What To Feed A 3-Year-Old: Tips From A Child Nutrition Expert

by Steph Montgomery
Originally Published: 

My kids used to be good eaters. When they were babies and toddlers, they would willingly try anything I offered. Then they turned 3, and suddenly all bets were off and I was frantically searching the internet, trying to find things to feed a 3 year old. Because unless my kids' food was served as a dipping sauce or in a pouch, they weren't interested.

To learn more about what my preschooler should actually be eating to be healthy and strong, Romper spoke with pediatric feeding specialist and author of kid-friendly cookbook Adventures in Veggieland Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, via email.

According to Potock, a balanced diet for kids doesn't always have to come from each and every meal. Rather, parents should look at everything their threenager eats throughout an entire 24-hour period. "It’s really about variety! Pay attention to serving a little bit from every food group throughout the day," she tells me. "For vegetables, use the tennis ball rule. A preschooler needs half of a tennis ball of vegetables each day. Slightly older kids need a whole tennis ball of veggies each day."

If your kids refuse to eat their veggies or only take one bite before throwing it on the floor, Potock says not to worry. "The key is to offer it, and not count the bites. Some days preschoolers eat like a horse, and other days they barely eat at all," she says. "As long as there is no consistent pattern of poor intake, when they 'chow down' on healthy foods the other days, it all evens out."

One way to ensure your kid eats everything they need is to create what Potock calls a "hunger schedule." "Hunger truly is the secret sauce to helping kids taste a variety of foods," she tells Romper. "The more tastes over time, the more the kids learn to love variety. The more variety, the more balanced the diet."

According to Potock, most of "today's homes" have what she refers to as an "open floor plan," meaning kids are free to go in and out of the kitchen, asking for snacks just 10 or so minutes after they're offered lunch. And when our child always knows that "fish crackers are readily available," they have very little incentive to eat vegetables.

To combat kid's tendency to snack all day, Potock developed a hunger schedule for her book, Raising a Healthy Happy Eater, co-written with Dr. Nimali Fernando, M.D. and pediatrician, to teach parents how to divide each day into eating times and growing times, to ensure that children eat a more balanced diet.

When it comes to getting your kids to try new foods and eat their veggies, Potock compiled the latest research about feeding kids in her book Adventures in Veggieland. In the aforementioned book, she suggests taking the stress out of meal time by it fun and exploring new foods a game.

"I recommend that parents follow the Three E’s: Expose, Explore, Expand," she tells Romper. "That’s what always leads to the fourth E: Eating. Expose kids to fruits and veggies by visiting the farmers market. Always, always, always take the free samples. If your child doesn’t eat it then, that’s OK. Think of it like a first play date — give him time to make friends with a new vegetable."

Potock also suggests changing the way you shop for healthy foods to make things more accessible and palatable to your preschooler. "Starting all our shopping in the produce isle, before the kids get too tired, so they enjoy the process of helping to bag the fruits and veggies and perhaps, if it’s in the budget, letting them pick out something new they’ve never seen before, like a starfruit," she tells me.

When it comes to meal time, Potock advises parents to help their preschoolers become friends with food through play and learning games. "My favorite way to help kids make friends with fruits and veggies is to use them in food activities that boost reading, math and language skills," she says. "Try playing tic-tac-toe with green beans, carrot coins or jicama, creating the whole alphabet with colorful slices of sweet bell peppers, or have a Brussel sprout race, to see who can pull of as many leaves of the b-sprout in 30 seconds."

According to Potock, these games can be the foundation for forming a healthy relationship with food. "When kids engage in food play with their families, they find joy in the activity, and later, they can include those same bell pepper strips, Brussel sprout leaves or green beans in a new mealtime recipe," she tells Romper.

If your child has special dietary needs, Potock recommends working with a registered dietician to come up with a diet that meets their needs. "Preschoolers tend to have strong preferences, and when a special diet comes into play, a registered dietitian can be sure that any restrictions are counter-balanced with alternatives that help that child grow and thrive."

If you've tried everything, and your 3-year-old kiddo still doesn't seem to eat a balanced diet, Potock suggests seeking professional help. "If mealtimes are stressful, that’s when to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Don’t wait for the next well check or for your child’s weight to falter or his growth to stall," she says. "Half of my caseload of kids in feeding therapy are children who were 'just picky' and never 'grew out of it.'"

Fortunately, as Potock explains, there are a whole host of specialists that can help you and your child get back on the right track. "Your pediatrician can refer you to a pediatric feeding specialist, typically an occupational therapist (OT) or speech language pathologist (SLP) trained in pediatric feeding therapy," she tells me. "They know how to screen for physiological issues, can ask for additional support from other specialists."

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