Nutrition in Every Theme: Getting Started

This guide includes general nutrition, cooking, and safety tips. Having children try many foods and modeling your love of healthful eating will guide young children toward healthful eating habits.
Nutrition in Every Theme: Getting Started - Articles


A Message to Those Who Care for Children

The Nutrition in Every Theme activity booklets can help you fit nutrition ideas into your weekly units or child care day. Along with storybooks and activities to share with your preschoolers, try making simple food recipes, or do taste-testing to slip nutrition into popular themes.

Getting Started includes general nutrition, cooking, and safety tips. Having children try many foods, modeling your love of healthful eating, and reminding families of good nutrition will guide young children towards healthful eating habits for life. Food and nutrition activities can boost literacy, science, math, social studies, small motor skills, and social skill building.

Have fun with nutrition and food activities every day, in every theme.

Jill Patterson, Ph.D., Department of Nutritional Sciences, Penn State

Activity Booklet Components

Each activity booklet has one theme and is filled with nutrition ideas for all parts of the day.

  • Storybook List—The storybooks listed are a great way to start a unit. The books focus on both the theme and the nutrition message that goes with it.
  • Circle Time—Ideas and tips will enrich your circle time with food and nutrition messages.
  • Activity Page—All kinds of activities will make food and nutrition fun for young children.
  • Recipe Sequence Foldout—Pictures will guide children and teachers through simple, yet tasty, snack time recipes.
  • Family Nutrition News—This page can be copied to share with families. It offers sound nutrition and feeding advice to parents or guardians.

File activity booklets with the rest of your theme materials so you will be sure to include nutrition throughout the year.

Kids Can Cook

All activity booklets have recipe ideas or recipe sequence foldouts. Even young children can help in preparing a snack or meal.

Why Cook with Kids?

Preparing food with young children has many benefits. They have fun and learn, too.

  1. They measure and count.
  2. They see, feel, smell, touch, and hear like a scientist.
  3. Trying foods from many cultures helps children learn about others.
  4. Reading is developed as children point out pictures and words on recipe pages.
  5. Children begin to link nutrition and health as you talk with them during food activities and meals.
  6. “I made it myself” can motivate children to try a new food.

Get Ready for Food Activities

What Adults Can Do

  • Be organized. Have food items arranged and ready to make the recipe.
  • Be specific. Explain what is going to happen before the activity begins.
  • Be patient. Children are likely to spill and make messes.
  • Choose recipes. Pick simple recipes that children can make. Each booklet has a recipe along with other food ideas. These sequences are easy for children to follow and tasty, too!
  • Involve parents. The more hands helping out the better.

What Children Can Do

  • Start by washing hands.
    Make sure children use warm soapy water and wash for 20–30 seconds before rinsing.
  • Help prepare food.
    Children can wash, sort, and cut foods with a butter knife.
  • Keep it simple.
    Children can do simple tasks like:
    -- Mixing
    -- Kneading dough
    -- Measuring
    -- Opening packages
  • Set the table.
  • Clean up. Even young children can bring cups and dishes to the sink, wipe the table, or bring garbage to the can.

There are so many different tasks with food activities that every child, no matter what her age or skill level, can feel successful.

“Cooking and food preparation in the early childhood years can seem time consuming and overwhelming for some adults. However, the extra time and energy spent to set up such activities is well worth the effort. I have found it to be an invaluable time for learning with so many benefits, even with 3-year-olds. The more food activities I try, the easier it becomes to set up and manage. One note of caution: Children are going to be asking for a tasting or cooking activity everyday!”
— Carol Lebold, preschool teacher, State College, Pa.

Keeping Food Safe to Eat

Food safety is a must when children are around food.

Hand Washing

Hand washing is the first step in practicing good food safety. Make sure that young children are aware that they must have clean hands before touching food. To show children how to wash their hands the right way, do this fun activity.
What you need:

  • Petroleum jelly, baby oil, or cooking oil
  • Cinnamon
  • Soap and water
  • White paper towels

Have children rub a small amount of petroleum jelly or oil on their hands and then sprinkle their hands with cinnamon. Explain that cinnamon is “pretend germs” that get on hands when they play, sneeze, or use the bathroom. They need to get rid of these germs before they touch or eat food.

First, have children wash their hands with cool water. When they dry their hands on a white paper towel they should find that the cinnamon “germs” did not all go away. Now wash their hands with soap and warm water.

Children should wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing the ABCs (20 – 30 seconds). Dry hands with a white paper towel and look for “germs.” Discuss what happened. Explain that germs are so tiny that you cannot see them, but germs can be washed away just like the cinnamon. Germs can make you or your friends sick (with a cold or stomach ache) so you don’t want to get germs in your mouth.

Food Safety Rules

Four basic rules you should always follow to keep food activities safe:

  1. Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate – Don’t cross-contaminate. For example, never use a knife or cutting board to cut raw meat then to cut fruits or vegetables.
  3. Cook – Always cook foods to proper temperatures and make sure they are cooked all the way through.
  4. Chill – Refrigerate leftover foods promptly. Keep cold foods cold and refrigerate hot foods after serving.

Follow the “no licking the spoon” rule. Do not let children lick spoons or fingers from batter containing raw eggs because of risk of eating harmful bacteria. Use powdered egg or egg substitute if children are too young to follow this rule.

The web site from the Partnership for Food Safety Education is part of a national campaign to fight bacteria.

Taste–Testing with Children

Helpful Hints

A good way to increase the variety of foods that young children eat is to involve them in tasting new foods.

Here are some general reminders:

  • Check children’s records for food allergies and avoid these foods.
  • Always start by having children wash their hands.
  • Allow enough time so that taste-testing is not hurried.
  • Cut food into bite–size pieces and let children serve themselves.
  • Taste along with children to be a positive role model.
  • Let children know in advance what kind of behavior you expect. They should be allowed to say “no thank you” but not “yuck.”
  • Place children who are more open to trying new foods next to more reluctant tasters.
  • Praise children for tasting a food and do not make a fuss if they will not try it.

Make food and health a part of everyday conversation.

Children can begin learning about nutrition and health by hearing new words. Mealtime is a great time to sneak in some nutrition wisdom. Here are examples:

  • “This bread has vitamins in it which help us grow and stay healthy. They are called B vitamins.”
  • “Vegetables and fruits have lots of vitamins which keep our blood and muscles healthy. Also the skins of fruits and veggies are fiber, and fiber helps us poop.”
  • “Meat, beans, and eggs have protein to help our muscles grow. But we also have to exercise to keep our bones and muscles strong and healthy.”
  • “Milk has calcium to help our bones grow and stay hard.”

Combine Taste–Testing with Charting

  • Tasting with 3–6-year-olds: Offer three or four items to taste. Pass around the first sample and let children touch, smell, and look at their pieces until everyone is ready to taste. Then have everyone taste the food together by chewing and swallowing. Now, talk about the food, how it tasted, and how it felt in the mouth. Focus on the tasting process and on finding words to describe what foods taste like.
  • Charting with older preschoolers: When all items have been tasted, graph the group’s favorites on a chart. Label the top row with the foods. Then give each child a paper name tag (Post-it notes work well, too). Children take turns placing their names under the food item they like best. Discuss the completed graph.

Tips for Feeding Young Children

Whether you are a parent or child care professional, keep mealtime low key and enjoyable for everyone while helping children develop healthful eating habits for life.

Ideas to Make Mealtime Pleasant

  • Be sure young children are seated and comfortable at the table. Provide child-size forks and spoons and adjust a child’s seating as necessary.
  • Prior to mealtime, let children know what behaviors are expected and be consistent in encouraging good behaviors. Don’t set the bar too high—each child will develop skills at his/her own pace. A good rule is no TV at mealtimes.
  • Avoid power struggles. Encourage children to taste the foods offered, but do not force or bribe them to eat.
  • Discourage dawdling by taking plates away after 20 to 30 minutes with the comment, “Eating time is over for now.” On the other hand, don’t hurry meals. Three- to five-year-olds should be able to sit at a table for 20 minutes. Meals and snacks nourish children but are also important as social times.
  • Let children help with cooking, setup, and cleanup. Being a part of the “kitchen team” can promote positive attitudes toward food and eating. For example, a three-year-old might help set the table with napkins and utensils and a five-year-old might scrub the potatoes.

Encourage Children to Eat a Variety of Healthy Foods

  • Sit with children and eat the same foods they do. Research shows that positive adult companionship at meals and snacks improves young children’s eating habits.
  • Encourage, but do not make children taste every food. It may take many times before a child tries a food and learns to like it. Forcing a child to eat may cause the child to dislike the food even more.
  • Avoid bribing children with dessert or other rewards to get them to eat a particular food such as vegetables. Bribing results in them liking dessert even more and vegetables even less.

Let Children Judge Their Own Hunger and Fullness

  • Allow children to serve themselves whenever possible. Encourage small “first portions,” reassuring children that they can have “seconds” if they are still hungry and there is food left.
  • Let children judge their own fullness. It’s okay to eat very little at one meal and a lot at another. Researchers are finding that the clean-your-plate rule can lead to children ignoring their internal signals to stop eating when they are full. Also, do not comment or praise on how much or how little a child is eating.

Develop Healthy Food Relationships with Children

Most health and nutrition experts agree on the following suggestions.

Adults who care for young children should

  • Provide meals and snacks at regular intervals
  • Provide a variety of healthy choices
  • Eat with children and model healthy habits and polite manners
  • Let children eat as much or as little as they want of foods offered
  • Encourage; don’t bribe or bargain
  • Repeatedly offer previously rejected foods
  • Accept that a child may not like some foods
  • Remain calm at mealtimes

Young children should learn to

  • Respond to their hunger and fullness signals
  • Grow to eat independently and without fuss
  • Sit without disturbing others at the table
  • Pick and choose form foods offered
  • Eventually taste a variety of foods
  • Refuse food politely

Resources in that area include books by Ellyn Satter, USDA publications, Penn State Extension publications, and Guide to Your Child’s Nutrition (1999, American Academy of Pediatrics).

What you say really matters!

Conversation at the table gives children a variety of messages. What adults say at the table is powerful. Comments have short-term consequences for helping children have a successful or disappointing meal. In time, comments accumulate to give children messages about how much control they have over hunger and satisfaction. Think about how you may influence children’s mealtime experiences. Listen to what is said at the table and decide if it is a phrase that helps or a phrase that hinders the child’s choices at the table.

Phrases that help

  • Yes, these radishes are crunchy.
  • Do you like that?
  • Is your stomach telling you that you’re full?
  • Use your napkin.
  • Move the serving bowl closer to your plate.

Phrases that hinder

  • Eat that for me
  • You’re such a big girl; you finished all your peas.
  • See, that didn’t taste so bad, did it?
  • You have to take one more bite before you leave the table.
  • Carli, look at Maria. She ate all of her bananas.

From Feeding young children in group settings, University of Idaho. Copied with permission.

Food Allergies

The most common food allergies in young children are to cow’s milk, eggs, and peanuts. Ask family members about any food allergies their child may have. Here are some basic facts that can help in understanding food allergies. Advise families to consult a medical doctor for accurate diagnosis and treatment of a food allergy.

Cow’s Milk

If a child is allergic to cow’s milk, avoid the foods and ingredients listed below:

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Calcium caseinate
  • Casein
  • Sodium caseinate

Foods to avoid:

  • Margarine
  • Chocolate
  • Milk Solids
  • Powdered Milk
  • Sherbet (made with milk)

Seek a dietitian’s advice for alternate sources of calcium and vitamin D.


Peanut allergies can range from minor symptoms, like itchy skin and rashes, to more severe reactions, like asthma attacks or shortness of breath and wheezing. The best treatment is to avoid all peanut products. Read the food labels on every food you are considering for an allergic child. Many doctors suggest that any adult caring for a child with a peanut allergy should have on hand an injectable form of epinephrine (called an epi–pen) and know how to use it. For those with a peanut allergy there are many foods to avoid. In truth, there are too many to name. Avoid anything that says “peanut.”


Children who are allergic to eggs should eat neither egg yolks nor egg whites. Read food labels carefully for eggs or ingredients that come from eggs.

The following are ingredients to avoid for an egg allergy:

  • Albumin
  • Globulin
  • Ovomucin
  • Vitellin

Choking—Always watch children during meals and snacks

To minimize the choking hazards for children younger than four years old, do the following:

  • Finely chop seeds and nuts.
  • Cut grapes in small pieces.
  • Slice hot dogs in quarters lengthwise; into thin strips.
  • Shred or thinly slice hard, raw vegetables such as celery and carrots.
  • Remove pits from cherries, plums, peaches, and other fruits.
  • Spread peanut butter thinly; never serve it directly off the spoon.
  • Avoid giving young children popcorn, pretzels, chips, hard candies, and marshmallows.
  • Slice or cut large pieces of fruit, including orange sections, into smaller pieces.

Eat the Pyramid Way

MyPyramid Eating Tips

  • Make half your grains whole.
    Choose whole-grain foods, such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, and lowfat popcorn, more often.
  • Vary your veggies.
    Go dark green and orange with your vegetables – eat spinach, broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
  • Focus on fruits.
    Eat them at meals, and at snack time, too. Choose fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, and go easy on the fruit juice.
  • Get your calcium-rich foods.
    To build strong bones serve lowfat and fat-free milk and other milk products several times a day.
  • Go lean with protein.
    Eat lean or lowfat meat, chicken, turkey, and fish. Also, change your tune with more dry beans and peas. Add chick peas, nuts, or seeds to a salad; pinto beans to a burrito; or kidney beans to soup.
  • Change your oil.
    We all need oil. Get yours from fish, nuts and liquid oils such as corn, soybean, canola, and olive oil.
  • Don’t sugarcoat it.
    Choose foods and beverages that do not have sugar and caloric sweeteners as one of the first ingredients. Added sugars contribute calories with few, if any, nutrients.

Source: USDA MyPyramid for Kids Tips for Families

How Much Do Young Children Need to Eat?

Amounts vary depending on the age and activity level of a child. Each day, offer young children three meals and two to four snacks. Since their stomachs are small, they need to eat more often. Use the table below to plan meals and snacks for children three to five years old. It outlines goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid. A range of amounts is listed since younger children may eat less than older children; very active children may eat more than less active children. Offer young children small portions, especially of new foods or previously rejected foods. They can always ask for more, if there is extra. Go to MyPyramid for more details.

MyPyramid for Three- to Five-Year Olds

Food GroupRecommended DailyHow to Meet the Recommendations
GrainsA total of 3 to 5 ounce equivalents each day divided into small portions. 1 ounce equivalent = 1 slice of breadOffer small portions of grains at most meals and snacks. Examples of a small portion: ½ piece of toast at breakfast; a few crackers at snack. The following may be substituted for 1 slice of bread (1 ounce): ½ cup spaghetti, macaroni, noodles, corn grits, or rice; 5 small crackers; ½ English muffin or bagel; 1 small tortilla; or 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal. Offer whole grains for at least half of the grain portions
VegetablesA total of 1 to 1½ cups each day divided into small portionsOffer small portions of vegetables at meals and snacks. Examples: ¼ cup cooked carrot slices at lunch; some raw broccoli with dip for snacks. Aim to include at least one dark-green vegetable such as broccoli, spinach, or a dark-green, leafy vegetable every day. Include orange, red, or deep-yellow vegetables such as carrots, winter squash, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes several days a week. Cooked dry beans such as pinto or chickpeas are also good choices.
FruitsA total of 1 to 1½ cups each day divided into small portionsOffer small portions of fruit at meals and snacks. Examples: a few pear slices for lunch; a handful of grapes (cut in half) at snack. Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruits all count toward meeting fruit goals. Fruits canned in juice or water do not have added sugar and are better choices than those in heavy syrup. Limit fruit juice to about ½ cup of 100 percent fruit juice each day. Offer water if your child is thirsty between meals.
Milk, Yogurt, Cheese2 cups each day divided into small portionsOffer milk-based foods at meals and snacks each day. Examples: ½ cup milk with each meal; yogurt or cheese at snack. The following may be substituted for ½ cup milk: ¾ to 1 oz. cheese (1 slice), ½ cup yogurt. Offer young children milk or a dairy food at every meal. Most milk group choices should be low-fat or fat-free for children over 2 years of age.
Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and NutsA total of 2 to 4 ounce equivalents each day divided into small portionsOffer small portions of protein-rich foods at meals and snacks each day. Examples: 1 egg at breakfast; 2 slices of turkey at lunch; a half of lean hamburger at dinner. The following may be substituted for 1 ounce of lean meat, fish, or poultry: 1 egg, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, or ¼ cup cooked dry beans.
Be careful of choking hazards with peanut butter and nuts. Talk to your health care provider if your child has a nut allergy.
OilsA total of 3 to 4 teaspoons each dayOils in foods and as part of meals and snacks are important for growing children. Oils include fats from many different plants that are liquid at room temperature, such as canola, corn, olive, soybean, and sunflower oil, and from fish. Some foods are naturally high in oils, like nuts, seeds, and olives. Foods that are mainly oil include mayonnaise, oil-based salad dressings, and soft margarine.

Prepared by Jill Patterson, assistant professor of nutrition, Kathy Gorman and Carol Lebold, project specialists, and Julie Haines, assistant coordinator, Nutrition Links Program