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Publication #FCS8890

Raising Healthy Children: Age Three1

Rebecca A. Clinton and Karla P. Shelnutt2

As your child turns three, she* is entering the preschool years. This is a time when children achieve many milestones, so it is important to keep your three-year-old healthy. Feeding her well and ensuring that she gets plenty of opportunities to be active are two things you can do to ensure good health!

Use the information in this publication as a guide. Talk to your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns. These are general guidelines. Each child develops at her own pace.

Nutrition

Age three is when children often begin to develop their own opinions about what they want to eat. You can help balance your child's independence and perceptions about smart eating with proper guidance. As a caregiver, you are responsible for deciding what to feed your child, when to feed her, and where to feed her. It is your child's responsibility to decide whether or not she wants to eat and how much to eat. This “division of responsibility” is important for teaching your child healthy eating habits and avoiding fights about food.

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Positive Parent Involvement

Parents and other caregivers can be great role models for children. Young children are influenced by the types of foods they see others eating. When you eat healthy foods, your child may be more likely to eat them too.

At this age, your child still may not like to try new foods. When healthful foods are offered during meals and as snacks, they may be rejected at first. This can be frustrating, but it may help you to know that children usually need to be offered a food 5–20 times or more, before they learn to enjoy it (Ellyn Satter Institute, 2012). It is a good idea to introduce new foods one at a time and at the beginning of a meal when your child is hungry. Allow your child to watch you eat, touch, and taste a food so that she may become familiar with it. Lecturing your child won't make her excited about a new food, so be patient and positive!

Offering an appropriate amount of food is another way you can help your child stay healthy. Think "child-size" portions at meals and at snack time. Offering small portions makes eating more enjoyable for your child and can help prevent her from overeating. Your child needs to know that she can ask for seconds or thirds if she is still hungry!

Kitchen Helpers

Three-year-olds need lots of hands-on activities. Including your child in the kitchen is a great way to get them involved and interested in a variety of new foods! Children this age can help in the following ways:

  • Wiping tables

  • Shaping dough

  • Shucking corn

  • Spreading peanut butter onto bread

  • Shaking dressings

  • Snapping fresh beans

  • Mixing foods

  • Scrubbing vegetables or fruits

  • Tearing lettuce or salad greens

  • Dipping vegetables or fruits

  • Pouring liquids

  • Squeezing citrus fruits

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Healthy Beverages

Young children need to consume fluids to stay hydrated. Water, milk, and 100% fruit juice are great choices for your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) recommends limiting 100% fruit juice intake to 4–6 ounces a day. This is equal to 1/2–3/4 of a cup. It is a smart idea to limit your child's intake of fruit drinks containing little or no fruit juice, soda, and sports drinks. These types of beverages provide sugar and calories with few or no nutrients.

Healthy Eating for Preschoolers!

MyPlate’s Healthy Eating for Preschoolers is a great tool to guide you on the types of foods to feed your child. The MyPlate website (http://choosemyplate.gov) offers health and nutrition information for preschoolers, including daily food plans, healthy eating habits, and meal and snack ideas. For a balanced diet, children need to eat a variety of foods from each food group. At this age, however, your child probably will not choose to eat a variety of foods every day. That is okay; aim for a balanced diet over a few days or a week. Offer an assortment of healthy foods and drinks at meals and snack times, and let your child choose from those.

MyPlate’s Healthy Eating for Preschoolers suggests the following daily intake for a three-year-old that is active for 30–60 minutes a day. Your child will not eat exactly these amounts; they can help you know what and about how much to offer her:

  • Calories: 1,200–1,400

  • Protein Foods: 3–4 ounces

  • Grains: 4–5 ounces

  • Vegetables: 1½ cups

  • Fruits: 1–1½ cups

  • Dairy: 2 cups

Healthy Eating for Preschoolers is a great resource to use when planning your child's meals and snacks. Visit the website http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers.html to personalize your child's intake!

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Physical Activity

Your child needs to be engaged in activity for much of the day to help develop motor skills and coordination. Most activity will be unstructured, such as playing outside with bubbles or using building blocks inside. Some activity, however, should be structured, such as taking a walk with you or playing catch with a friend for 20 or 30 minutes. Through physical activity, your child will develop her muscles and learn how to interact with others. Physical activity also keeps your child healthy.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (2013) recommends the following:

  • 60 minutes of structured physical activity each day

  • 60 minutes to several hours of unstructured physical activity each day

  • Less than 60 minutes of sedentary time at one occasion, except when your child is sleeping

  • Safe indoor and outdoor play areas where she can be active

  • Non-competitive activities

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A Word About Screen Time

There are a growing number of “screen time” options today, including TV, smartphones, computers, video games, and tablets. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours each day to decrease possible harmful health effects, including childhood obesity.

Instead of watching TV or playing video games, spend time together as a family. This can include going to the park, making arts and crafts, or riding bikes!

Motor Skills

Physical activities provide the perfect chance for your child to practice and enhance her motor skills. Motor skills help your child develop strong muscles and bones and good balance. By the time your child is three years old she should be able to do the following:

  • Stand on one foot for five seconds

  • Do a standing long jump

  • Hop

  • Climb stairs

  • Kick a ball

  • Ride a tricycle

  • Throw a ball overhead

Developmental Milestones

This year is all about milestones! Your child will be gaining independence and new skills. Help your child improve her social and language skills, hand and finger coordination, and overall knowledge. Some examples of milestones achieved by three-year-olds include these items:

  • Telling stories

  • Using five- or six-word sentences

  • Using scissors

  • Using a fork and spoon well

  • Drawing circles and squares

  • Counting to a few numbers — Help your child learn her numbers by counting the carrots she washes when she helps fix meals or snacks, but don't overwhelm her by counting too high.

  • Knowing a few colors — Practice colors with fruits and vegetables, as you feed your child all the colors of the rainbow with healthy foods.

To get more information about your three-year-old’s development, check out the Raising Healthy Children series of publications at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_series_raising_healthy_children.

Your Three-Year-Old

You can check your child’s height and weight percentiles by looking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Growth Charts at http://www.cdc.gov/GrowthCharts/. Charts are provided by gender and provide percentile curves of different body measurements such as height and weight that are used by health care professionals to track growth. Ask your pediatrician to provide an explanation about what the numbers mean for your child.

*Although we refer to a female child in this document, the recommendations apply to all children.

Recommended Websites

Recommended Reading

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Movement milestones in preschoolers. Retrieved from http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Movement-Milestones-in-Preschoolers.aspx

Ellyn Satter Institute. (2012). Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Retrieved from http://ellynsatter.com/

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Ages and stages: Preschool. Retrieved from http://www.healthychildren.org/english/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/default.aspx

Ellyn Satter Institute. (2012). How children learn to like new food. Retrieved from http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (2013). Active start: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children from birth to age 5, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/standards/nationalGuidelines/ActiveStart.cfm

USDA. (2013). MyPlate: Health and nutrition information for preschoolers. Retrieved from http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers.html

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS8890, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: January 2010. Latest revision: July 2013. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Rebecca A. Clinton, MS, RD, former dietetic intern, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, and Karla P. Shelnutt, PhD, RD, assistant 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.