind that their servings should be less than yours, but their plate should look largely the same – with half of the plate full of fruits and vegetables, and the rest being whole grains and lean proteins, with a side of low-fat dairy. Proper nutrition will support their growing body and put them on track for lifelong health.
The following serving suggestions are based on the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guidelines, unless otherwise noted. The recommended servings are for children who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity. If your child is more active, your child may be able to eat more healthy foods. The guidelines and tips here are a resource for parents, and are not intended as a substitute for speaking with your child’s healthcare provider.
Vegetables contain many essential nutrients and few calories, so the body gets health benefits at a low-calorie cost.The phytochemicals in vegetables (what gives vegetables their color) are thought to protect the body from some diseases. Potassium is found in many vegetables like tomatoes, beans, and leafy greens. It controls the water balance in the body and it helps muscles do their work. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body make new healthy cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood.
Vegetables: How many?
Your preschooler should be eating about 1½ cups of vegetables every day. What counts as a cup? Two medium carrots or two large stalks of celery count as 1 cup. To help measure, remember that a cup of vegetables is the same size as a baseball.
Fruits, like vegetables, are full of nutrients that will support your child’s growth and development. Potassium, which is integral to the water balance in the body and promotes proper muscle function, is found in many fruits, like bananas and apricots. Fruit juice is very popular with kids and parents alike, but juices are less nutritious than whole fruits. The fiber in whole fruits will help your child feel fuller longer, and that fiber gets lost in juice form. Try to only serve 100% fruit juice to get the most nutrition possible when serving juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that your child not drink more than four to six ounces of 100% fruit juice a day (about the size of one juice box).
Fruits: How many?
Your preschooler should be eating about one to 1½ cups of fruits every day. What counts as a cup? Half of one large apple, or 32 seedless grapes, both equal 1 cup of fruit. One small banana equals half a cup of fruit.
Meats, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds provide essential nutrients for your child’s muscles, skin, bones, and blood.Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage. Iron carries oxygen in the blood, a vital job for maintaining overall health. Low levels of iron can make children feel tired and have trouble concentrating. Many foods in this group, like red meats, are high in iron.
Most children get enough protein, so it is important to focus on the types of protein your child is eating. Lean red meats, skinless poultry, fish, and eggs are all good sources of protein. Beans, nuts, and seeds are also good protein choices. Sticking to lower-fat protein options will help your child grow without adding too many extra calories, which can lead to weight gain. Leaner cuts of red meat are healthier because more of the fat has been removed.
Protein: How much?
Your preschooler should eat about 4 ounces of protein every day, and it should be divided between meals and snacks. What’s an ounce? One-fourth cup of cooked beans, or one egg, counts as a cup. One small lean hamburger is the same as 2 or 3 ounces.
Grains are a great energy source for young children and offer nutrients such as fiber and B vitamins. Try to serve your preschooler plenty of whole grains and limit the amount of processed grain in their diet. Refined grains have been processed and some of the fiber is removed. White rice, pasta, and white bread are all refined grains. Whole grains, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta, have not been processed and maintain their fiber content. Fiber is important to your child’s bowel function and also helps your child feel full without eating too many additional calories.
Grains: How much?
Your preschooler should eat about 5 ounces of grains each day, and half should come from whole grains. How much is an ounce? Generally, one slice of whole-grain bread, 1 cup of cereal or ½ cup cooked brown rice is 1 ounce.
At this age, your child’s bones are growing, and getting bone-building nutrients like calcium from dairy products is extremely important for long-term bone health.Calcium helps strengthen teeth and maintain bone mass. Many dairy products contain and are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Together, vitamin D and calcium can help your child reach their full growth potential – during a time when their bone mass is developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends after age 2 that children drink only nonfat (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk. While 2% is not recommended, it is a better option than whole milk, which is about 3%.
Dairy: How much?
Your preschooler should be consuming about 2½ cups of nonfat or low-fat dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk is the same as 1 cup. Milk cartons at school are usually 1 cup, or 8 ounces. One and a half ounces of cheese counts as 1 cup of dairy – that’s about the size of your index and middle finger. For children diagnosed with lactose intolerance, lactose-free cow’s milk and fortified soy milk are good alternatives.
Oils & fats
Your child’s growing body needs fats for brain growth and the continued development of their sensory system. Fat also helps aid the absorption of some key vitamins like A, D, E, and K. However, not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats are those that are solid at room temperature, like butter or lard. Those fats increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and increase your child’s risk of developing heart disease and obesity. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, are healthier. Those oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health.
Oils & fats: How much?
It may be hard to track how much fat your child consumes, but it’s important to keep it in mind. Your preschooler should only eat 4 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. It is likely she’s already getting that fat from foods she’s eating, like salmon and nuts. How much fat is a teaspoon? For example, in half an avocado, there is the equivalent of three tablespoons of healthy oil. In one bologna and cheese sandwich with margarine, there can be over 4 teaspoons (19 grams) of fat, with 2 of those teaspoons being unhealthy fats.
Sodium & salt
Your child’s body does need a small amount of sodium to maintain the right amount of fluids in the body and keep nerves and muscles functioning.However, too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Sodium is often found in packaged foods like chips, crackers, and canned soups, in addition to cured meats, like hot dogs and salami. It is used to enhance flavor in food and increase the shelf life of processed foods. Sodium and salt are used interchangeably when talking about foods, but sodium is actually part of salt.
Sodium & salt: How much?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s sodium consumption to less than 1,500 milligrams per day. It is hard to track the amount of sodium, but understanding how much sodium is found in foods can be helpful. For example, in one frozen macaroni and cheese entrée, there are 635 milligrams of sodium – almost half the daily limit. And one pork and beef hot dog can have 645 milligrams of sodium.
While many healthy foods like fruits contain naturally occurring sugar, sugar that is added to foods and beverages doesn’t contain any health benefits and leads to empty calories – no essential nutrients beyond the calories. Too much added sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Added sugars are found in sweetened beverages like soda, juice drinks, sports drinks, flavored milks, desserts, and candy. Some sugar beverages offer “lite” or “diet” versions. These also offer no nutritional value and have no place in a well-balanced diet for a child this age. In pre-kindergarten, our experts recommend your child not drink any sugar added beverages, and instead choose water, low or nonfat milk, and small amounts of 100% juice.
Added sugars: How much?
Try to limit your preschooler's added sugars to less than 4 teaspoons (or 16 grams) of sugar each day. It can be hard to keep track of the amount of sugar, but still is important to keep in mind. For example, one pouch or box of fruit juice drink can have almost 4 teaspoons (15 grams) of added sugar. In one large store-bought cupcake there can be 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of added sugar. Sugar can add up really quickly, which is why it’s important to keep in mind.
Water is the most important nutrient for your child’s body, because it is used for almost every major function in the body. It is a main ingredient in blood, urine, and sweat. Keeping the proper amount of water in your child is important in order to keep their in optimal health.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends your preschooler drink about 5 cups of fluids each day. This can come from water, milk, and other beverages. Two-and-a-half cups should be from plain water. How much is a cup? A cup is the same as 8 ounces, which is the same as a standard milk carton at school or about half a standard size water bottle.
You may have heard the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and it still rings true. Research shows children who eat breakfast in the morning are more focused in school, better able to learn, have better academic performance, and are less likely to be absent. By serving your child a nutritious breakfast, you are helping their succeed academically as well as promoting their physical development and overall health. Make sure breakfast has fiber and protein and is low in sugar; this will keep your child full longer and prevent a sugar crash at midday.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What are examples of a healthy breakfast versus an unhealthy breakfast? Oatmeal made with low-fat milk, topped with fruits and nuts is a great option for your child and has many of the food groups. A doughnut, which is full of added sugars and unhealthy fats, has virtually no nutritional value and is not a good breakfast option.
Learn more about how to encourage healthy eating habits for your child with our pre-K nutrition tips page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates; Wanda Koszewski, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Human Nutrition, Winthrop University; Manuel Villacorta, Author, Speaker and Registered Dietitian, Whole Body Reboot.