Children’s nutrition has always been a hot button topic.
But it doesn’t have to be confusing! Welcome to Nutrition 101.
If you’ve been a parent for more than a year, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is McDonalds too unhealthy? Is pizza for dinner okay? How do I pack a healthy kids lunch? Am I a bad parent if my kid has chicken nuggets two nights in a row?”
Relax! While having fast food every day isn’t a good idea, you aren’t going to ruin your kid’s lives if they have an unbalanced meal from time to time.
As pediatricians, we generally recommend that you look at your child’s food intake over the course of a week (or longer) rather than the course of a single day. All things in moderation are fine, provided that your kids have an overall balanced diet.
But what exactly does a “balanced diet” look like?
Welcome to Nutrition 101, where we’ll go over the types of food and nutrients your kids need and how to balance it so that they’re getting healthy meals…most of the time.
What Is a Balanced Diet?
Balanced meals are important for everyone but especially for kids. During the first five years of his or her life, your child’s brain and body are growing and developing faster than they are at any other time.
Growth takes a lot of energy and energy needs fuel!
If you know even a little bit about nutrition, you know that everyone needs protein, fiber, dairy, fat, and carbohydrates. Your body needs each of these nutrients in order to function, and none of them should be completely off-limits.
- Protein (such as lean meat, fish, dairy, or even beans) is essential for proper cell function and building muscle.
- Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. As long as your children don’t have an allergy or intolerance, there’s no need to avoid it. Try to choose whole grain versions over processed, sugary treats like cookies and cake.
- There are plenty of ways to get calcium, protein, and fat, but dairy products are a tried-and-true favorite of most kids.
- We’ve been conditioned to think of fat as the enemy, but all bodies need it—both as a fuel source and to absorb certain vitamins. On average, 30% of your child’s calories should come from healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, eggs, and fatty fish.
A balanced diet ensures that your kid gets the full range of vital nutrients and stays full until the next meal.
Everything In Moderation
As we said above, most things are okay in moderation.
Packaged and/or fast food is usually high in unhealthy fats and sodium. Too much can cause obesity, diarrhea, and diabetes, among other problems. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and even dehydration in little ones. But even healthy foods can cause issues if you overindulge. For example, oranges are highly acidic and high in vitamin C. If you eat too many, it can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and heartburn.
Another thing to pay close attention to is portion size.
Many restaurants serve way too much food for kids. Remember, your child’s portions should be smaller than yours and they shouldn’t be forced to clean their plate. Kids naturally eat intuitively and will stop eating when they’re full.
If your child is a selective eater, know that you are not alone. In fact, many experts believe that this is a natural phase in their development that prevents them from eating things they shouldn’t.
We’ll bet that doesn’t reassure you when it’s meal time!
In her book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, registered dietician Ellyn Satter suggests having a “safe” food at each meal, something that you’re sure they’ll eat. If they decide not to eat at all, that’s fine, too! They’ll likely make up for it at the next meal.
If you’re concerned, or if your child is a consistent picky eater, a kid’s nutrition shake may help set your mind at ease.
While it’s totally normal for children to go through phases of selective eating, it is not normal for kids to refuse all forms of food for more than a few days. Please visit us if you have any concerns about malnutrition.
Should My Child Take Vitamins?
Ideally, your child should get essential vitamins and minerals from food, but if you want to give them a vitamin as a bit of nutritional insurance, go right ahead. Just make sure you stick with the recommended dosage, as too many vitamins can cause adverse side effects (mostly because of the sugar and food dyes!).
Of course, with the wide variety of vitamins on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones are best for your child. Some brands may offer little to no nutrition, especially if they use a form of vitamin that isn’t easily absorbed.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician to see what types they recommend.
Spice It Up!
Has your super-picky toddler ever suddenly refused to eat their favorite foods? It could be that s/he’s grown sick of it!
Don’t be afraid to offer a variety of tastes, spices, and textures…even if your child is “picky.” Just because a child won’t eat Kraft mac & cheese doesn’t mean they won’t gobble down a bowl of black olives!
If you’re worried about a meal being too “exotic,” remember there are millions of children in other countries who happily eat food spiced with peppers, turmeric, and other flavors. If your child needs a bit of encouragement, try introducing them to other cultures through television shows featuring multi-ethnic characters.
Colorful plates also are more appealing. Play it up by using fun sandwich shapers and some cute fruit cutters for a fun lunch. When children look at a meal as fun (rather than a chore), they may sit longer and eat some of the healthy stuff.
A Family Affair
Kids are more likely to eat a meal that they had a hand in making (as long as you don’t mind eating a little later).
Pick up a set of kid knives so they can help you cut veggies and fruit without hurting themselves. Younger children can stir batter, make salads, or set the table.
This is a great opportunity to introduce food safety habits, such as hand washing and avoiding cross contamination. Cooking together also gives children a chance to learn units of measurement, fine tune their gross motor skills, and sharpen eye/hand coordination.
Raising healthy, well-adjusted kids is hard enough without adding in the constant worry about them eating right. The main thing is not to stress. And guess what? If you’re reading this article, we already know you care!
We are all busy families, so plan out some healthy meals, get your kids involved, and make mealtime a fun experience so your kids can get the proper nutrition.
As always, if you have questions about your children’s nutritional needs, or have concerns, call us to book an appointment. We are happy to help.