Great Plates! What do children need to eat to be healthy?

Simple tips lead to deliciously healthy, decidedly happy eating experiences!

Making sure that children get proper nutrition can be daunting. The challenge grows during the late toddler and preschool years. In their second and third years, children begin to decide what they do and do not like to eat. With that new knowledge, little ones often exert their power with strong statements like “No! I don’t like that!” For adults, helping children to be comfortable trying new things, while avoiding power struggles, can definitely be a challenge. However, developing healthy eating habits early sets the stage for a lifetime of health and wellness.

Easy-to-use guidelines: create colorful, flavorful, healthful dining experiences.

By following a few daily practices with meals and snacks, as well as exploring useful online resources, you can make eating as positive as possible. Online, ChooseMyPlate.gov details just how much of what kinds of foods children need, focusing on a few primary topics including picking good foods, serving the right amount and making the meal an enjoyable time. At your program, these simple steps ensure healthy food experiences:

  • Create a balanced plate: When thinking about a dinner plate, half of the plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter of the plate should be lean protein, and another quarter should be whole grains. Then, add in one serving of low-fat dairy.
  • Pick the right serving size: Next, let’s think about what an appropriate serving size is. For example, let’s think about preschoolers. Remember that their tummies are not as big as yours and mine! Examples include: 1/3 Cup dry cereal, ¼ Cup cooked pasta or rice, ¼ Cup fruit, ¼ Cup vegetables, 1 egg, 1 ounce lean meat or poultry, ¾ Cup milk.
  • Maximize flavor and variety: Serve fresh, frozen or canned fruit rather than fruit juice. Be sure to include a variety of colors and textures. How appetizing is an all-beige plate that has chicken nuggets, fries and applesauce? Getting as much of the rainbow and diverse textures can help children enjoy meals.
  • Focus on meal time: Turn off the television and any screens. Make space for everyone to focus on eating and enjoy one another’s company.
The secret to avoiding power struggles: adults set the tone, children decide how much they eat.

In addition to the right foods and correct quantities, children thrive with relaxed and encouraging meal times. Allow plenty of time for meals and snacks. Hurried meals don’t allow children to relax or to learn to recognize their hunger and thirst queues. Also be sure to encourage conversation between adults and children, with both conversation about the food on the table and general discussion about whatever the children are thinking about.

Lastly, remember that the child alone controls how much food is consumed. We can determine what is served, where it is eaten and when meal times happen. However, each child makes the decision to eat what is in front of them at the time and place it is offered – or not to eat it. Little learners are constantly using adults as their role models. Because of that, we need to be aware of what we eat and drink in front of children and how we react to foods that are new or those that we are not so fond of.

Enjoy your meal and snack times and build healthy food habits for the children that you care for. When you create deliciously healthy, decidedly happy eating experiences, children understand that good food and good time go together.


Marta Fetterman directs Partnerships for Early Learners’ provider services team. Previously, she led the Taking Steps to Healthy Success project, designed to increase healthy supports in early childhood and funded by Nemours. She brings decades of experience in curriculum development, technical assistance, workshop facilitation, leadership and stakeholder support to her work. She aims to ensure a supportive and evidence-based professional path for all early childhood practitioners.