What Your Preschooler Should Learn about Eating

In April, I wrote about what babies (really!) and toddlers need to learn about food and eating.  Today we’re looking at the learning needs of 3-5 year olds.  Can you believe there’s MORE kids have to learn from us to add on to the early stuff?  Sheesh.  Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to do once you understand what it is. So let’s get to it.

What Preschoolers Need to Learn about Food & Eating

1. They Can Count on Mom/Dad to Provide 

Uncoordinated toddlers need a lot more physical help getting set up with food. What about when that wobbly toddler becomes a big kid preschooler?  A preschooler who can speak in sentences, identify letters, sit in a big kid chair or booster and even grab their own snacks?  It’s really easy for parents to slip into overly laid back mode and think that their 4 year old can fend for himself.  But even independent preschoolers need us to take charge of meals and snacks. They still need our support, structure and companionship at meals.

2. They Can Handle Their Normal Hunger  

Preschoolers learn that hunger is not a reason to panic when we are trustworthy about feeding them on a routine.  They don’t have to beg or sneak food to get their needs met.  We’ve got their back.  So set those regular meal and snack times and stick to them as well as you can.  And if you have little food beggers on your hands, read this on grazing, this on how to say NO, and this on kids with big appetites.

3. It’s OK to Eat to Please Themselves

As kids get close to age 5, they become much more interested in pleasing us. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Requiring your kiddo to clean her plate or take extra bites might actually start to “work.”  Which may seem great.  Finally the kiddo is listening!  But what’s not so great is that kids will now start to override their own fullness signals in order to meet your expectations–in other words, they will overeat for you.   Not a good long term plan.  Use this time to set the stage for kids to continue to trust in, and respond to, their own bodies’ hunger and fullness signals.  Lay off the pressure to eat more/less.  Don’t make dessert contingent on eating dinner.

4. How to Use Manners When Eating with Others

Preschoolers are now ready to begin practicing basic manners and etiquette when eating with others.  Kids need phrases like “Yes, please” and “No, thank you” in response to a bowl of peas.  Show your kids how to pass the plate of cheese around or ask for the olives to be passed to them.  Help your 4 year old take turns with apple slices instead of hogging them all.  Model making conversation and taking turns talking.  Assist your 3 year old in asking for help with difficult table tasks.  Give plenty of opportunities for your child to get better at using utensils to serve herself and to eat.

It may take a (long) while before you don’t have to give reminders about these manners.  Don’t give up. Set your expectations, but do most of your teaching through modeling and gentle direction and re-direction.  After all, power struggles over manners are not really any more fun than power struggles over food.

5. They Can Relax Around New Foods

Most kids are still more or less “picky eaters” as preschoolers.  But they should start feeling more comfortable around strange-to-them foods.  They might not get excited about trying new entrees and might still be sticking mostly to the tried and true, but they can pick and choose from what’s available without a meltdown.  If they know that no food is going to be forced upon them, they will be able to feel calm and relaxed.  From that chilled-out, no-food-I-can’t-handle-on-the-table zone, they will naturally become more and more curious about new foods.  If you’re not seeing this happen, try serving food “family style” and check your mealtime atmosphere.  Finally give yourself permission to relax and keep your eyes on your own plate while your little one busily learns (even at seemingly snail pace).

Optional Fun

None of the above requires formal nutrition or eat-this-not-that type of lessons.  It also doesn’t negate involving your child in cooking or gardening or berry picking for broadening their food experience.  It doesn’t preclude exploring individual foods in the name of science (rainbows) or math (counting seeds) or geography (where do mango’s grow?).  Just make sure you’re not trading the support kids need in numbers 1-5, above, for pressure-filled strategies for the sake of getting them to eat more vegetables.

Need More Help?

If you’re a parent, teacher or other educator who wants to know more about teaching little (or bigger) ones the right things about food, eating or nutrition, shoot me an email at adina@adinapearson.com.  Below you can download a brief one-page printable summary of what we’ve talked about so far in this series.

FREE printable list of what kids DO and DON’T need to learn about food and eating. Don’t waste time with harmful lessons!




Reference: Satter, Ellyn. (2015). Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.

Posted by Adina
May 29, 2017

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