7.3 Tips for Establishing Healthy Eating Habits

  1. Don’t try to force your child to eat or fight over food. Of course, it is impossible to force someone to eat. But the real advice here is to avoid turning food into a power struggle so that food doesn’t become a way to gain favor with or express anger toward someone else.

  2. Recognize that appetite varies. Children may eat well at one meal and have no appetite at another. Rather than seeing this as a problem, it may help to realize that appetites do vary. Continue to provide good nutrition at each mealtime (even if children don’t choose to eat the occasional meal).

  3. Keep it pleasant. This tip is designed to help caregivers create a positive atmosphere during mealtime. Mealtimes should not be the time for arguments or expressing tensions. You do not want the child to have painful memories of mealtimes together or have nervous stomachs and problems eating and digesting food due to stress.

  4. No short order chefs. While it is fine to prepare foods that children enjoy, preparing a different meal for each child or family member sets up an unrealistic expectation from others. Children probably do best when they are hungry and a meal is ready. Limiting snacks rather than allowing children to “graze” continuously can help create an appetite for whatever is being served.

  5. Limit choices. If you give your preschool aged child choices, make sure that you give them one or two specific choices rather than asking “What would you like for lunch?” If given an open choice, children may change their minds or choose whatever their sibling does not choose!

  6. Serve balanced meals. Meals prepared at home tend to have better nutritional value than fast food or frozen dinners. Prepared foods tend to be higher in fat and sugar content as these ingredients enhance taste and profit margin because fresh food is often more costly and less profitable. However, preparing fresh food at home is not costly. It does, however, require more activity. Including children in meal preparation can provide a fun and memorable experience.

  7. Don’t bribe. Bribing a child to eat vegetables by promising dessert is not a good idea. First, the child will likely find a way to get the dessert without eating the vegetables (by whining or fidgeting, perhaps, until the caregiver gives in). Secondly, it teaches the child that some foods are better than others. Children tend to naturally enjoy a variety of foods until they are taught that some are considered less desirable than others. A child, for example, may learn the broccoli they have enjoyed is seen as yucky by others unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce!263

7.3.1 USDA Meal Patterns for Young Children

The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service provides the following guidance for the daytime feeding of children age 3 to 5.

Table 7.1: Meal Patterns264
Meal Ages 3-5
Breakfast 3/4 cup milk
Breakfast 1/2 cup vegetables, fruit, or both
Breakfast ½ ounce equivalent grains
Lunch or Supper 3/4 cup milk
Lunch or Supper 1½ ounces meat or meat alternative
Lunch or Supper 1/4 cup vegetables
Lunch or Supper 1/4 cup fruits
Lunch or Supper ½ ounce equivalent of grains
Snack Select two of the following:
Snack ½ cup of milk
Snack ½ ounce meat or meat alternative
Snack ½ cup vegetables
Snack ½ cup fruit
Snack ½ ounce equivalent of grains