Importance of Nutritional Foods for Kids and Young Children
In the United States, nearly one in every five children has obesity. Considering this percentage of childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, 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 eating habits would look like for your child.
To implement a sustainable and healthy lifestyle and heart health for your child, it is important to understand what good nutrition is, how it can affect childhood development, and the steps you can take to ensure your child is on board with healthy eating habits. Check out Children’s Bureau’s programs and services for help and resources to build up your child’s nutritional and emotional health.
What is Good Nutrition for Kids and Young Children?
Nutrition for children is based on the same core principles as nutrition for adults. The key to proper nutrition is a healthy and appropriate balance of diet and exercise and a conducive lifestyle.
The five main food groups include grains, dairy, protein, vegetables, and fruit, and are generally a good starting point for any child’s diet. A healthy balance can give children the necessary vitamins and minerals while improving their immune systems. 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 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 refining grains, many valuable nutritional benefits are lost; therefore, whole grains are a better option. Some examples of refined grains include cereal, tortillas, white bread, and white rice.
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 will depend on which subcategory it belongs to considering that some vegetables are more dense and nutrient-packed than others. Vegetables can also be categorized into organic, non-organic, and non-GMO.
Any fresh 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 the fruit, it is advisable to construct a dietary balance based on age, activity levels, time of day, and gender. Like vegetables, fresh fruit can be categorized into organic, non-organic, and non-GMO.
Protein & Dairy
The protein food group primarily comprises protein sources such as meat, poultry, beans, peas, eggs, seafood, and nuts. It is advisable that meat and poultry sources within your child’s diet be lean and low-fat. All fluid milk products and products made primarily from milk belong to the dairy food group. Dairy products include items such as 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, cashew milk, and nut cheeses.
Based on your child’s age and unique genetic makeup, their diet and lifestyle may look different and emphasize certain nutritional guidelines during one age range and many different guidelines during another.
Why Is Nutrition Important for Babies
Nutrition is particularly important for babies as their bodies are developing at this stage of life and require the right nutrients to grow and thrive. Babies grow rapidly during the first year of life, and their dietary needs change quickly. Poor nutrition during this critical period can lead to long-term health consequences such as stunted growth, weakened immune systems, and poor cognitive development. It is therefore essential to provide babies with nutrient-rich foods that are age-appropriate and tailored to their individual needs.
Nutrition is also important for babies to help them establish healthy eating habits. Eating a balanced diet early can help babies develop a positive attitude towards food, recognize hunger and fullness cues, and build a strong foundation for healthy eating. Ensuring babies get the right nutrition helps them grow and develop properly and sets the stage for lifelong healthy eating habits.
Good Nutrition for Toddlers
Toddlers, ages 1-3, can be a particularly challenging age range when it comes to feeding a nutritional diet. Many developmental changes directly affect their food or supplement intake during this time frame. 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 of 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. Regarding vegetables, toddlers should have 1-2 cups per day from each of the 5 subcategories. Since some toddlers are just starting to adopt table foods, offering soft and cooked vegetables cut into small pieces is advisable. 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 break down 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. Introducing variety within the five food groups is important to gain the full spectrum of nutritional benefits. Most toddlers should generally have around 13 grams of protein per day.
A general rule of thumb that can be helpful when determining how much protein your child should have per day is to base it on their weight. Protein-recommended dietary allowances, or RDAs, are determined using the guide of .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Therefore, a 2-year-old weighing 30 pounds would need around 15 grams of protein daily. This could translate to ½ an egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or ¼ cup of beans. Calcium-fortified juices, milk, 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 habits for kids that can last a lifetime. Preschoolers tend to grow in spurts, so 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 breakdown of grains, protein, vegetables, fruits, and dairy varies 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 of calcium with a 40% absorption rate. Another important supplement to focus on is fiber. Fiber aids in digestion and prevents constipation through the encouragement of bowel movements. Fiber is found in most whole grain products and fruits and vegetables. It may be challenging to convince your child to consume vegetables over starchy processed foods such as macaroni, cheese, and chicken nuggets, but it will make a difference.
How Can Nutrition Affect Young Children?
A proper nutritional diet and healthy lifestyle can affect young children throughout the rest of their lives—they can reduce the risk of health issues that appear later in life. During early development, children are highly impressionable and start implementing routines and tools they carry into adulthood. Aside from the habits and routines created, children who do not obtain proper nutrients as they develop can also suffer from physical ailments. 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. Childhood 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 overall 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 affects 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. Other chronic diseases may occur later in life, including heart disease.
Children’s and parents’ choices 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 which can lead to depression. Additionally, overweight children may have difficulty with physical activity and often cannot participate in physical activities alongside their peers. This can cause emotional isolation and set the groundwork for poor social interactions and low self-esteem. Beyond counting calories, a well-balanced and healthy nutritional diet is paramount in developing children.
How to Ensure Your Child is Following a Healthy Diet and Staying Fit
It can be challenging to ensure your child is making healthy food choices 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.
The Stanford Children’s Health Hospital suggests avoiding battles over food and meals and providing regular snacks and meals. Children can be picky and, at times, avoidant or inflexible. If your toddler or preschooler is a picky eater that refuses certain foods, it is best to let it go and try again at another time. They will start to warm up to the healthy choices provided. As previously mentioned, young children are developing their independence and opinions and, as such, they are subject to vary. Setting aside a routine time and place to feed your child can also be helpful. Promoting healthy food choices, regular eating habits, nutrition education, and personal interaction during meal times can lead to positive associations.
Since children are highly observational, creating positive and healthy experiences is advantageous. 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, enlisting your child to help select foods based on nutritional value and explain how they can help developing bodies can be helpful. Parents are also encouraged to utilize specific serving sizes and show their children their equivalents. This nutrition education can help children understand and implement appropriate serving sizes as they grow older and maintain a healthy set of well-balanced eating habits.
Additionally, it can be helpful for parents to pack a homemade snack or lunch for their children to take to school. Instead of packing processed or junk food, choose healthy fats and nutritious benefits. This ensures that a well-balanced and proper nutritional meal is always available.
As always, physical activity is as important as proper nutrition. It is recommended that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week. To encourage physical activity, parents can limit their child’s time spent watching television and playing video games and promote more physically active routines such as 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.
Susan J. Wood, Director of Mental Health
Susan J. Wood, LMFT is the Director of Mental Health at Children’s Bureau and has over 20 years of experience working with children in a community mental health setting. She joined Children’s Bureau in 2015 as a Program Manager in the Antelope Valley and became the program director in June 2018 where she was instrumental in opening and expanding mental health services to the Santa Clarita Valley and Long Beach.