Nutrition for children is based on the same core principles as nutrition for adults. The key to proper nutrition is a healthy and appropriate balance of diet and exercise, as well as, a conducive lifestyle.
The five main food groups include grains, dairy, protein, vegetables, and fruit, and are generally a good starting point for any child’s diet. The portions of each respective food group will depend heavily on age, genetic makeup, and physical activity. It is important to understand each food group to develop a well-balanced and nutritious diet for your child.
Grains can be split into two categories: whole and refined grains. Whole grains are more nutritious because they involve products using the entire grain kernel. Whole grain products include oatmeal, whole-wheat flour, and brown rice. Refined grains have been milled and processed, generally, many times to improve shelf life and texture. In the process of refining grains, many valuable nutritional benefits are lost and, therefore, whole grains tend to be a better option. Some examples of refined grains include cereal, tortillas, white bread, and white rice.
Any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice belongs to the vegetable group. Vegetables can be raw, cooked, dehydrated, canned, whole, juiced, or mashed and are separated into 5 subcategories including dark-green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables. The portion size of each will depend on which subcategory it belongs to considering that some vegetables are denser and nutrient packed than others. Vegetables can be also categorized into further subcategories including organic, non-organic, and non-gmo.
Any fresh fruit or 100% fruit juice belongs to the fruit category. Fruit can be canned, frozen, dried, pureed, or juiced. Due to the high sugar content of fruit, it is advisable to construct a dietary balance based on age, activity levels, time of day, and gender. Much like vegetables, fresh fruit can be further categorized into organic, non-organic, and non-gmo.
4. Protein & Dairy
The protein food group is made up of foods that are primarily protein sources such as meat, poultry, beans, peas, eggs, seafood, and nuts. It is advisable that meat and poultry sources within your child’s diet be lean and low fat. All fluid milk products and products made primarily from milk belong to the dairy food group. Dairy products include items such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. In recent years, dairy has been a controversial member of the food group and as such, many nutritionally comparable dairy alternatives have been provided with greater nutritional value. As such, this group also contains fortified dairy-alternative products such as soy, almond, and cashew milk and nut cheeses.
Based on the age and unique genetic makeup of your child, their diet and lifestyle may look different and have emphasis on certain nutritional guidelines during one age range and many different guidelines during another.
Good Nutrition for Toddlers
Toddlers, ages 1-3, can be a particularly challenging age range when it comes to feeding a nutritional diet. During this time frame, many developmental changes take place that directly affect their intake of food or supplements. Toddlers are in a phase where growth and development slow down substantially, affecting hunger and diet. In addition to decreased appetite, toddlers are at an age where they are exploring independence and control. This can result in battles over specific foods, meal times, and quantities.
Depending on their specific age, activity levels, and gender, it is suggested that toddlers have around 3-5 ounces of grains per day. One ounce roughly translates to 1 piece of bread, ½ cup of rice or oatmeal, or one small (4 inch) pancake. In terms of vegetables, toddlers should be having between 1-2 cups of vegetables per day from each of the 5 subcategories. Considering some toddlers are just starting to adopt table foods, it is advisable to offer soft and cooked vegetables cut into very small pieces. This not only helps toddlers chew and swallow vegetables but also reduces any choking hazards. Toddlers should also be consuming 1 cup of fruit per day. This could breakdown into ½ of a banana for breakfast, ½ of an apple for a snack, 8 sliced grapes, ½ cup cooked broccoli, and ½ cup peas and carrots. It is important to introduce variety within the five food groups to gain the full spectrum of nutritional benefits. In general, most toddlers should be having around 13 grams of protein per day.
A general rule of thumb that can be helpful when determining how much protein your child should be having per day is to base it on their weight. Protein recommended dietary allowances, or RDA’s, are determined using the guide of .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Therefore, a 2-year-old who weighs 30 pounds would need around 15 grams of protein per day. This could translate to ½ an egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or ¼ cup of beans. Calcium fortified juices, milks, and cheeses should be consumed by toddlers in much smaller amounts such as 1 cup of milk or 2 ounces of cheese per day.
How Can Nutrition Affect Young Children?
A proper nutritional diet and healthy lifestyle can affect young children throughout the rest of their lives. During early development, children are highly impressionable and start to implement routines and tools that they carry with them into adulthood. Aside from habits and routines created, children who do not obtain proper nutrients as they develop, can suffer from physical ailments as well. Some of the most common issues for malnourished children include obesity, osteoporosis, decreased muscle mass, changes in hair volume and texture, fatigue, irritability, and type 2 diabetes. Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic affecting children at an alarming rate in the United States. Obesity refers to having excess body fat within the 95th percentile of their respective BMI, that is, Body Mass Index.
Children who do not have a well-balanced diet and consume high amounts of fat, sugar, and processed carbohydrates are at risk of obesity. Obesity can lead to several health problems that can affect children for the rest of their lives including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol and emotional problems. Young children are highly impressionable and can be subject to body shame and emotional issues linked to the food they consume. When children consume sugary, processed, and high-fat foods, it takes a toll on their digestive system and gut flora. Lack of calcium absorption can lead to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a degenerative bone disease that results in porous, weak, and brittle bones.
The choices that children and parents make early on regarding nutrition and lifestyle can affect children for the rest of their lives. As most people reach their peak bone mass at age 20, it is important to build muscle and bone mass during the early stages of childhood. Children who are overweight tend to have fatigue and irritability that can lead to depression. Additionally, overweight children may have difficulty with physical activity and often cannot participate in physical activities alongside their peers. This can cause emotional isolation and can set the groundwork for poor social interactions and low self-esteem. More than just counting calories, a well-balanced and healthy nutritional diet is of paramount importance in developing children.
The Benefits of Healthy Eating
As children grow and develop, they need important nutrients to be strong and healthy. Some of the benefits of healthy eating include:
- Stable energy
- Strong bones and teeth
- Improved mental health: Makes us think clearly and be more alert
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Preventing chronic diseases
How to Create Healthy Mealtimes
As a parent, I know that mealtimes can sometimes seem daunting because of busy schedules and having the necessary resources. Creating and maintaining a stable routine in your diet will help you, and it will help your child look forward to mealtime. Here are ways to help create healthy mealtimes.
- Plan weekly meals together, so you can talk about healthy food options.
- Take your child to the grocery store so they can see healthy options and talk about them. Have them pick produce from each different nutrient to consume throughout the week.
- Read the labels for nutritious facts together.
- Cook meals together to show them that what they are eating matters.
- Challenge your child to fill their plate with as many different colors as they can – eat the rainbow! Need ways to incorporate vegetables?
- Make a contest by having your child try a new produce they have never tried before. Maybe they will end up loving it!
- Sometimes the battle is making sure your child is consuming the foods they need to reap the health benefits that these foods provide. Show them the value of eating balanced diets using the chart below. Teach your child the importance of each nutrient and in which foods it can be found. Many times, children do not want to eat something, but when it has a benefit or “superpower” that they can understand, they may be more willing to try.
|Nutrient||Health Benefit||Found In|
|Vitamin A||Healthy eyes and skin; protects from infection||Apricots, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Grapefruit, Greens, Leaf and Romaine Lettuce, Mangos, Spinach, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes, Watermelon|
|Vitamin C||Healthy teeth and gums; helps heal cuts and wounds||Bell Peppers, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Grapefruit, Oranges, Pineapple, Strawberries, Tomatoes|
|Calcium||Healthy teeth and bones||Greens, Kale, Okra, Rhubarb, Spinach|
|Fiber||Healthy digestive system; Reduced risk of heart disease||Apples, Bananas, Beans, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Lentils, Peaches, Pears, Raspberries, Spinach|
|Folate||Wound healing; normal cell division||Asparagus, Broccoli, Peas, Beans, Greens, Spinach, Strawberries|
|Iron||Healthy blood; learning ability||Beans, Lentils, Spinach|
|Magnesium||Healthy bones||Beans, Spinach|
|Potassium||Healthy blood pressure||Bananas, Beans, Broccoli, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes|
What nutrients do children need?
An easy way to ensure that children get the nutrients they need is by choosing healthy foods for them to eat.
Choose lean protein from sources such as poultry, beans, seafood, nuts and seeds.
Eat fresh, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables every day. Look for canned and frozen options without added fats or sugars. Fruits should be in 100% juice or water. Choose whole grain foods such as breads, cereals, and pastas that are high in fiber.
Look for low fat dairy such as milk, cheese, and yogurt for adults and kids in your family. Babies should not have dairy products till they’re one year old. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends whole milk for babies 12 to 24 months, unless your infant is gaining too much weight. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure.
It’s also important to limit added and refined sugars, refined grains, sodium, Trans, fats, saturated fats, and foods that are low in nutrients.
Tips for child nutrition
Teach the importance of good nutrition, and help your children establish healthy eating habits. The more your child understands about nutrition, the more excited he will be about eating healthy.
- Learn to read nutrition labels.
- Nutrients are important, but portion size matters too.
- Half of your child’s plate should be fruits and vegetables.
- Choose fresh foods over highly processed foods.
How you cook and prepare foods can affect the nutritional value. For example, try grilling, steaming, baking, or broiling vegetables instead of frying or boiling them. It’s not just food that’s important. Drink water or low-fat milk instead of sugary, sweetened drinks. Different foods provide different nutrients, so make sure your child gets a good variety of fruits and vegetables.
Find nutritious foods that children enjoy. Try fruit for dessert.