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Inside: What do three year olds eat? Here’s an easy guide that shows you what foods three-year-olds need to eat to grow and thrive. You’ll leave with a good understanding of what to feed your toddler!
When my first son turned 3, I also had a 1-year-old coming up behind him. I was all toddler-focused and sleep-deprived, but I was doing my best to provide balanced meals (between bowls of o’s).
It may feel overwhelming to feed a three-year-old, after all, maybe they have real opinions about what they have on their plate and whether they will eat it. Maybe it seems like your threenager/toddler, isn’t eating. I want to help you know what to serve your child so that you can feel confident that you are giving them choices that will help them grow and thrive.
How Three Year Olds Eat
Three-year-olds are amazing. They are playing, learning, and interested in copying so much of what you do. They may have strong opinions about what they will and won’t eat, and that’s actually okay.
They are also increasingly interested in using utensils and learning how they work (even if they still choose to primarily eat with their hands). This helps kids stay interested in meals. You might find adding new utensils to a meal may increase their interest in eating foods.
If your three-year-old is unreliable in their eating, congratulations! They are normal. One day they may eat a lot, one day they may eat a whole pizza. It can be hard to figure out how much to make for dinner, but this is a good sign that your child is listening to how much their body needs to eat.
By now your child needs to be eating table food, meaning, food that the family is eating. Foods like purees, puffs, or “baby foods” should be behind them unless your child has a specific need for these foods. If your child is still unable to eat solid food or eat a variety of textures, it may be time to learn more about help for families with picky eaters.
If you’ve noticed that your three-year-old is becoming increasingly picky, that can be common. Often picky eating emerges in toddlerhood.
What Balanced Meals do Three Year Olds Need to be Served
Preschoolers and toddlers (sometimes three-year-olds are both, right?) often display love for some foods and hatred toward others. Preschoolers still have small stomachs though. They need balanced options in a feeding schedule or routine to get the nutrients they need and keep them from asking for snacks every 10 minutes.
Here is the magic meal and snack formula that makes it easier to feed your preschooler through all the preschooler issues that you face:
Protein food + fat source + fruit and/or veggie + energy food = balanced meal and snack
Let’s get into each of these so you know which foods are in which categories.
Protein foods that your three-year-old can eat (when cooked soft)
Protein comes in more than just meat. There are lots of protein foods that your three-year-old can eat. Make sure they are cooked soft and diced, or served in safe ways.
- Peanut butter or nut/seed butters (spread on a cracker or bread, or mixed into something)
- Ground up nuts or seeds mixed into other foods like yogurt or applesauce
- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt
Serve a protein food at every meal and snack. This trick and having a toddler feeding schedule, can help toddlers not ask for snacks every 10 minutes!
Fat sources for your three-year-old
Preschoolers need fat for their brain development. They also need fat for energy, to keep them going throughout the day. We can serve foods that already have fat in them like meat or dairy, or we can add fat to our cooking and serving. Here are some great sources of fat for three-year-olds.
- Coconut oil
- Avocado oil
- Full-fat dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt
- Nut and seed butters (spread on crackers or bread, or mixed into other foods)
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines)
Fruits and veggies for three-year-olds
Your three-year-old can eat any fruits and veggies that you serve with your own meals and snacks, as long as they are prepped in a safe way. The more variety they see, the more likely they will be to try new foods and keep eating a larger variety of foods. The more often your preschooler sees fruits and veggies, the better. Serving a green and an orange veggie daily helps them get enough vitamin A and other important vitamins and minerals.
Here’s a short list of green and orange veggies to focus on:
- Cooked greens
- Carrots (served cooked soft, shredded, or in thin matchsticks)
- Sweet potatoes
Other fruits and veggies like bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, and kiwi fruit help your child get the vitamin C they need to absorb iron into their body.
If you can, add some color to every snack. That means adding a fruit and/or veggie whenever you serve food. Adding color helps them get the nutrients they need and helps keep them familiar with veggies and fruits.
Energy foods for three-year-olds
Three-year-olds are busy! That’s why we need to provide plenty of energy foods like whole grains, starchy veggies, and fruit. It’s easy to find yourself in a constant cracker and granola bar cycle with preschoolers. I’m not down on granola bars, but we can’t stop serving a variety of foods, just because our preschoolers are in love with a specific packaged snack. In addition to some packaged snacks, see how many other energy foods you can include in your child’s diet this week.
- Energy foods:
- White potatoes
- Oats (cooked)
- Sweet potatoes
- Dried fruit that has been cut into small pieces, cooked and softened, or cooked into things
- Homemade muffins
Free Child Feeding Guide: From Stress to Success: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind
Prevent choking when deciding what to serve your three-year-old
Even three-year-olds are still at a higher risk for choking, so we need to modify.
Here are some common choking hazards for kids under 4:
- Raw veggies
- Whole grapes and cherry tomatoes
- Whole nuts and seeds
- Tough meat
- Chunks of nut butters
- Hot dogs and sausages
- Chunks of cheese
- Hard candy, chewy candy
To prevent choking:
- Modify – soften or dice
- Sit – make sure your child is sitting in a chair while eating
- Avoid some foods that cannot be modified
- Be prepared if something does happen
What do three year olds eat?
Here is a sample menu for the foods that could be served to your three-year-old. I haven’t included portion sizes here, because it’s so important that your preschooler be allowed to choose what portion sizes are right for them. It’s their job to decide how much to eat!
Start with small portions, about 2 Tablespoons of each type of food on their tray or plate. They will let you know if they want more of a specific type of food. If they don’t want to eat, don’t pressure them.
Sample menu for a three-year-old
Breakfast: peanut butter toast with sprinkles, banana, and milk
Morning Snack: full-fat yogurt, thinly sliced apples
Lunch: tuna sandwich, fruit, and matchstick carrots
Afternoon Snack: hummus, crackers, and thinly sliced veggies
Dinner: spaghetti and meatballs with broccoli and salad
Feeding My Three-Year-Old is Really Hard for Me
Actually figuring out what to feed your three-year-old is only the half of it. Feeding preschoolers can be confusing, tricky, and defeating.
If you’re struggling with your child because they won’t eat any of these foods, you may have a three-year-old picky eater. Here are a few places where you can find help for your specific issue, whether you consider your three-year-old a toddler or a preschooler, all of these articles will help!
- Getting your toddler to eat: the 1 most important thing you can do
- Everything you need to do if your toddler is not eating
- The eating routine that will end your food battles
If you need more help, here’s help for a few commonly asked questions:
- My toddler is throwing food!
- My toddler is not eating dinner
- My toddler is refusing to eat anything but milk
If you’re looking for a guide that lays it all out in one place, you may enjoy my free child feeding guide: From Stress to Success: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind.