By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
The years between the time your baby turns three until the time they leave your arms and go to school don't have a name. They are the in-between years, between infancy, toddlerhood and the start of school days. And just as these post-toddler years have no special name, they also suffer from a dietary neglect.
It seems that wherever you look, everybody´s got the baby and toddler diets covered. When babies are weaning, milk and purees are all you need, and a whole host of recipe books and baby and toddler friendly diet plans are on offer for all new parents as babies grow.
But then they hit three; the toddler years come to an end and with it that certainty that kids are getting what they need from their diet.
After children have mastered solid food, parents don´t hear a whole lot about their offspring´s diet until they reach puberty. Are your kids getting the right nutrients post-toddler? What should you be feeding your preschooler to make sure they get the goodness they need from their food?
What to Know About Feeding Preschoolers
Compared to babies and toddlers, preschoolers (kids over the age of three) have smaller stomachs in comparison to their general size and they have lower energy needs.
Post-toddlers tend to get full after eating a relatively small amount of food and it is important to follow their cues when it comes to portion sizes.
When it comes to healthy foods that contain the vital nutrients protein, carbohydrates, fats, calcium, iron, folate, fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C (the nutrients the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says kids should be getting on a daily basis), children are not affected by portion size and will eat until they feel full.
But experts say that when faced with foods high in fat, sugar and salt, kids will overeat if they like the taste of the delicacies on offer, so you need to control servings of these “treats”.
Research Shows that Bad Diet Habits Start As Early as Toddlers
Because research tells us that the bad diet habits that shape adult obesity and health problems start at a very early age – right at the post-toddler stage.
Researcher Victor Fulgoni looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) from 2001 to 2012 covering the details of what 4,406 children eat in order to see when the bad habits kick in.
He found that in the early stages up to eight months, babies are generally eating what they need in the form of breast milk or formula with added baby cereal and pureed fruit and vegetables.
But something happens when they reach nine months. At nine months kids start to include cakes, cookies and other “bad” stuff in the mix. By their first birthday, he says, kids’ diets are already imbalanced.
Our children are turning into piles of sugar. Children at this age are already eating more than five teaspoons of added sugar a day, and around 40 percent are filling up on cookies, crackers, and salty snacks.
By the age of two, sugar consumption is up to around 9 teaspoons a day – this is roughly the recommended intake for a full grown man.
Yet Early Intervention in Diet and Lifestyle Helps Heart Health
While bad habits stick around, good eating and healthy lifestyle habits also persist, and can help the whole family stay healthy. Therefore it’s important to look closely at your preschooler´s diet in order to give him or her the best start in life.
A 2015 study from researchers led by Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D. in Madrid shows that teaching three- to five-year olds about healthy diets and exercise can lead to reduced levels of body fat and a lower risk of heart disease in the future.
It also serves to teach parents how to adopt these healthy habits, researchers said.
In the study, researchers looked at over 2,000 children in Madrid public schools and gave them a lifestyle and diet intervention program including activities at home and classroom materials.
The presence of obesity in the group of children receiving the intervention was 1.1 percent compared to 1.3 percent in the control group and the best results were seen in the group that had received three years of intervention from the age of three.
But Preschoolers are Picky Eaters…
It´s all very well cooking healthy meals and banning junk food in your preschooler´s diet, but we all know that at this age children can be incredibly picky eaters.
Experts suggest that parents concentrate on providing a wide range of healthy foods, and encouraging a positive attitude to healthy eating and enjoying good food, rather than focus on exactly how much a child eats.
Plan regular meals with a variety of healthy foods included and let young kids choose how much to eat.
But don´t end up cooking separate meals at a moment´s notice when a child says they are not going to eat pasta – this is the surefire way to stress and increased cost in the kitchen.
Adding a Smiley Face Makes Kids Eat Healthier Foods
And if in doubt, add a smiley face. Research in 2015 from the Center for Better Health and Nutrition of the Heart Institute at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center shows that stickers with smiley faces added to healthy foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains resulted in increased consumption among students at an inner-city school.
So junk food needs to be limited and healthy eating emphasized in these crucial early years.
But what exactly should you be giving your three-, four- or five-year old to redress the balance?
We looked at seven key ingredients that can help improve the post-toddler diet with minimal fuss.
Has your preschooler had any fish today? Research in 2010 from the University of Illinois shows that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and seafood are essential for brain, nerve, and eye development – and helping children develop a taste for fish early on improves their health in later life.
Supplementing children´s diets with fish oil can also help raise a child´s intelligence, according to a 2013 study from the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, from foods rich in Omega-3, were discovered to boost children's IQ by more than 3.5 points.
2. Whole grains
Try to make the grains you serve your preschooler whole.
Whole grains are more nutritiously balanced and provide excellent levels of fiber.
Many parents assume their children will turn down whole grains as they think they don´t like them, but research shows otherwise.
A 2014 study from the University of Florida demonstrates that if whole grains are offered, kids eat them.
And kids are likely to eat a wholegrain and refined grain foods in equal measures. Eating whole grains helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and helps with weight management in the future, experts say.
3. Eggs, Dairy Products
A study in 2016 from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows that around 25 percent of children worldwide under the age of five years are malnourished, which results in stunted growth and development.
One of the key ways in which young children can avoid malnourishment is to eat foods containing essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins.
Animal sources of these amino acids include eggs and dairy products, so your preschooler diet should include these. The researchers found 15-20 percent lower levels of amino acids in children who were small for their age.
While children in the US are not as much at risk for malnourishment as children in the developing world, it is still helpful to keep an eye on intake of amino acids to help improve growth and development.
4. Vegan Diet
Is a vegan diet helpful for increasing the health of young children?
A 2015 study from the Cleveland Clinic has found that plant-based vegan diets could be more effective than the American Heart Association diet in reducing heart disease risk.
Obese children who began a low-fat, vegan diet based on plants lowered their risk of heart disease by making improvements in their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and body mass index, researchers said.
The four-week study looked at children eating a plant-based diet with whole grains and limited avocado and nuts, limited fat, and no animal products.
These children significantly improved their heart health. The researchers said, however, that while most people were able to follow the diet “they had difficulty purchasing the food necessary for a balanced plant-based diet. So we know that plant-based diets are effective, but if they are to be widely used, we need to make access to plant-based, no-added-fat foods easier and more affordable."
5. Fruit and Vegetables
An easier way to improve the diet of a post-toddler is to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables.
But surprisingly numbers of children do not get enough fruit or vegetables for optimum health.
A 2014 study from Orebro University and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden shows that less than every fourth child in Europe eats enough fruit and vegetables. Eating a lot of these foods decreases the lifetime risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
However, in the study less than half of the children ate even a single piece of fruit every day, while only 55 percent ate vegetables daily.
Giving fruit as a snack and raw vegetables in lunch boxes can help, as can making sure each evening meal contains servings of vegetables, and fruit is offered as a dessert choice.
Since preschoolers have small stomachs and get full easily, they need foods that pack a big nutrient punch like nuts.
A 2012 study from Louisiana State University Agricultural Center showed that eating tree nuts like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts and pine nuts increased overall levels of energy and fiber in the diet, and lowered levels of cholesterol and sodium.
After the age of two, switch to skim milk or 1% milk as fat can come from other food sources like nuts, full-fat cheeses and olive oil.
Although milk provides important nutrients, children between the ages of two and five should not drink more than two cups a day, according to 2012 research from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. Two cups of milk provide growing children with all the vitamin D and iron they need, without resulting in any adverse health reactions. Vitamin D helps to reduce the risk of respiratory problems in children while good levels of iron contribute to better neurological development.