Nutrition is very important for our growing children. They need all the vitamins and nutrients to grow strong and develop their brains. What to feed your kids, how much, and the stages of your child’s development can be very overwhelming for parents. Nutritional needs change as children grow and develop.
Toddlers & Preschoolers
This age group grows in bursts and their appetites may come and go in spurts, so they may eat a whole lot one day and then hardly anything the next. This is NORMAL. Make sure you offer them a healthy selection; they will get what they need.
Calcium, the body’s building block, is needed to develop strong, healthy bones and teeth. Milk is the best source. Lactose-free milk, soy milk, tofu, sardines, and calcium-fortified orange juices, cereals, waffles, and oatmeal are some calcium-filled options. In some cases, pediatricians may recommend calcium supplements.
Fiber is also important at this age. Toddlers like to say “no” and often times preschoolers are especially opinionated or “picky” about foods. The kids tend to gravitate to a bland, beige, starchy diet (chicken nuggets, fries, macaroni), but this is really the time to urge fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, which all provide fiber. Fiber can help prevent heart disease but also aids in digestion and prevents constipation.
Protein is important at this age. Animal meat is a common form of protein but not the only option. Rice, beans, eggs, milk, and peanut butter all have protein.
Areas that might be a little too sufficient are sugars, fats, and sodium.
- Children become more independent with eating at this time, are in school making food choices, and may need guidance in making healthy choices. Cakes, candy, chips, and other snacks might become lunchtime staples. These should be in moderation and with a well-balanced lunch to fuel their learning.
- Packing your child’s lunch or going over the lunch menu and encouraging him or her to select healthier choices can help keep things on track.
Preteens and Teenagers
As puberty begins calorie requirements increase. It is important to know that not all calories are the same. An increase in calories should be well balanced and not just accomplished with “fast foods” or junk foods that have little nutritional value.
Calcium again becomes an important nutrient at this age. The bone mass is being built during these years, so it is important to support that with milk and other calcium-rich products.
Teenage girls need extra iron during this time, due to losses during menstruation and teenage boys need slightly more protein than girls during puberty.
Water consists of more than half kids’ body weight and is critical to all functioning bodies. You should encourage water intake throughout the day not just when “thirsty”. Limiting drinks like soda and juices can reduce sugar intake and foster healthier habits. For children who do not like the taste of water, you can add lemon or other natural flavorings to help increase consumption.
For children who are active and playing sports, water intake should increase especially in warmer weather.
Helping your child to consume a variety of foods for all the major food groups helps to build a well-balanced diet and nutritional habits. This starts at a young age, the more foods introduced and tried will expand your child’s taste and help them to enjoy many options.
- Vegetables: 3 – 5 servings a day
- Fruits: 2 – 4 servings a day
- Bread, cereal, or pasta: 6 – 11 servings per day.
- 1 serving is equal to a single slice of bread, ½ cup rice or pasta, or 1 – ounce cereal.
- Protein foods: 2 – 3 servings of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish per day.
- Each serving is considered 2 – 3 ounces. This may also include ½ cup cooked beans, 1 egg
- Dairy: 2 – 3 servings per day.
- A serving can be 1 cup of milk or yogurt. Please note younger children will require more.
Protein is required for proper growth and functioning of the body, including building new tissues and producing antibodies that help battle infections. Without essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), children are much more susceptible to serious diseases.
Protein-rich plants—such as dried beans and peas (legumes), grains, seeds, and nuts—can be used as valuable sources of protein. Other protein-rich foods include meat, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. These animal products contain high-quality protein and a full array of amino acids.
Keep in mind that red meat and shellfish are not only high in protein and an important source of iron but are high in fat and cholesterol as well. Your child should consume them only in moderate amounts. Select lean cuts of meat and trim the fat before cooking. Likewise, remove the skin from poultry before serving
Fat is essential to all diets. Fats are a concentrated source of energy providing essential fatty acids required for metabolism, blood clotting, and vitamin absorption. Knowing the difference in types of fats can help you make healthy choices for your child.
As a general guideline, fats should make up less than 30% of the calories in your child’s diet, with no more than about 1/3 or less of those fat calories coming from saturated fat, and the remainder from unsaturated (that is, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated) fats, which are liquid at room temperature and include vegetable oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and olive. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and found in fatty meats and many dairy products (whole milk, cheese, ice cream).
Tips for healthier wholesome eating for all:
- Cook more meals at home. Restaurant and takeout meals have more added sugar and unhealthy fat so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health. If you make large batches, cooking just a few times can be enough to feed your family for the whole week.
- Get kids involved in shopping for groceries and preparing meals. You can teach them about different foods and how to read food labels.
- Make healthy snacks available. Keep plenty of fruit, vegetables, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) on hand so kids avoid unhealthy snacks like soda, chips, and cookies.
- Limit portion sizes. Don’t insist your child cleans the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe
- Social interaction is vital for your child. The simple act of talking to a parent over the dinner table about how they feel can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting your child’s mood and self-esteem. And it gives you chance to identify problems in your child’s life and deal with them early.