Oregon Department of Education
Nutrition Menu  

Healthy Eating Behaviors

Children and Portion Sizes

According to a study published in the May 2003 American journal of Clinical Nutrition, preschool children generally took bigger bites and consumed 25% more food when served super-sized portions of a macaroni and cheese entrée. Their overall calorie intake was 15% higher. When they were offered smaller portions, they ate less.

Oregon State University Extension Service, Nutrition and Health a la Carte 10/03

Encourage Healthy Eating

Serve appropriate portions of food at meal and snack times. Serving over-large portions encourages overeating and may lead to undesirable weight gain. Making healthy foods available encourages children to try them. A designated area for meals and snacks along with a fairly consistent meal schedule helps children form healthy habits and discourages snacking in front of the TV or computer.

Children should not be overly restricted in the foods they consume. Remember, the goal is to promote the development of healthy habits, not obsession with food or body weight. Severe diet restrictions should only be followed when advised by an appropriate health care professional. In addition, food should not be used for reward or punishment. Use group activities, stickers, or small trinkets as rewards.

Adapted from NFSMI Mealtime Memo For Child Care

Be A Role Model

Helping children develop a healthy lifestyle-including healthy eating and physical activity-begins at home but should be reinforced in the childcare setting. Caregivers can help children to be active and make smart food choices by modeling these behaviors themselves. Your role in promoting a healthy lifestyle can impact children-not just whiled they are growing up, but for the rest of their lives.

Adapted from NFSMI Mealtime Memo For Child Care

Mealtime Communication

You can make mealtimes even more special by encouraging communication with and between children. When you pay attention to children and encourage them to talk, you help children create a positive view of themselves and the world they live in. Mealtime can be an important time to encourage communication. Make it one of your goals to serve meals in a relaxed, social atmosphere. Children need adults to eat with them. When adults eat with children they can:

  • Serve as role models by their food choices,
  • Protect children from safety hazards such as choking and cross-contamination when sharing foods, and
  • Encourage conversation at mealtime.

Adapted from NFSMI Mealtime Memo For Child Care

How do infants and toddlers indicate hunger and fullness?

Being sensitive to hunger and fullness cues can help parents avoid over- or underfeeding infants and toddlers. Hungry infants often cry, move their arms and legs in an excited fashion, swipe at the spoon holding food, open the mouth, and move the head toward the spoon. They may also coo, smile, and gaze at the food-provider during feeding to signal a desire for feeding to continue. Infants who are no longer hungry may fall asleep, become fussy, slow the pace of eating, stop suckling, spit out or refuse the nipple or spoon, bat away the spoon or close the mouth when food approaches.

Toddlers may signal hunger by pointing, asking or reaching for food or beverages, and fullness by slowing the pace of eating, becoming distracted, playing with or throwing food, wanting to leave the chair or table, or refusing to eat.

Children's Nutrition Research Center, Nutrition and Your Child, Aug 2004

What foods present a choking risk for young children?

Toddlers delight in feeding themselves. However, parents and childcare providers need to be cautious with young children at the table.

Foods that are hard, round or difficult to chew can sometimes lodge in small airways, causing a child to choke. To be on the safe side, consider the following advice on finger foods for children less than 3 years of age:

  • Don't give hard, or difficult-to-chew-foods such as raw carrots and other crunchy vegetables, hard candy, lollipops, peanuts, and popcorn.
  • Modify the shape and texture of firm foods. Cut grapes into quarters; chop apples and firm fruits into very small pieces, and cook carrots and hard vegetables until soft, then cut into small pieces.

Keep an eye on small children when they are eating. Small children may eat in a hurry, stuff too much food in their mouths, or chew their food inadequately. To avoid accidents, children should not be allowed to run or play with food while chewing. Feed small children only when they are sitting down and are in a relaxed atmosphere. Train toddlers to chew their food thoroughly before swallowing.

Adapted from Children's Nutrition Research Center, Nutrition and Your Child, Vol. 1, 2003

Best Practices at Mealtimes

Childcare providers who are good role models make mealtime and snacktime positive, cheerful, unhurried events. Providers should sit with children during meal periods, eat the same foods the children do, offer choices and give children an opportunity to serve themselves. They should also engage the children in upbeat food-related conversations, make positive comments about nutrition and encourage, but not require, children to taste all foods. Providers who force children to "clean their plate" and use food as a reward, punishment or pacifier are less likely to help children develop healthy eating behaviors. Working parents who screen day-care centers for good food and nutrition practices can be confident their children are getting the nutrition they need and developing healthy eating habits that can help them avoid diet-related problems as they grow older.

Dr. Theresa Nicklas, research nutritionist at USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center
and professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX

Healthy Portion Sizes

Are we setting up our children for a lifetime of weight problems and unhealthy eating by serving them inappropriately large portion sizes? Maybe, according to recent research. When given large portions of lunch components that exceeded the USDA recommended serving sizes, 5- and 6-year olds ate more of all items than when they were served recommended portion sizes. 3 1/2 year old children ate similar amounts no matter what portion size they were offered. It appears that very young children eat the amount of food needed to satisfy their hunger, then stop. As they get older, children seem to start ignoring their internal hunger cues and eat according to other influences, such as the amount of food offered to them. Nutrition experts think that serving children larger than recommended portion sizes encourages them to eat more than is necessary and may be an important piece of the growing childhood obesity puzzle. CACFP portion sizes are based on the amount of food required for normal growth of children at different stages of development. Providers must always serve at least the minimum portion size of each meal pattern component. If a child is still hungry after finishing the first serving, offer additional food rather than serving very large portions initially.

Adapted from Health A to Z

For Preschoolers, Healthy Eating Is…

  • Being curious about new foods and ways of eating them
  • Examining the chicken sandwich before they eat it
  • Accepting toast only if it is cut in triangles
  • Trying only a bite of squash today - maybe more tomorrow
  • Drinking milk only if they can pour it into their own glass
  • Loving carrots on Tuesday, refusing them on Wednesday
  • Insisting the apple be whole, not in slices
  • Wanting a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day for a week
  • Gobbling up the cookies they helped to prepare when they are fresh from the oven
  • Preferring simple foods they can recognize
  • Drinking soup out of a mug, just like Mom's

Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, Focus on Preschoolers


For preschoolers, food variety promotes the positive and pleasurable aspects of eating by exploring a wide range of foods with different colors, flavors and textures. Preschoolers are eager to learn about the nature of food. From an early age most delight in exploring the textures and savoring the tastes of various foods. Even simple activities such as helping to cut open a pumpkin or make muffins are ways children learn about food. Preparing food gives young children a feeling of accomplishment. It also encourages them to eat these foods. Potatoes the preschooler has helped to mash or radishes she has picked from the garden are more appealing than those that just appear on the table.

Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, Focus on Preschoolers

Cultural Foods

Children eat according to the eating traditions of their family. These traditions are a valued aspect of their culture. Many foods we might eat occasionally, such as sweet potatoes, bok choy and buckwheat, are enjoyed regularly by different cultures. Different cultures also use common foods such as chicken and fish in recipes that show their cultural heritage. Learning to appreciate food as prepared and enjoyed by other cultures can add to the interest children already have in food and eating. For example, by offering a staple food such as bread in its many forms (pita, bannock, focaccia, bagels, chapattis, tortillas) and discussing the origins of the food, children can begin to appreciate the cultural diversity that food choices reflect.

Adapted from Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, Focus on Preschoolers

How to introduce new foods

Parents and caregivers can help preschoolers accept a wider selection of foods by:

  • Being role models. Children are more eager to eat foods that they see family and friends enjoying;
  • Presenting food in appealing ways by combining different colours, textures and shapes of food; offering small quantities of a new food alongside a familiar one, without pressure to eat the new food;
  • Serving a new food when children are with their peers;
  • Encouraging them to become familiar with different foods by helping to grow, buy, prepare or serve them;
  • Being patient. If an unfamiliar food is not accepted the first time, it can be offered again later. The more often children are exposed to new foods, the more likely they will taste them and learn to accept them;
  • Not using foods as rewards. For example, withholding a sweet dessert until all the vegetables are eaten may establish a preference for the dessert and a dislike for the vegetables;
  • Respecting individual food preferences. Every child has different likes and dislikes.

Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, Focus on Preschoolers

How much food is enough? Too much?

Many parents and caregivers are concerned about how much a child eats. For some, their concern is that the child is eating too little; for others, it is that the child is eating too much. Children know best how much they need. Parents and caregivers can help them meet their nutrient and energy needs by providing a variety of foods and by:

  • Respecting the child's ability to determine how much food to eat;
  • Offering portions suitable for the child (at least the minimum USDA portion sizes), with options for seconds, and allowing children to serve themselves when possible;
  • Setting regular meal and snack times - ones that work best for the children, families and child care;
  • Making time for healthy eating so that meals and snacks are not rushed;
  • Providing a comfortable setting for eating - one that is without distractions such as television, which can interfere with hunger and satiety cues;
  • Not pressuring the child to eat.

Adapted from Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, Focus on Preschoolers

Make Mealtime a Happy Time

  • Encourage social interaction. Teach children the social aspects of dining as well as how to feed themselves.
  • Provide a transition or quiet time just before meals so that mealtime can be relaxed.
  • Make sure the eating area is attractive an appealing for young children. Use bright colors and decorations that children like.
  • Avoid making children feel rushed. Allow children to take their own time to eat. Children who are feeling pressured may choose to quickly eat their favorite foods and ignore other, less favorite foods in the meal. They may learn to eat too rapidly, a habit that may lead to later overeating and obesity.

Adapted from NFSMI Mealtime Memo For Child Care

Toddler Feeding Challenges

Making mealtime as pleasant as possible for the toddler while providing supervision and encouragement is a constant challenge. Toddlers are learning to be independent and this is why they want to do things for themselves. In asserting their natural independence, toddlers may decide what foods they "will" and "will not" eat. Frequently those food likes and dislikes change daily or weekly. Regardless of this, childcare providers can help children form sound eating habits by offering nutritious food choices and modeling good eating habits. During mealtime, sit with toddlers and eat the same meal. Have a positive attitude toward foods. Discuss what the foods are, where they come from, colors, textures, tastes, and the differences and similarities of the foods you are eating.

Adapted from NFSMI Mealtime Memo For Child Care

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