Good nutrition is an important part of your child’s healthy lifestyle. During the preschool years, your child should be eating the same foods as the rest of the family, with an emphasis on those with nutritional value. This includes fresh vegetables and fruits, nonfat or low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheeses), lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish, lean hamburger), and whole-grain cereals and bread.
At the same time, limit or eliminate the junk food in your child’s diet, and get rid of sugared beverages as well. Since dairy is an important part of your child’s diet, if flavored milk is the only way your child will drink milk, be assured that research demonstrates that consuming either flavored or plain milk does not adversely affect body mass index measurements in children. Further, flavored milks can help your child meet her recommended daily dairy servings. The AAP 2006 report on optimizing bone health recommends consuming low-fat or fat-free flavored milks, cheeses, and yogurts containing modest amounts of added sugars to meet calcium recommendations in children. Desserts like ice cream and cake are fine once in a while, but certainly shouldn’t be an everyday indulgence. Particularly if your child is overweight, pay attention to portion sizes, and for four- and five-year-olds, servings should be less than the adult-sized portions that you and your spouse are eating.
While three-year-olds are frequently picky eaters, that behavior may continue in four-year-olds, as well, although the older child may be more vocal about his preferences. He may become more insistent about refusing to eat certain foods. His nutritional needs are the same as when he was a year younger, but he may have unpredictable emotional responses to the foods put in front of him. He may talk back and even swear if he doesn’t like the food being served, but if you put well-balanced meals on his plate, he’ll have enough wholesome choices to keep him healthy.
At this age, your child should be good company at meals and be ready to learn basic table manners. By age four, he’ll no longer grip his fork or spoon in his fist, because now he’s able to hold them like an adult. With instruction, he also can learn the proper use of a table knife. You can teach him other table manners as well, such as not talking with his mouth full, using his napkin instead of his sleeve to wipe his mouth, and not reaching across another person’s plate. While it’s necessary to explain these rules, it’s much more important to model them; he’ll behave as he sees the rest of the family behaving. He’ll also develop better table manners if you have a family custom of eating together. So make at least one meal a day a special and pleasant family time, and have your child set the table or help in some other way in the meal preparation.
Television advertising, even if watched with the best explanations of commercial messages, does present a serious obstacle to your preschooler’s good nutrition. Some studies show that children who watch over twenty-two hours of TV per week have a greater tendency to become obese. Four- and five-year-olds are extremely receptive to ads for sugary cereals and sweets, especially after they’ve visited other homes where these foods are served. But to repeat, obesity is a growing problem among children in America. For this reason, you need to be aware of your child’s eating habits, at home and away, and monitor them to make sure he’s eating as healthy as possible.
To combat outside influences, keep your own home as healthy as possible. Stock up on low-sodium, low-sugar, and low-fat products. Also monitor your child’s television viewing and exposure to advertisements. Eventually he’ll become accustomed to healthful foods, which may make him less susceptible to the temptation of the more sugary, salty, or greasy ones.