What children eat and drink during their early years can affect their health for many years to come. So what are you feeding them?
Whether we love our veggies, despise mayonnaise (or all things white), or have a peculiar taste in food; the same eating habits we have now were developed as children. And our children will carry their eating habits with them for the rest of their lives — are we setting them up for success?
As parents and caregivers alike, it is our duty to guide children to develop healthy lifestyle habits to support good health for many years. Luckily, nutrition for kids follows the same basic principles as nutrition for adults. We all need vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and fats. However, children simply need different amounts of these nutrients at different lifespan stages.
Now, many of us struggle to develop and stick with the same healthy habits we want for our kids. This creates a double struggle. Trying to get the kiddos to eat healthily while we grapple with our own health difficulties. The best way to combat this? Practice healthy lifestyle habits together! When we make healthy habits family habits, our children are better equipped to maintain healthy food choices throughout the years.
Nutrient Needs for Healthy Children
Offering a wide range of foods once a child is eating solid foods is the best strategy to ensure adequate nutrition. Having not been exposed to these foods before, older children may be apprehensive and become those “picky eaters” every parent fears. However, playing the numbers game is key here. Introducing new foods as many as 8-15 times may be needed to find a way the child will accept.
As children grow, their food intake varies to match. Depending on growth level and physical activity, a child’s protein, vitamin, and mineral needs generally increase with age. So how can we ensure our children are receiving the right fuel for their growth and development? Consider these nutrient-dense foods:
- Protein: Foods such as fish, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds are great sources of protein.
- Fruits: Fresh, canned, or frozen fruits are ideal. However, if the child chose to drink fruit juice or dried fruit, understand it may contribute to unnecessary calories.
- Vegetables: A variety of veggies, including dark green, red, orange, and roots, each week provide the fiber, vitamins, and minerals every child needs.
- Grains: Whole grain options such as oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, or brown rice provide nutrient-dense carbohydrates for growing children.
- Nuts and Legumes: High in healthy fats, fiber, and protein, plant-based products like nuts and legumes help to keep children fuller, longer! Plus, they’re an easy finger food to take on the go without leaving sticky finger trails everywhere.
- Dairy: Many people have different sensitivities to dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverage, so try a variety to find what works best*.
*Reduced-fat kinds of milk are not recommended for children under the age of two, due to increased energy requirements and high growth rate at this age.
Importance of Nutrition Education
Research shows that nutrition education can teach children to recognize how a healthy diet influences emotional well-being/lifestyle changes and how emotions may influence eating habits and overall health. As well, educating our children on the importance of eating healthy combats the all-too-common question, “why?”
“Why do I have to eat my broccoli? Why can’t I have ice cream for dinner?”
We’ve heard these questions and those just like it before. Kids are curious, and teaching them about nutrition can explain all the “whys” our kiddos have about the foods we serve them. Get children involved and feed their curiosity with healthy food information.
Growing Healthy, Even for Fussy Eaters
When children go through a “fussy” phase, where they stop eating foods they used to or at the very least reduce the variety of foods they would have eaten, parents are very rightly concerned. However, children are quite resilient. They will not permanently harm themselves by not eating enough for a few days. If the problem persists and the child’s weight or growth is affected, a doctor or pediatric dietitian should be seen.
In dealing with picky or fussy eaters, here are some practical tips for parents. For starters, never force-feed a child. Instead, remove the food without making a scene, and wait for the next snack time before offering the food again. As well, offering small portions of food at mealtime or even finger food options to make it easier to manage may help the child to eat without the fuss.
Avoid big drinks before mealtimes, as they can fill a child up with little nutritional benefits. In addition, snacking on crisps, chocolate, biscuits, and more can have the same effect as heavy drinks.
Try to eat in a calm and relaxed environment. Making mealtime fun and free of distractions like toys, televisions, and more can be beneficial in not only making healthy meals memorable and repeatable. Try sitting together as a family to enjoy meals together. This helps show the child we enjoy healthy meals and will encourage them to eat a little more.
Health Beyond the Fruits and Vegetables
While the foods we share with our kiddos impact a majority of their health, there are additional steps we can take as parents and caregivers to provide a fuller picture of health within our families. Other lifestyle adjustments we can make with our children include:
- Increasing Physical Activity: Playtime, especially outdoors, is a great way for kids to stay active, improve their motor function, and develop coordinated skills for the future. As well, if a child is gaining an inappropriate amount of weight for their growth level (as suggested by a doctor), this will ensure the child’s food intake matches their energy levels.
- Get Their Regular Check-Ups: Avoiding sugary and overly acidic foods (like fruit juices and processed snacks) are a great strategy for preventing tooth decay, regular check-ups are also needed to ensure improved oral health. Paired with routine pediatric appointments, dental and family doctors ensure our kids are on the right track to a healthy life. This is also a great time for the parents to get a check-up — remember, we set the example our kids follow.
- Don’t Forget the H20: Children love fruit juices, milk, and carbonated drinks. And in moderation, this is fine. However, these types of liquids may dehydrate and block up a child’s digestive tract. Replenishing with water will help flush any blockages out and keep our children hydrated as they take on the day.
Incorporating These New Habits
It’s important to include a balanced variety of foods throughout the day, and while mealtimes such as breakfast and dinner make it easy to monitor our children’s consumption, lunch can be tricky. Make it a routine to pack a lunch full of all the nutrients they need to improve their health.
Packed lunches offer a valuable opportunity to not only improve our children’s diet but also to get them involved in choosing their favorite healthy eats! Give them healthy options to choose from while they help pack their own lunch. This allows the child to feel in control of their food choices while reinforcing healthy options!
Changing to healthier habits won’t happen overnight for us, and it won’t for our children either. Be patient with them (and yourself), and remember that consistency is better than intensity. It may start with adding one vegetable to the plate at dinner. The more consistently this occurs, the more likely our children are to try these veggies. Eventually, we can add more and more healthy foods and habits into our routine, going from one vegetable a day to 5 a day!
Level up your Health!