In the United States, nearly one in every five children has obesity. Considering this percentage has tripled since the 1970’s, the importance of nutrition for children is at an all-time high. Although there is a wealth of information at our fingertips, it can be difficult to sort through and decipher what a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle would look like for your unique child. In order to implement a sustainable and healthy lifestyle for your child, it is important to understand what good nutrition consists of, how it can affect childhood development, and the steps you can take to ensure your child is onboard.

What is Good Nutrition for Children?

Nutrition for children is based on the same core principles as nutrition for adults. The key 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 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

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.

Vegetables

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 more dense and nutrient packed than others. Vegetables can be also categorized into further subcategories including organic, non-organic, and non-gmo.

Fruit

Any 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, fruit can be further categorized into organic, non-organic, and non-gmo.

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 be lean and low fat. All fluid milk products and products made primarily from milk belong to the dairy food group. This includes items such a 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 much 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.

Good Nutrition for Preschoolers

The preschool years, ages 3-5, are an influential time for developing healthy lifestyle habits that can last a lifetime. Preschoolers tend to grow in spurts and as such, their appetites can be intermittent. This is normal and if parents offer a healthy selection, their children will be set up with viable options. The specific breakdown of grains, protein, vegetables, fruits, and dairy are like toddlers and vary based on size, age and gender. The one key component that is important for young developing preschool children is calcium intake. Calcium is needed to develop strong, healthy, bones and teeth.

Contrary to popular belief, Calcium is not best obtained through traditional dairy milk. This is because the calcium provided in dairy milk is less bioavailable to developing bodies. It is best to obtain calcium through dark leafy greens like kale, broccoli, and bok choy. About ½ cup of cooked leafy greens can translate to around 300 mg calcium with a 40% absorption rate. Another important supplement to focus on is fiber. Fiber aides in digestion and prevents constipation through encouragement of bowel movements. Fiber is found in most whole grain products as well as fruits and vegetables. Though it may be challenging at times to convince your child to consume vegetables over starchy processed foods such as macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, it will make a world of difference.

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. 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. Children that are overweight 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. Overall, a well-balanced and healthy nutritional diet is of paramount importance in developing children.

How to Ensure your Child is Eating right and Staying Fit

Having the tools to guide your child as they develop well-balanced and healthy nutritional lives is one thing and application is another. It can be challenging to ensure your child is eating right and staying fit without support, guidance, education, and routine. As young children develop, they start to form opinions on what tastes good to them and what does not. Most times, this does not align with what is necessarily best for them on a nutritional level. This is where the challenge resides.

The Stanford Children’s Health Hospital suggests avoiding battles over food and meals and to provide regular snacks and meals. Children can be picky and, at times, avoidant or inflexible. If your toddler or preschooler refuses certain foods, it is best to let it go and try again at another time. Chances are, they will start to warm up to the options provided. As previously mentioned, young children are developing their independence and opinions and, as such, they are subject to vary. It can also be helpful to set aside a routine time and place to feed your child. If you provide regular eating habits and personal interaction during meal times, it can lead to positive association.

Considering that children are highly observational creatures, it is advantageous to create experiences that are positive and healthy. Involving children in the preparation and selection of foods can also be an important learning tool. When in the grocery store or even in your refrigerator at home, it can be helpful to enlist your child to help select foods based on their nutritional value and explain how they can help developing bodies. Parents are also encouraged to utilize specific serving sizes and to show their children the respective equivalents. This can help children as they grow older to understand and implement appropriate serving sizes and maintain well-balanced eating habits.

Additionally, it can be helpful for parents to pack a homemade lunch for their children to take to school. This insures that a well-balanced and proper nutritional meal is easily obtainable and always provided. As always, physical activity is as important as nutrition. It is recommended that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week. A helpful tactic for parents can be to limit use of television and video games, for more physically active routines such as a walking, running, and playing ball. It is important for parents to actively participate in their children’s lives surrounding nutrition and exercise because children primarily learn through direct observation. In leading by example, you are showing your child a positive, healthy, and sustainable lifestyle.