Preschool is the perfect time to introduce the concept of nutrition and healthy food. Teaching children how to make healthy food choices can help them develop positive habits early on, supporting their overall growth and development.
This article discusses the importance of nutrition in early childhood development and offers simple, creative activities for your nutrition curriculum.
The importance of nutrition in early childhood development
A healthy diet comprises protein for strong muscles, carbohydrates for energy, and fruits and vegetables for a healthy immune system. Other essentials of a healthy diet are water, fat, fiber, and minerals. Here are some reasons why nutrition is important in early childhood development.
Promotes healthy, holistic growth and development
When children have a nutritious and balanced diet, rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates, they can stay healthy and reach their growth and development milestones. A healthy diet boosts children’s immune systems and lowers the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, making a balanced diet extremely important to a child’s overall health.
Supports muscle growth and development
A protein-rich diet is crucial for building strong and healthy muscles in children. Children should eat foods rich in essential amino acids as they promote muscle growth and development. Amino acids also ensure that the body doesn’t use muscles as a source of calories during physical activities. Common protein sources include eggs, beans, lean meats, fish, tofu, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy products.
While not a direct source like protein, carbohydrates and fats also support muscle growth and development. However, they are primarily used to produce energy for the body. This prevents the body from breaking down what’s stored in the muscles. Healthy sources of carbohydrates and fats include sweet potatoes, whole grain bread and pasta, avocados, fish, nuts, and whole eggs.
Fosters weight management
Good nutrition supports a healthy weight by helping the body shed excess weight. Foods rich in nutrients help prevent food cravings, which are often the result of eating processed foods. Most processed foods are deficient in nutrients and often trigger the desire to eat foods that are low in nutritional value. Eating too much of these types of foods often leads to weight gain.
Good nutrition includes fiber, which fills the stomach, preventing cravings and making the stomach feel full longer. Encouraging children to eat snacks that are rich in fiber will help them to have sustained energy and maintain a healthy weight.
Children need strong bones to support physical activities like running and jumping. Strong bones also support the development of gross and fine motor skills.
Eating foods rich in calcium helps support children’s growing bones and can prevent bone weakness later in life. Foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, beans, and leafy green vegetables are all good sources of calcium.
Aids brain development
A nutritious diet, including getting enough iron, is important for brain growth and development. Cognitive deficits are often linked to iron deficiency in young children. This is because brain development indirectly relies on iron. Iron in the body maintains enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells responsible for brain growth and development.
Preschoolers need 7 to 10 mg of iron daily. Foods rich in iron include beef, pork, poultry, seafood, tofu, dried beans and peas, dried fruits, leafy dark green vegetables, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals and bread.
How to explain nutrition to a child
Teaching children about nutrition is one of the best ways to help them establish a healthy lifestyle. Since children learn through observation, you can demonstrate the benefits of nutrition through various activities. Here are ways you can explain nutrition to preschoolers.
Eating with your preschoolers is an interactive way to introduce them to new foods. Consider a family-style arrangement during meal breaks or snack time where you can eat with them and discuss healthy foods together.
Provide healthy snacks
Healthy snacks provide children with the energy and nutrients they need to support their growth and development. While children will get most of their daily calories from mealtime, snacks can be another opportunity to expose children to nutrient-rich food.
Lead by example
Consistently providing and eating healthy foods will encourage children to make nutritious choices on their own. Some other ways to reinforce healthy eating are serving appropriate portion sizes and teaching children how to stop eating when they feel full.
Give the children some control
Allowing children to decide what they eat instead of forcing them to choose certain foods encourages children to enjoy healthy eating as long as there is a variety of healthy foods they can choose from. Consider creating a rotating daycare menu of different meal choices that you can mix and match to ensure children have fresh options each week.
Share easy-to-follow nutrition guidelines
Providing simple nutrition guidelines can teach your preschoolers about healthy eating. Start with guidelines that show the importance of eating breakfast and why they should never skip it. Other basic nutrition guidelines you can introduce include the importance of drinking water and portion control.
Introduce the children to new foods
Some children may be picky eaters or refuse to eat during mealtime. While this behavior may be due to various reasons, like too many distractions or large portions, some children are simply reluctant to try new foods. When dealing with picky eaters, have one meal you are sure your child will eat on hand when introducing new foods. Encourage children to take just one bite of a new food and say, “No, thank you” if they don’t like it. This strategy can help children develop their palates slowly.
Fill your dramatic play area with various food groups
The dramatic play area is an important learning environment for preschoolers, and you can use this area to teach children new concepts, like the importance of good nutrition. Filling your dramatic play area with items from various food groups helps reinforce balanced nutrition.
Encourage and support active play
Active play and nutrition go hand-in-hand since they’re responsible for overall cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Explain to children how physical activity through play can build strong bodies and prevent them from getting sick. Playing hopscotch, running, dancing, and jumping on a trampoline are developmentally appropriate active play activities for preschoolers.
Nutrition activities for preschoolers
In addition to fitness and physical activities, try integrating easy hands-on nutrition activities into your preschool program. Here are some nutrition activities for preschoolers to get you started.
Healthy and unhealthy foods sorting
Provide food flashcards to children and help them sort the different foods based on your discussions about what is healthy and unhealthy. Have the children place the cards under the proper category on a prepared poster board and glue the pictures in place.
This citrus stamping activity will allow preschoolers’ to exercise their creativity and practice hand and eye coordination as they learn about different citrus fruits. Grab citrus fruits, such as lemons or oranges, paint, paper plates, and paper. Cut the fruit into halves, pour different paint colors onto the paper plates, and help the children dip the halves into the paint and stamp them on the paper.
Vegetable garden sensory bin
A sensory bin is a great activity to teach children about vegetables. You’ll need a plastic container or tub, dried beans, vegetable toys, and spoons, cups, or funnels for the children to manipulate. Fill the container with dried beans and add the vegetable toys. Then, allow the children to touch and explore the items in the bin and discuss what they are and how they feel.
Vegetable and fruit stand
This activity will introduce preschoolers to different fruits and vegetables. Create a makeshift stand in your classroom and stock it with different fruits and vegetables (real or toy), and have the children take turns pretending to shop for the fruits and veggies.
Food group sorting activity
Explain the different food groups to your children and use food flashcards for a sorting activity. Help the children place the food into the proper food group and reinforce how eating food from each group helps them to grow healthy and strong.
Fruit-themed I spy game
A fruit-themed I spy game sheet activity can help children practice essential skills as they learn about different types of fruit. Children can improve their visual discrimination skills as they search for the same types of fruit on the sheet and practice their counting skills as they count the totals.
Books about nutrition
Books about nutrition can help you teach and reinforce the importance of eating healthy foods. These books not only teach children why they should eat nutritious foods but also how to do it. These books can also help instill a positive attitude toward nutrition and healthy eating at a young age, paving the way for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Nutrition activities for preschoolers
Make learning about nutrition simple and encourage children to explore new foods. Continue to make your nutrition lessons and activities a staple at your center to help children form healthy habits that can last a lifetime.