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Raising Healthy Children: Age Four1

Kate Bennett, Gail Kauwell, and Karla P. Shelnutt2

As children continue their preschool years, they learn many new things and develop their own opinions and ideas. During this time, people inside and outside of the home may greatly influence them. As preschoolers continue to learn and grow, caregivers can take many steps to guide their children in a healthy and positive direction.

A Guide to Healthy Eating

Responsible food choices are an important way of keeping your child healthy during his or her growing years. Parents can use the MyPlate Daily Checklist for Preschoolers to help guide a preschooler’s daily eating habits. (https://www.choosemyplate.gov/myplate-daily-checklist-preschoolers)

The table below outlines the general guidelines for each food group for a 4-year-old child who gets 30–60 minutes of exercise per day:

Table 1. 

(USDA, 2016b)

Grains

5 ounces

Vegetables

1½ cups

Fruit

1½ cups

Dairy

2½ cup equivalents

Protein foods

4 ounces

* You should also limit sodium to 1,900 milligrams a day, saturated fat to 16 grams a day, and added sugar to 35 grams a day

According to the USDA, a 4-year-old child needs about 5 ounces of grains each day. One ounce of grains is equal to one slice of bread, one cup of cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta (USDA, 2016d).

In addition to grains, a 4-year-old child needs 1½ cups of vegetables and 1½ cups of fruit every day. Fruits and vegetables can be raw, dried, cooked, or served as juice; However, if part of your child’s fruit intake is juice be sure it is 100% fruit juice. Also, note that ½ cup of dried fruit is equal to a 1 cup serving (USDA, 2016b).

Dairy foods include milk, yogurt, cheese, and fortified soy beverage. One slice (1½ ounces) of hard cheese, such as cheddar and Swiss cheese, or one slice of processed cheese (2 ounces), such as American cheese, counts as ½ cup of dairy (USDA, 2016b). Low-fat and fat-free dairy foods are the best choices for meeting your child’s recommended intake of 2½ cups per day, as well as for the rest of your family.

Finally, one ounce of protein is equal to ¼ cup of cooked beans, one egg, one tablespoon of peanut butter, ½ ounce of nuts or seeds, and one ounce of meat, poultry, or fish (USDA, 2016b). When choosing meat for your children look for leaner options, such as fish or skinless chicken and turkey. When cooking other types of meat, be sure to remove the visible fat. (For information about how much of each food your child needs to eat to meet the requirements, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.

Figure 1. 

MyPlate offers a set of guidelines to help Americans choose healthy foods and eat appropriate portion sizes.


Credit:

USDA


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Snack Time

Snack time is a great opportunity to introduce children to new foods, to encourage them to make healthy choices, and to involve them in preparing their snacks. Giving 4-year-old children a few healthy options helps them develop independence and makes healthy eating a fun activity. Keep convenient snack foods on hand, such as hard-cooked eggs, dried or canned fruit (water or juice packed), single-serving low-fat yogurt, and individually wrapped string cheese. Try to vary snack choices each day and incorporate snacks that contain at least two food groups. While you may occasionally serve sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages, such as candy, cookies, soda, sweetened tea, and fruit-flavored drinks, keep the focus on healthier snack options (USDA, 2016c).

Snack Ideas from the USDA

  • Combine dry cranberries with popcorn

  • Make a snack mix using whole-grain, dried cereal

  • Dip frozen fruit into nonfat yogurt

(For more snack ideas, visit https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/tentips/DGTipsheet11KidFriendlyVeggiesAndFruits.pdf for some fun snack ideas to try with your child.)

Getting Involved at Meal Time

As children begin developing their own preferences and opinions about foods, family meals are a good time to reinforce healthy eating habits. You can set a good example for your child by eating with him or her (USDA, 2011). Letting your preschooler see you enjoy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can encourage him or her to try these foods and learn to enjoy them (CDC, 2017). If your child is a “picky” eater, then pair new foods with familiar, well-liked foods. However, avoid overwhelming him or her with too many new choices at once. It may take more than one try for your child to become familiar with a new food to enjoy it, so be patient and do not pressure him or her (Ellyn Satter Institute, 2017).

Eating meals with your child sets a good example and paves the way for good eating habits in the future. During the meal, set a good example by demonstrating table manners because your child is likely to copy your actions. At your child’s age, it is also a good time to begin teaching him or her how to behave at the table. You can also get your child involved in family meals by teaching your child how to set the table and letting him or her help with safe cooking activities (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016).

Safe Cooking Activities for your Child

  • Tear lettuce for a salad

  • Add and toss pre-cut vegetables to a salad

  • Measure dry ingredients

  • Add toppings to a pizza (KidsHealth, 2014)

Figure 2. 

Get your children involved in family meals by having them help with safe cooking activities.


Credit:

iStock/Nagy-Bagoly Ilona/Thinkstock


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Physical Activity

Preschoolers should actively play several times a day and perform activities that are developmentally appropriate, fun, and varied. Physical activity for preschoolers should happen in short bursts, not all at once. Provide a safe place for preschoolers to play and be physically active (USDA, 2016a).

Ways to Lead an Active Lifestyle for your Child

  • Go for walks

  • Play active games as a family

  • Turn chores, such as sweeping or wiping the table, into games, which will also make your child feel like a responsible family member (PBS Parents, 2017)

Now that your child is becoming more independent and engaging in new activities, such as sports, remember to promote safety. For example, make your child wear a helmet on a bike, and watch your child when he or she is playing outside (CDC, 2015).

Figure 3. 

A bike ride with your child is great way to show him or her how to lead an active lifestyle.


Credit:

Digital Vision/Maria Teijeiro/Thinkstock.com


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Screen Time

Limit your child’s TV or computer time to one hour a day, and encourage him or her to be physically active, sing songs, or color. Because TV ads for junk food will likely influence your preschooler, keep healthy snacks at home, which will also encourage your child to choose healthier items when you are not around (Council on Communications and Media, 2016; CDC, 2016).

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). Feeding & nutrition tips: 4- to 5-year-olds. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/nutrition-fitness/pages/Feeding-and-Nutrition-Your-4-to-5-Year-Old.aspx

CDC. (2016.) Important milestones: Your child by four years. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-4yr.html

CDC. (2015.) Making physical activity a part of a child's life. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adding-pa/activities-children.html

CDC. (2017). Preschoolers (3–5 years of age). Child Development. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/preschoolers.html

Council on Communications and Media. (2016.) Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162591.

Ellyn Satter Institute. (2017.) The picky eater. Accessed on March 26, 2017. http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/thepickyeater.php

KidsHealth. (2014.) Cooking with preschoolers. Accessed on March 26, 2017. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cooking-preschool.html#

PBS Parents. (2017.) Keep kids active. Accessed on March 26, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/parents/food-and-fitness/sport-and-fitness/keep-kids-active/

USDA. (2011.) Be a healthy role model for children. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/tentips/DGTipsheet12BeAHealthyRoleModel.pdf

USDA. (2016a.) How much is needed? Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/physical-activity-amount

USDA. (2016b.) MyPlate daily checklist: Find your healthy eating style. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/myplate/checklists/MyPlateDailyChecklist_1400cals_Age4-8.pdf

USDA. (2016c.) MyPlate snack tips for parents. MyPlate MyWins. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/tentips/DGTipSheet24MyPlateSnackTipsforParents_0.pdf

USDA. (2016d.) What foods are in the grains group? ChooseMyPlate.gov. Accessed on March 26, 2017. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/grains

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS2348, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date October 2013. Revised April 2017. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Kate Bennett, MS, RD, LDN, registered dietitian at Manatee Memorial Hospital; Gail Kauwell, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND, professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; Karla Shelnutt, PhD, RDN, associate professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.