When thinking about child development, proper nutrition usually comes up. What, when, and how a child eats, including the eating environment, can have profound impacts on his or her physical, cognitive, and emotional development that can last into adulthood. Having lately worked with preschoolers (3- to 5-year-olds), I would like to review some general healthy food habits that make for strong, capable children and more content, at ease parents. This is by no means a complete review, but rather a great place to start.

Division of Responsibility

Using the Division of Responsibility helps to foster a healthy relationship with food that will hopefully last a lifetime. Created by Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, it delineates what the parent’s responsibility is — the What, When, and Where — and what the child’s responsibility is — the Whether and How Much. Parents decide what healthy foods they will offer, when during the day they will offer these foods, and where in the house meals and snacks will be eaten. The child decides whether they will eat or not and, if they are eating, how much. This allows parents to relax about what their children are eating, removes pressure on children, which can cause them to avoid new foods or not eat, and allows the child to develop a healthy relationship with food, including listening to hunger and satiety signals. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule, and some children may need extra help. For example, those with sensory processing disorders, oral motor muscle issues, food sensitivities, or other medical issues.

The Food Environment

The environment in which the food is eaten is important. If you are a parent, start with being calm and positive. While your child may be reactive or stressed at mealtimes, she will also be watching you and your state of mind. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be. Sit at a table with your child, and eat meals with your children in a quiet, pleasant place. Even if they are not hungry, tell them that mealtimes are family times. Every meal is an opportunity for them to connect with you, learn about socializing, proper manners, and about new foods. Watching you eat foods will help them want to try new ones; you are role modeling every time you eat in front of your child. Keep televisions and screens off at meal and snack times. These are distractions that will take away from family bonding time and the eating experience.

Keep to a Schedule

Having food and sleeping schedules can really help children thrive. Sound too rigid or restrictive? Give it a try and see what happens, especially if you are having concerns about your child’s eating or growth. Of course, there should always be room for adjustment when things change, like on weekends or for special occasions. Aim to have food available roughly every three hours, or five to six times a day. This amounts to three meals and two to three snacks per day. Meal times and bed and wake times go hand in hand, so if your child wakes up at 7:30, perhaps a good breakfast time would be 8 am. Eating schedules can help children relax around food and can give parents more food freedom. When a child asks for food, you can remind her that the next snack will be in one hour, or that dinner will be soon. Children will learn to fill up more at meal and snack times, allowing the focus to be on other things at other times. This also allows for more time to develop appetite, which is important for those with erratic growth.

Selective Eating

Going through a selective eating phase at the preschool age is very common, and this can worry parents. While medical concerns always need to be ruled out first, it is usually a normal stage that children eventually grow out of. Growth naturally slows at this age, which can make some children’s appetites decrease. They also naturally adjust their intake based on what they ate at the previous meal: If a child ate a giant lunch, they will usually be less hungry at dinner. Pushing, rewarding, or punishing around foods may work in the short term, but rarely works for long. Children are very sensitive to your cues; if they sense that you are pressuring them to eat, they are less likely to do so. If you are worried your child is not eating enough, before they leave the table remind them that the next meal isn’t until breakfast tomorrow, as opposed to telling them they cannot leave the table until they finish their peas. Again, your job is to provide a varying variety of healthy foods to choose from, and let your child do the rest. Make sure there are at least one or two healthy foods at each meal that you know your child will eat. It is normal for a child to not eat a food until she has been exposed to it 15 or more times, so don’t give up just because she has not liked it in the past.

While there are clearly many more issues surrounding healthy eating for the preschooler, and many more tips and tricks, especially around picky eating, these are some ideas that will hopefully provide a launching pad for a healthy family relationship with food. While the quality and type of food you provide for your family are key, they do not outweigh the need for a positive, calm, and nurturing food environment.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.