By Emily Carver, Recent ASU Nutrition Student
This is part four of a five-part series on nutrition within the lifecycle. Read part one, part two and part three.
The ages between 3-5 years old are some of the most fun. It can be said every age has a fun element, but there’s something about children between three and five years old that brings such joy. Within this age range, children have the desire to please others, eagerly and enthusiastically wanting to help around the house. They are happy to take on more responsibility and start to learn how to control their behavior while developing social skills among other children through school and other programs.
This age range is referred to the preschooler years and for good reason. Most children begin to enter some form of schooling around this time and learn in a more formal setting. They begin to rely less on external behavioral limits, i.e. the demands for controlled behavior from adults and parents, and more on their own internal ability to control. Preschoolers also become less selfish in playtime settings, interacting and engaging more in cooperative group play.
In contrast to the toddler years, preschoolers grow even less in height, yet soar in their language skills. By the age of three, toddlers have a range of about 100 words spoken, with the ability to say three-word sentences. Yet by the age of five, their vocabulary spikes to more than 2000 words and can form coherent and complete sentences (1). This is an important indicator of cognitive and emotional development and is typically the time when parents begin to marvel at their children’s ability to speak clearly, seemingly overnight.
As mentioned in part three of the nutrition series on toddlers, they grow at a rate of 1cm a month, whereas the average preschooler grows at only .58cm a month, totaling only 7cm (2.75 in) a year (2). Quite slow in comparison, especially compared to infants which grow three times their size within a year.
This slow growth rate will continue to affect their appetite, as it does during the toddler years, and most parents will find their preschool-age children with a varied appetite. At times, they may eat very little, while other times, for example, during a growth spurt, have a voracious appetite to accommodate their growing needs.
Interestingly, children in this age group start having outside influence affect their food preferences. This is because of their continual exposure to peers, siblings, advertisements on television, and parents. Though preschoolers don’t have a propensity to choose a well-balanced diet, these external exposures, especially those of the parents, can positively influence their choices.
It is also during this time, children develop their own food habits and preferences, and just as it is for toddlers, if left alone, preschoolers also have an internal cue of when to stop eating. If nurtured, this will help the preschooler maintain their ability to consume only as much as they need, and not overeat.
Because it is in these years children are most influential with their food choices, parents can take this opportunity to introduce and encourage healthful options at mealtime. Though preschoolers still might have strong opinions with their food, i.e. not wanting anything to touch, look funny, smell funny, or wanting a favorite “dip” with every meal item; parents can still make mealtime fun and attractive for their children as they learn to develop their tastes.
Per the USDA, preschool age children should get between 1200-1600 calories a day. This varies based on the activity level of the child, and to see the types of food suggestions for each age, visit Choose My Plate and follow the links with each category.
No matter what, food is personal for each family and depending on culture, region, and preferences by the parents, some foods may be consumed more than others. Regardless of your preferences, as the parent, it’s important to avoid projecting any negative feelings onto your preschoolers. As we all know, children are sponges and desire to mirror those they look up to, such as their parents; so, when they see their parent reject a food, more than likely they’ll eagerly do the same. Remember to allow them the opportunity to establish their own likes and dislikes, and be open to tasting new and exciting foods yourself right alongside with them.
Brown, J.E., Isaaacs, J.S., Krinke, B.U., Lechtenberg, E., Sharbaugh, C., et al. (2014). Nutrition Through the Lifecycles. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning
Kliegman, R.M., Stanton, B.F., St. Geme, J. W., Schor, N.F., and Behrman, R. E. Nelson’s Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier/Saunders, 2011.