When it comes to nutrition, Becky Preston of Sumner says she feels confident about the food choices she makes for her two preschoolers. "I try to stay informed and educated," Preston says. Seattle mom Debbie Levin, however, admits to being frustrated when grocery shopping with her 5-year-old daughter Emily. The cartoon-character cereals and snacks all seem to be at kid-level, making it hard to get through the store in peace.

"I fall back on fruit snacks since they seem pretty good for you. But sometimes I don't know what the best alternatives are," Levin says.

Crackers, juice, fruit snacks and other processed foods have long been staples of the preschooler diet, but are they the best choice for your young child? The key, many dieticians and nutritionists say, is the "nutrient density" of foods you choose.

Nutrient-dense foods contain the greatest amount of nutrients relative to their calories, and are "a great way to get high quality foods in your diet," says Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Think fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy foods, less-fatty meats and fish. In contrast, foods such as fruit snacks and soda have calories but few or no nutrients.

Kennedy offers this example: An apple and a bag of pretzels have roughly the same number of calories. If only calories mattered, you might choose one based on taste or convenience. But by considering nutrient density, the apple wins because your kids get the bonus of fiber and vitamin C.

Why use nutrient density to help guide children's food choices? First, nutrient-dense foods help kids consume the nutrients they need without consuming too many calories. Choosing nutrient-dense foods also helps to limit the extra fat and sugar found in many processed foods. For instance, fresh fruits are naturally nutrient-dense but fruits canned in sugary syrup lose value because the added sugar has calories but no nutrients. Finally, when eating nutrient-dense foods as the foundation of their diet, your children will have room for those yummy discretionary calories. You can feel better about that bowl of ice cream after dinner if your child ate several servings of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains instead of french fries, juice and crackers.

Nutrient density also has a way of leveling the playing field for foods that have an undeserved bad reputation. You might be tempted to limit or exclude high-fat foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados. But when you consider the nutrients and beneficial fats found in these foods, they suddenly become well worth the calories.

Although nutrient density is a great reason to choose foods, determining which foods are nutrient-dense is complex. Help might be on the way. In an effort to improve consumer understanding, the USDA is partnering with several organizations and businesses, including Tufts, Safeway and the Hispanic Communications Network, to educate the public about nutrient density and how to increase the nutrient quality of our diets.

Meanwhile, here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Choose less-processed or unprocessed foods. Processing often lowers nutrient density by taking out nutrients or adding calories. A slice of 100-percent whole-wheat bread can provide an additional 2 grams of fiber compared to white bread. Fresh apples beat sweetened cups of applesauce. Packaged snack bars often have lots of added sugar and calories. Homemade trail mix with whole-grain cereal, nuts and dried fruit is a better option.
  • Be extra watchful of "habit foods." Preschooler favorites like milk, cereal, fruit and nut butters can be very nutrient-dense. Other foods, such as juice, chips, crackers and pretzels, don't rate as well. Plus, their convenience and taste can create habits where eating several servings a day is commonplace. Two servings of snack crackers a day can provide one-fifth of the total calories needed by a 5-year-old. More nutrient-dense snack options are fresh fruits and veggies, edamame (boiled soybeans), nuts, whole-grain cereal, hard-boiled eggs or low-fat cottage cheese.
  • Tip the scales toward the nutrient-dense part of the meal. Make a healthier cheese quesadilla by replacing some of the cheese with low-fat refried beans and adding sliced tomatoes. Offer water instead of juice. Add blueberries to the pancakes. Even treats can play a part. Choose oatmeal cookies over brownies.

Kati Chevaux is a Seattle-based nutritionist and freelance writer with two young sons.

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