The Preschool Aged Child

Recap: A child is born with strong attunement to cues of appetite, hunger and fullness, and will naturally eat well if raised in a supportive food environment. A mother’s role is to nurture this inborn ability by creating the right environment. Beginning with infancy, emotional development evolves in stages, and understanding these stages can help a mother nurture her child physically and emotionally so that it can thrive. In the following articles, we describe a healthy parent-child dynamic as it applies to ideal feeding, so that the mother can support her child’s natural ability to eat and grow well. 

A typical preschool-aged child (age three to five) is more calm, independent and compliant at meals than she was as a toddler. Picture the standard toddler throwing her food off her tray and yelling “No!” when a parent tries to offer more food. In contrast to the preschool child, who you can reason with, the unreasonable toddler is defiant and appears desperate to have things her way. This is because the toddler is developing autonomy—her defiant tantrums actually help her develop an individual sense of self.

Since a toddler is developing autonomy around food, she might throw a tantrum at the table to assert her individual food preferences (e.g. I’m hungry, I’m full, this is yucky, or this is yummy). The supportive parent shouldn’t pressure her toddler to eat more or less than she wants to—rather, the toddler should be allowed to self-feed, refuse or accept food. This dynamic creates a healthy feeding relationship, which enables the toddler to develop autonomy around food.

This autonomy remains with the child as she grows into preschool age, during which she will no longer feel a need to defy her parents to assert her individuality. This will manifest in the confidence she will have to begin taking initiative with her eating. A preschooler will proudly choose food and serve herself from the serving plate, and may have suggestions or even help prepare meals and snacks. You may notice your preschooler trying to imitate you and please you at the dinner table. She may experiment with grown-up foods like steak or salad, or using a fork and knife just like her mommy—certainly behaviors that are a welcome change from the unruly toddler!

For many, however, the preschooler has not yet developed the calm and eager-to-please attitude. Some preschoolers may be defiant at meals, albeit with more sophistication than the toddler (e.g. eye-rolling and snorting, as opposed to throwing food). In such cases, this child may be stuck in the toddler phase, still working on the development of autonomy with regard to food. If so, recreating a healthy feeding dynamic with the child will be all the more important. Let’s explore how to do this.

Shevy is an adorable, charming and independent-minded five-year-old. She’s got that oldest-child-personality and feels responsible for her two-year old brother, Shmuly. Shevy likes to act like her mommy and feed Shmuly his yogurt, wipe his spills, calm his tears and entertain him for hours. Shev’s mother, Dina, takes advantage of her daughter’s capabilities and let’s Shevy help out with all sorts of jobs.

One Sunday afternoon, Dina is preoccupied with arranging a sheva brachos with her siblings. Shevy is busy playing with her brother, and Dina barely hears from the two of them. At 5:00 p.m., Dina’s phone begins to quiet down, and she heads to her children, noticing candy wrappers on the floor and half-eaten sandwich cookies and pretzel crumbs on the coloring table.

“Who said you can have this, Shevy?” Dina asks sternly. Shevy explains, “Shmuly wanted lunch, and you were on the phone, so I asked you if I could take food from pantry, and you said yes. So I did!”

Dina vaguely remembers some nagging while she was on the phone, and knows Shevy’s tale could be true. “No more!” Dina says, grabbing the cookies and candy. “Don’t do this again! This is not lunch. This is garbage, junk food that will make you sick. And besides, you took way too many.”

Given the independent nature of the preschooler, it’s common for parents to grant their child slightly too much independence around food than is appropriate for their age. Dina makes this mistake when she neglects to feed her children at the beginning of the day, leaving them to their own devices. Giving a child too much free reign with food does not allow the child to develop mature and balanced eating habits, and the child who is allowed to choose her meals and snacks will likely get stuck on eating familiar, simple and easy-to-like foods. She will lose out on exposure and opportunities to get comfortable with an expanded variety of nutritious foods.

At 6:00 p.m., it’s time for dinner, and Dina feels especially obligated to make sure her children have a nutritious meal to make up for her earlier negligence and their reprehensible “lunch.” She conscientiously prepares chicken, carrots and brown rice, and calls her children to the table. Shevy cries from the playroom, “I’m not hungry! Can I please finish this game?” “You ate a mountain of junk,” Dina replies. “Little wonder you’re not hungry. You will listen to me right now and come to the table and eat normal, healthy food like a big girl.”

Shevy and Shmuly settle at the table and slowly take a few small bites off their plates. Then, they begin to play with their chicken nuggets, pretending they are mentchies marching across the table. Dina interjects, “Stop playing with your food. Shevy, let me see you eat like a big girl. Each of you need to take ten bites of chicken, ten bites of carrots and brown rice, and then you can have dessert.”

Shevy wants to please her mother and “eat like a big girl,” and Shmuly wants to get dessert, so they both oblige. “Okay, Mommy, I will,” Shevy says. Eager to please, she tries to hide her feelings of discomfort as she works to bypass her feeling of fullness and eat more food to please her mother.

During dinner, Dina takes initiative by planning and serving a meal at the table. Presenting a variety of nutritious foods and helping her children focus on eating by calling them to the table, instead of letting them eat near their toys, is conducive to her children eating well. However, Dina makes the common mistake of trying to control which and how much of each food her children eat at dinner.

The problem with this approach is that since a preschool aged child typically aims to please, Shevy may resort to overeating (or under-eating, if the parent is restrictive around food) to please the coercing parent. This can be problematic, since it can hinder the child’s ability to regulate her food intake based on her own inner cues of hunger and fullness.

Notice how Dina belittles the nosh Shevy chose to eat and essentially criticizes the way she ate at dinner. Trying to manipulate a child’s eating by scorning her food choices can cause her to feel ashamed and doubt her ability to take initiative with eating. While the child might start to act belligerent, in truth, she is feeling ashamed, insecure and doubtful of herself. A better approach would be for Dina to improve the eating environment at home so her daughter will naturally eat better. Additionally, Dina should respect her child’s food choices and not critique her.

To help her children, Dina needs to provide structured meals and snacks while respecting her children’s food preferences within that framework. To accomplish this, Dina should follow Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR),where a parent provides limits by being in charge of the what, whenandwhere of feeding, and the child exercises control by being in charge of the how much and whetherof eating.

If you have a preschool aged child, or any age child for that matter, you can also benefit from using this feeding approach in your home. Using sDOR, you should strive to provide reliable meals and snacks, and allow your children to choose from what is provided without shaming or pressuring.

For example, you can serve chicken, rice and carrots for dinner, and allow your children to choose what and how much they’d like from what you’ve put out on the table. Your preschooler might choose to eat just the rice, and this makes many parents cringe. However, it is okay, because your child can make up for the lack of protein in this meal by having protein at another meal or during snack time later on.

Coercing a child to eat protein or vegetables with threats (“You cannot leave the table until you finish what’s on your plate”) or rewards (“Whoever finishes their chicken can get a yummy dessert”) strengthens a child’s aversion to the food and ruins the likelihood that she will ever learn to like those foods on her own. Consider how presenting opportunity and structure without pressuring will teach your child to self-regulate and take responsibility for her eating, and learn to experiment with new foods. These lifelong benefits will be well worth it.

There are many positive steps you can take to help your child learn to like carrots, chicken or any other food you wish she would enjoy. Firstly, it is important for parents to sit and eat with their children and create a pleasant and non-pressuring atmosphere. The parents’ mere presence at the table is supportive to a child. There is a social reward in sharing food with others that will naturally motivate your child to want to try the foods she sees her parents enjoying at the table. If there is pressure to try foods, however, this natural motivation will be lost in an anxiety-provoking power struggle.

It is also important to make the effort to prepare tasty foods. For example, meals should always include fat. Fat is essential to a child’s diet (strive for healthy fats), and it makes food tasty! Children require lots of calories and fat to support their growth, too, so grab some olive oil, fry your schnitzel and drizzle your grilled veggies!

Finally, be considerate to your child’s preferences when planning meals by including your child’s favorite foods in the overall menu and making sure that there is at least one food your child feels comfortable eating at each meal. But don’t cater to your child by serving her favorite dinner all the time or preparing alternate meals if she doesn’t like the entrée—this will narrow your child’s ability to eat a variety of healthy foods. Rather, consider serving a bedtime snack. If you know your child will have another chance to eat, it might help you refrain from trying to control your child’s eating at dinner.

Parents should use this same framework for snack time. Be in charge of what is served, join your child at the table, and refrain from pressuring or shaming your child about what she eats. Next week, we will discuss the school-aged child and include tips on when and how to include nosh in snack times.

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. She combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits. Contact her at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com.

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com.