Some foods are naturally nutrient-dense – they contain a significant amount of one or more important nutrients relative to the calories they provide. The nutrient-dense foods you see on this list go a long way in helping your preschooler meet his/her nutrient needs each day. They are minimally processed and were chosen because they contain nutrients important for preschoolers. They are easy to eat and popular with many young children.
While eating a variety of foods is a good thing, preschoolers are known to be picky eaters. The pickiest eaters may eat only four or five favorite foods. What’s fortunate for preschoolers, and what keeps preschooler food jags from being the diet dilemma many parents believe them to be, is that some of the most popular preschooler foods are also nutrient-dense. But based on national surveys, preschoolers are eating lots of foods with a lower nutrient density like crackers, cookies, french fries, and fruit juice. Try replacing some of the lower quality foods in your child’s diet with the choices below and help your preschooler get all the nutrients s/he needs.
While many preschools and parents of very young children are restricting peanut butter used for fear of triggering a food allergy, peanut butter remains an all-time favorite preschooler food. If you know that your little one is not allergic to peanuts, this is one food you don’t have to feel bad about serving over and over.
Peanut butter is an all-time preschooler favorite. Fortunately, peanut butter has lots of protein, healthy fats, minerals, fiber, and vitamins. All this in a couple of tablespoons. Don’t feel bad spreading this power food on bread, apples, bananas, or celery! You might think peanut butter is too high in fat and calories to be a staple food for your preschooler. It is true that peanut butter is about fifty percent fat. But the fat is mostly unsaturated fat and, unlike saturated fat which is associated with heart disease, unsaturated fats are thought to be healthy. This is especially true for young children who need extra fat in their diet for healthy growth. Experts recommend higher-fat diets for children than for adults. And since peanut butter is such a great source of so many nutrients, it is clearly worth the calories. In a two-tablespoon serving, your preschooler gets the following:
Remember – whole peanuts and other nuts, as well as spoonfuls or large chunks of peanut butter, are considered a choking hazard for young children. It’s best to spread thin layers of peanut butter onto bread, fruit, or vegetables to help your child chew and swallow it safely.
Other Nut and Seed Butters
Think of nuts and seeds as little storage units for nutrients. Almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower seed butter, and hazelnut butter are great alternatives to peanut butter but with the same healthy fats, minerals, fiber, and vitamins. Many nuts and nut-butters have similar nutrient profiles as peanut butter. Most are high in fat (but the good, unsaturated fat), protein, minerals, and certain vitamins. If your preschooler doesn’t like peanut butter or is at high-risk for a peanut allergy, try almond butter, cashew butter, hazelnut butter, or sunflower seed butter.
You already know milk is a great source of calcium for your growing preschooler. It’s also a high-protein food and provides two more nutrients important for your preschooler – vitamin D and potassium.
Try adding plain oatmeal to your preschooler’s breakfast routine. Oatmeal is a great whole grain with protein, fiber, and minerals. Mix in other goodies like berries, a scrambled egg, or dried fruit for more flavor and nutrient power!
Most Fruits and Vegetables
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is good diet advice for anyone. By helping your preschooler learn to enjoy fruits and vegetables, you’ll be giving them a taste for low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods for life. Focus on fruits and vegetables in season for automatic variety through the year.
Soybeans and Other Beans
Beans have all the nutrition of other plant foods but are also high in protein, making them a great substitute for meat. Add refried beans for a nutrient-dense cheese quesadilla, make boiled soybeans (edamame) for a fun snack or side dish, or make white chicken chili.
Tofu is not for vegetarians only! It’s got the nutrients of soybeans and is easy to prepare. Saute tofu slices in a little oil for a bland meal suited to picky preschoolers, or let them pick up the flavor by using cubes of tofu in most mixed dishes.
Low-fat Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese has the calcium and protein of milk but can be used as a great dish for mixing in other healthy foods. Try adding pears, grapes, berries, or even tuna fish for great preschooler mini-meals.
Scrambled or hard-boiled, breakfast or dinner, eggs can be a healthy part of your preschooler’s diet. High-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals make eggs an easy-to-eat staple food for your little one.
Low-fat yogurt is another option for helping your preschooler meet his/her calcium needs. Just watch out for the added sugar in commercial brands. Try plain, unsweetened yogurt mixed with fruit or granola for a better alternative. Yogurt is a healthy food choice for preschoolers. It is nutrient-dense – a 4 oz container of kid’s yogurt can provide a large portion of the calcium, protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and magnesium your preschooler needs each day. Plus, yogurt contributes to the 2-3 cups of milk recommended daily for preschoolers.
But not all yogurts are the same. Fat content, sugar content, organic claims, and the presence of live and active cultures can vary among brands. The dairy section has lots of brands and types, many targeted to kids – Dannon Danimals, Yoplait Kids, Yoplait Go-Gurt, and Stonyfield Farms YoBaby and YoKids are just a few. Read on to discover the differences and what the right choice is for your preschooler.
One downside to yogurt is that most are loaded with sugar. While plain yogurt contains some naturally-occurring sugars (5-8 grams per 4 oz), flavored yogurts can have up to 3 teaspoons of extra sugar added. Kid’s yogurt can contain up to 18 grams of sugar in a 4 oz container. That’s more sugar than in one serving of the most sugary breakfast cereals! Even ‘plain’ flavors like vanilla are sweetened with extra sugar.
In general, yogurt for kids is sweetened at the same level as regular yogurt for adults. Some brands do have less sugar, so read the labels. You can also find plain, unsweetened yogurt. It’s usually found in larger containers beside the single-serving yogurt cups in the dairy case.