Children’s Eating Patterns

From 1 to 6 years of age, children experience many developmental progress and acquisition of skills. 1 year olds typically use their fingers to eat and may need assistance with a cup. By 2 years of age, they can hold a cup in one hand and use a spoon also but may prefer to use their hands. 6 year olds have refined skills and are beginning to use a knife for cutting and spreading.

After the 1st year of life, the growth rate slows and appetite decreases. Children often have less interest in food and an increased interest in the world surrounding them. They can develop periods when foods that were previously liked are now refused or they can request a specific food at every meal. Parents often become concerned about the adequacy of the child’s diet and may become frustrated with their behavior. However, no child can be forced to eat. Parents should continue to offer a variety of foods which also include their child’s favorite ones.

Preschool children tend to vary their food intakes during the day but their total daily energy intake remains constant. Preschool children eat best with small servings of food offered 4 to 6 times a day. Snacks are important when they are carefully chosen that have nutrients and are least likely to promote dental caries.

Some typical snacks include:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Cheese
  • Raw vegetable sticks
  • Milk
  • Fruit juices
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Dry cereal
  • Peanut butter sandwiches

*It’s also important to realize what serving sizes you are giving your child. The general rule of thumb is to offer 1 tablespoon of each food for every year of age and serve more food according to the child’s appetite.

Serving Sizes Include:

2-3 year olds

Milk&Dairy Products  1/2 cup       4-5 servings a day

Meat,Fish,Poultry        1-2 ounces  2 servings a day    

Veggies                             2-3 tbsp.      4-5 servings a day  

Fruit                                  1 small             4-5 servings

Whole grain                  1 slice                3 servings

Cooked Cereal             1/4-1/2 cup

Dry Cereal                    1/2 cup-1 cup

*** Vegetables and Fruit are categorized together as 4-5 servings/day. Whole grains include cooked cereal and dry cereal, accounting for 3 servings total!

Senses other than taste play an important part in food acceptance by young children. Food with extreme temperature are often avoided and some foods are rejected because of odor rather than taste. Many children won’t accept foods that touch each other on a plate, and mixed dishes with unidentifiable foods are not popular. A sandwich is often refused because it is cut the wrong way or if a cracker is broken, it often goes uneaten. Young children also don’t eat well if they are tired. Children also need active activities and time in the fresh air to stimulate a good appetite.

Food service in group settings like day care centers, Head Start programs and preschool programs in elementary schools are regulated by federal or state guidelines. Many facilities may participate in the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program. The quality of meals and snacks can vary greatly. Also, because of peer influence, children usually eat well in group settings. Experiencing new foods, participating in simple food preparation, and planting a garden are activities that develop and enhance positive food habits.

Source: Mahan, L. Kathleen., and Sylvia Escott-Stump. Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy. St. Louis: Saunders Elsevier, 2008. Print.

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