Pre-K nutrition tips: Here's how to help your child

Here's how you can help your preschooler eat healthy.
Black boy eating lunch at school
Black boy eating lunch at schoolGetty Images

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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Want to help your preschooler develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips that experts suggest.

Stick to outer aisles

Try to stick to the outer aisles at the grocery store. As a general rule, the healthiest options for your growing child are fresh, whole foods that haven’t been processed. Dairy, fresh produce, and natural foods are usually found in the outer aisles of the store. The middle aisles are filled with snacks, potato chips, cakes, candy, etc. If your child is shopping with you, avoiding these aisles altogether will keep him from seeing these items – and trying to convince you to add them to the cart.

Eat the rainbow

Try challenging your child to eat a rainbow a week. Throughout the week, make sure all colors have been seen on their plate and draw up a chart to document and reward what your child eats. For example, blue for blueberries, orange for sweet potatoes, and red for strawberries.

Homemade pizzas

Have a family pizza night and make your own pies. Let your child participate in putting their toppings on. Start with whole wheat dough, (or whole-wheat English muffins for individual pizzas) low-sodium tomato sauce, different kinds of vegetables, and low-fat cheese. It’s a healthy and fun way to get a range of food groups.

Healthy meals

Teach your preschooler what a healthy meal and snack is. A fruit and vegetable should be eaten at each meal and one at snack time.

Different food shapes

Try presenting your child’s food in different shapes and presentations. Sometimes a new visual arrangement can get your child more interested in a food group. For example, whole carrots, diced carrots or shredded carrots all offer different visuals, but if your child likes to eat one or the other, she’s still eating carrots.

Make food fun

Make meals and snacks fun. Your younger child will be interested in creative healthy snacks. For example, make “ants on a log” by placing peanut butter, or other nut butters, on celery sticks and let your child add raisins, dried cranberries, or other dried fruits to be the ants.

Reinforce learning

Use foods to reinforce things your child is learning in school, such as colors. Walk through the store and point out different items that are red, green, and yellow. At the end of the trip, have your child pick one of those color items to try something new. This will reinforce skills while increasing their interest in new foods.

Different veggies

Offer different vegetables repeatedly. Just because your child didn’t like broccoli two weeks ago, doesn’t mean your child won’t like it today. Children’s tastes are changing all the time and the more they are exposed to a certain kind of food, the more they are likely to develop a taste for it.

Eat your veggies

Eat your vegetables too. At this age your child is likely to model their behavior on how you behave. If they see you eating vegetables, they may be more likely to learn to enjoy them as well. Really emphasize your love for vegetables by saying things like, “I love these green beans. Don’t you? Can I eat yours?” This will get your child’s attention and make them want to have fun as well – leading them to eating more of their vegetables as well.

Use raw vegetables

Try raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, pea pods, green beans, and celery with a dip like hummus or low-fat ranch dressing to make the vegetables more appealing to your child. Keep the serving of dip to less than two tablespoons.

Offer choices

Offer carrots, tomatoes, or asparagus and then let your child choose which to eat. Providing multiple healthy options lets your child make choices while also eating their vegetables.

Veggie burgers

Try serving your pre-kindergartner veggie burgers and veggie dogs if she’s a picky eater. Delivering vegetables in a food form they are already used to is another way to promote the development of vegetable eating, while their taste buds are still forming.

Dried fruits

Give your child dried fruits such as raisins or dried apricots as a sweet snack instead of candy. This will satisfy their sweet tooth while also delivering important nutrients. But make sure your child brushes their teeth after eating dried fruits – they can be sticky just like a candy. And keep an eye on the serving size – ¼ cup is one serving of dried fruit, that’s about 1 small box of raisins.

Sliced fruits

Keep sliced fruits in easily accessible containers in the refrigerator for a healthy snack or meal addition. Younger children are more likely to eat fruit if is cut up and easy to eat.

Smoothies

Smoothies are a good way to pack in a lot of fruits in one serving. Add whole bananas, frozen berries, low-fat milk, and blend. You can even add spinach, and the flavor will be masked by the fruits. It’s a treat that tastes like a frozen dessert, but packs a lot of nutrients. Try to keep the serving to less than 6 ounces.

Yogurt

Add crunch (and grains) to your child’s yogurt by adding whole grain cereal. This gets both grains and dairy into their breakfast. Add some sliced fruit and a few nuts and your child has a complete and healthy breakfast.

Pretzels and crackers

Combine whole grain pretzels or crackers with peanut butter or low-fat cheese for a quick and easy healthy snack.

Whole grains for breakfast

Try to serve whole grain items with low sugar content for breakfast. Whole grains help your child feel full longer, making whole grains a great option for breakfast.

Check for whole grain

Always read the back of a package to check for whole grains. Sometimes the front of the box will say whole grain, but there might not be a lot of whole grains in the pasta, bread, or cereal. Whole grains should be the number one ingredient on the list.

Slowly add whole grains

Incorporate whole grains slowly if your child isn’t used to them. Try mixing brown rice with white rice and gradually adding more brown rice over time until your child gets used to the texture and taste. This works for pasta too.

Servings of fish

Try to make sure your child eats two servings of fish each week. If you serve fish sticks, look for varieties that are breaded with whole grains.

Add eggs

Try eggs scrambled, boiled, or served as an omelet with added vegetables. Eggs are a great source of protein and can be prepared in many different ways to keep them interesting.

Almond butter

Try sun butter if peanut allergies are a concern at your child’s school. They can easily replace peanut butter in a sandwich or snack.

Milk substitutes

If your child has a diagnosed lactose intolerance, milk substitutes such as calcium-fortified soy milk or almond milk can be good options. Vegetables like collard greens, kale and soybeans also provide calcium, though in smaller amounts. However, calcium from these source it is not absorbed as well as the calcium in dairy foods.

Low-fat milk

Use low-fat milk instead of water when preparing hot cereals, oatmeal or soups. This is an easy way to increase your child’s dairy intake without pouring them a glass of milk. If your child drinks a lot of milk, try to make sure your child doesn’t fill up on milk and neglects to eat other healthy foods.

Choose a tub

If you use margarine, try to buy products in a tub rather than a stick. There is less trans fat (bad fat) in margarine sold in a tub than in stick margarine.

Swap in avocado

Try adding avocado to your child’s sandwich instead of mayonnaise or butter. The creaminess from the avocado makes a good spread while swapping in more healthy fats.

Avoid processed foods

Try to feed your child fresh, whole foods, and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. It is the best way to keep sodium consumption down.

Rinse canned vegetables

Drain and rinse canned vegetables to reduce the amount of sodium, or buy low-sodium or no salt added vegetables. Frozen vegetables have less sodium than canned vegetables and are a good option when fresh vegetables aren’t available.

Don't add salt

Try not to add salt to your child’s food. Salt is a taste that is learned, so keeping their salt intake down now will help them in the long run.

Limit screen time

Limit your child’s screen time to lessen the effect of junk food advertisements. Young children are easily influenced by ads for products such as sugary cereals, soda, and fast food.

Fruits as dessert

Focus on fruits as a dessert most nights and avoid high-fat ice creams, candies, and pastries, except for on special occasions.

Check labels

Always check the labels on your child’s favorite foods. Added sugars can be found in children’s foods like low-fat yogurt and sweetened cereals. You can sweeten yogurt by adding fruit or a small amount of honey. This way you can control just how much goes into the yogurt. Also look for cereals that are not sweetened. Also, check the label of foods you buy to avoid the bad fats in pre-packaged foods. Saturated fats and trans fats fall into the unhealthy fat category. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (liquid fats) are better fats, and are found in vegetable and olive oils, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon.

To learn more about nutrition for your preschooler, check out our pre-K nutrition guide page.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Wanda Koszewski, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Human Nutrition, Winthrop University; Manuel Villacorta, Author, Speaker and Registered Dietitian, Whole Body Reboot; and Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates.