What and How Much Should My Preschooler Be Eating?

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
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March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.

Young children need the same variety of nutrient-rich foods as older kids and adults, just in smaller quantities. As portions have gotten bigger, some parents and caregivers have developed a distorted view of the amount of food toddlers and preschoolers need. Feeding children becomes less frustrating and less complicated when adults know what kids need to grow well and be healthy.

Defining a Young Child's Serving Size

An appropriate serving size for children 2 to 3 years of age is about one-half an adult serving. This rule of thumb is based on serving sizes recommended by MyPlate, not portions served in many restaurants. So a serving of bread for a 2- to 3-year-old would be half of a slice.

Foods Young Children Need

Most 2- to 3-year-old children need to consume about 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day. Here's how to distribute those calories in a healthy eating plan:

  • Grain Group: About 3 to 4 ounces of grains per day, preferably half of them whole grains. For example, that is one or two slices of bread plus one cup ready-to-eat cereal and ½ cup cooked rice or pasta.
  • Vegetable Group: 1 to 1½ cups raw or cooked vegetables per day. Like adults, young kids need variety: mashed sweet potatoes, broccoli with low-fat dip or tomato sauce for pasta.
  • Fruit Group: 1 cup fresh, frozen, canned, or dried per day. Limit juice to 4 to 6 ounces per day. Emphasize whole fruits rather than juice. Kids love melon balls, mandarin oranges (fresh or canned in juice) and frozen berries.
  • Milk Group: 2 to 2½ cups cups per day. Whole milk is recommended for children younger than 2. Older children can have lower-fat, calcium-rich choices such as fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Meat and Beans Group: 2 to 3 ounces total per day. Options include lean meat, poultry, fish, an egg, cooked beans (black, pinto, kidney) and peanut butter.

For more information about eating plans and serving sizes for preschoolers, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.

What to Do About Snacks, Sweet Drinks and Desserts

Plan two to three small snacks at set times during the day to refuel small, active bodies. Choose foods from the MyPlate food groups. Make small servings of sweet drinks and desserts "sometimes" foods. MyPlate recommends limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day, saturated fat to 11 grams per day and added sugars to 25 grams per day for young children.

Find An Expert

Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, but registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) deliver the highest level of nutrition counseling. Search our database of nutrition experts to find someone in your area!

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