Childhood Nutrition

Nearly 1 in 3 children in America is overweight or obese. Despite all the focus on kids being overweight and obese, many parents are still confused, especially when it comes to what kids eat. How much does your child need? Is he getting enough calcium? Enough iron? Too much fat?

Whether you have a toddler or a teen, nutrition is important to his or her physical and mental development. Here’s what children need — no matter what the age.

Babies

During this stage of life, it’s almost all about the milk — whether it’s breast milk, formula, or a combination of the two. Breast milk or formula will provide practically every nutrient a baby needs for the first year of life.

  • At about six months most babies are ready to start solid foods like iron-fortified infant cereal and strained fruits, vegetables, and pureed meats. Because breast milk may not provide enough iron and zinc when babies are around six to nine months, fortified cereals and meats can help breastfed babies in particular.
  • Once you do start adding foods, don’t go low-fat crazy. Although the AAP guidelines state fat restriction in some babies is appropriate, in general, you don’t want to restrict fats under age two because a healthy amount of fat is important for babies’ brain and nerve development.

Toddlers & Preschoolers

Toddlers and preschoolers grow in spurts and their appetites come and go in spurts, so they may eat a whole lot one day and then hardly anything the next. It’s normal, and as long as 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. Children may not believe or care that milk “does a body good,” but it is the best source of much-needed calcium. Still, there’s hope for the milk-allergic, lactose-intolerant, or those who just don’t like milk. 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 another important focus. Toddlers start to say “no” more and preschoolers can be especially opinionated about what they eat. The kids may want to stick to the bland, beige, starchy diet (think chicken nuggets, fries, macaroni), but this is really the time to encourage fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, which all provide fiber. Not only does fiber prevent heart disease and other conditions, but it also helps aid digestion and prevents constipation, something you and your child will be thankful for.

Gradeschoolers

It isn’t uncommon for a 6- or 7-year-old to suddenly decide to be a vegetarian once they understand animals and where food comes from. This doesn’t mean your child won’t get enough protein; animal tissue isn’t the only place we get protein. Rice, beans, eggs, milk, and peanut butter all have protein. So whether your child goes “no-meat” for a week or for life, he or she will likely still get sufficient amounts of protein.

Areas that might be a little too sufficient are sugars, fats, and sodium.

  • This is a time when kids first go to school and have a little bit more choices in what they eat, especially if they’re getting it in the cafeteria themselves. Cakes, candy, chips, and other snacks might become lunchtime staples.
  • The body needs carbs (sugars), fats, and sodium, but should be eaten in moderation, as too much can lead to unneeded weight gain and other health problems.
  • 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 & Teens

As puberty kicks in, young people need more calories to support the many changes they will experience. Unfortunately, for some, those extra calories come from fast food or “junk” foods with little nutritional value.

  • Some adolescents go the opposite way and restrict calories, fats, or carbs. Adolescence is the time kids start to become conscious of their weight and body image, which, for some, can lead to eating disorders or other unhealthy behaviors. Parents should be aware of changes in their child’s eating patterns and make family dinners a priority at least once or twice a week.
  • Like calories, calcium requirements are higher. Calcium is more important than ever during the tween and teen years because the majority of bone mass is built during this time. Encouraging kids to have milk, milk products, or calcium-rich alternatives, should help them get more calcium.
  • Your child’s gender may play a role in whether he or she needs more of a particular nutrient. For instance, teen girls need more iron than their male counterparts to replace what’s lost during menstruation, and males need slightly more protein than girls.

Although getting your child to eat healthy — regardless of his or her age — can be a constant battle, its one well worth fighting. A healthy child becomes a healthy adult, and only with your support and guidance will your child be both.

Water: Drink Up!

Water makes up more than half of kids’ body weight and is needed to keep all parts of the body functioning properly.

  • There’s no specific amount of water recommended for children, but it’s a good idea to give them water throughout the day — not just when they’re thirsty.
  • Babies generally don’t need water during the first year of life.
  • If your child doesn’t like the taste of water, add a bit of lemon or lime for flavor.
  • Fruits and veggies are also good sources of water.
  • Kids should drink more water when ill, when it’s hot out, or when engaged in physical activity.

5 Great Reasons to Cook with Your Kids

When it comes to raising an adventurous eater, it is not just about coaxing kids to eat their veggies. Bringing up a child who can enjoy a cantaloupe as much as a cupcake takes patience and persistence, but it does not have to feel like a chore.

Kids may need to have frequent joyful experiences involving food to overcome the anxiety they may have around tasting the unfamiliar. Over time, cooking with your children can help build that confidence—and provide rich sensory experiences.

Here are five ways to enjoy cooking with your children while raising an adventurous eater along the way.

  1. Engage other senses. For a hesitant eater, tasting an unfamiliar food can sometimes be intimidating. You can help your child explore foods when cooking using other senses besides taste. This helps to build positive associations with food. Kneading dough, rinsing vegetables, and tearing lettuce all involve touching food and being comfortable with texture. The complex flavors we experience when eating food come from both taste sensations from the tongue AND smelling with the nose. While cooking with new ingredients, some children may feel too overwhelmed to taste. If this happens, you can try suggesting smelling a food first; this may provide a bridge to tasting in the future.
  2. Use cooking to raise smart kids. There are so many lessons that can be taught while cooking. Math concepts like counting, measurement, and fractions naturally unfold when navigating a recipe with kids. Explaining how food changes with temperature or how certain foods can help our body be healthy provide great lessons in science. While cooking with your child, practice new vocabulary as you describe how food looks, feels, and tastes. Following a recipe from start to finish helps build the skills for planning and completing projects.
  3. Make cooking part of the family culture. The family meal can start in the kitchen as you cook together. Family meal preparation is an opportunity to celebrate your cultural heritage by passing down recipes. Help your kids find new, seasonal recipes to add to your repertoire and family cookbook. Cooking together and prioritizing health over the convenience of processed food are great ways to lead by example and help your children buy into a culture of wellness. Building daily and seasonal traditions around cooking together helps strengthen your family’s commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
  4. Keep it safe. Teach kids the importance of staying safe while cooking by showing them how to hold kitchen tools safely, how to use oven mitts to protect hands from heat, and  how to turn appliances on and off safely. Always supervise children when cooking to ensure they are sticking with safe and age-appropriate tasks. The best way to keep cooking safe is to know your child’s abilities and his or her stage of development. A four-year-old child, for example, may not be ready to sauté vegetables over a hot pan, but may have the fine motor skills to rinse fruits or tear salad leaves. Keeping safety in mind, it is not difficult to get kids—even toddlers—involved in the kitchen.
  5. Ask for input. Children feel more included in mealtime when they are asked to be a part of meal preparation. Collaborate with your kids when selecting recipes for main dishes or sides. Let them help you make the shopping list and find groceries in the store or farmers market. When cooking together, let children offer a critique of the foods you are preparing. Together you can decide what ingredients you should add to enhance the flavor. Talk about how people enjoy different tastes, and share your preferences with each other. Letting children be “in charge” of details like how to set the table will help them feel invested in mealtime.