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Feeding Tiny Tummies and Picky Preschoolers

Helpful suggestions for teaching good nutrition to young children

by Heather Stefan, RD  |  2671 views  |  1 comment  |        Rate this now! 

There is something I’ve learned as a mom that being a dietitian couldn’t teach me: You cannot force a picky eater to eat!  Truly, as a nutrition professional, I thought I could get my oldest to eat whatever I wanted her to eat.  I would provide her with only the most nutritious foods and make sure that the others (grandparents) abided by my strict rules.  As you can guess, life didn’t turn out that way.  We played all the games in the world and even made her sit at the table until she decided to eat her dinner, but inevitably it lead to meltdowns and headaches.  In the end, we found a balance that worked for her and for us and we now have a preschooler whose nutritional habits far outweigh her knowledge of food.

When feeding young children, it’s important to realistically think about how much food they should be eating.  As babies reach toddlerhood, their nutritional needs slow down dramatically and food becomes less important for a busy, active toddler.  A toddler’s stomach is about the size of her little fist.  And, most little children only need about 1,200 calories each day.  Like all aspects of nutrition, we have focused on super-sized portions and force these habits on our children.  A serving of food for a child in this age group is one tablespoon per age.  So, a 3-year old would need three tablespoons of vegetables at dinner.  By incorporating more realistic visions of how much your child should be eating, this should help to ease frazzled parents. 

If you have a child like my daughter, who is very picky, mealtime can be a stressful situation.  The first step to getting a picky preschooler to eat her veggies (or any food for that matter) is to relax!  It’s important as parents not to make food an issue at any age.  If you grew up in a house that had parents who were strong enforcers of the “clean-plate club,” than it’s time to scrap those games.  Studies have shown that when we bribe kids to eat certain foods, they begin to like those foods less and less.  We want to raise kids who have zest for trying new foods and experimenting with different tastes and textures.  Remind yourself that many of these little ones are just asserting their independence.  Most kids will begin to “catch-up” with good eating as they get older.  It is also important to be a good role model for your kids during these years.  If they see you eating healthful foods, than they too will be more likely to try new things. 

Another helpful suggestion is to be mindful of what your child is eating during the day.  If she is filling up on fishy crackers and apple juice, that may be the answer to the hunger strikes at mealtime.  My kids love to snack and would do so all throughout the day if I let them.  It is important for a child to have planned snack times, but limit what is offered and make those snacks count as nutrition power-house foods.  Cheese and crackers, peanut butter on apple slices, a pita-and-turkey wrap are all good choices.  And limit the amount of juice your child is getting to six ounces a day.  A whole orange or apple has fewer calories and sugar and more vitamins and fiber than its juice counterpart.  Make healthy snack food accessible.  If you have a pantry, place a basket on a low shelf with healthy snacks, and do the same in the refrigerator so little kids can pick and choose healthy options.  As always, if you are concerned about your child’s nutrition, talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian. 

About the Author

Heather is a private practice dietitian and nutrition coach licensed with Real Living Nutrition Servics. She is also a work-at-home mom. You can visit her website at

Read more by Heather Stefan, RD

1 comment so far...

  • Wonderful advice. Thanks so much. You have really put my mind at rest by discussing portion size and our tendency to force more food on our kids than they can eat. I think I've been guilty of this with my toddler for the last few months. :)

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Diane on 10th June 2008