Nutrition Basics For Children

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 3:34pm

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

Every child needs appropriate amounts of calories, proteins, minerals and vitamins to grow. Exposure to a wide variety of healthful foods early sets the stage for more variety later. Keep in mind that children are often reluctant to try new foods and would be happy eating the same foods every day! Of course, this limits the variety they grow accustomed to. Moreover, if the foods they love aren't healthy, they won't get the proper nutrition.

It's important for growing children to get the full range of important nutrients, especially protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin A. Appetite variations are normal and will increase during times of rapid growth but diminish during periods of slow growth. As a rule:

  • A three-year-old needs about 1,300 calories daily
  • A ten-year-old needs about 2,000 calories daily
  • An adolescent needs about 2,800 calories daily.

How much food should children eat?

The new Food Guide Pyramid Guidelines outline the amount of grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meats or beans people should eat daily. Children between the ages of four and six can usually have serving sizes recommended for adults. Younger children who have smaller stomachs and lower nutritional needs need smaller amounts of food. All children need at least the lowest number of servings from each of the food groups.

Basic children's nutrition

  • Grains. Grains and starches should form the basis of healthful diet. Offer your child whole grains that are also iron fortified, such as whole-wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal and enriched breakfast cereals. Your child should eat 6 servings (at least 3 from whole grain foods) from this group daily. (For further advice on healthy breakfasts for children see the following article from TheDietChannel: Healthy Breakfast Cereal For Kids.)
  • Fruits and veggies. Keep plenty of fresh, frozen, canned, and dried fruits on hand but go easy on fruit juice (one serving daily, or 3/4 cup of 100% fruit juice is enough). Vegetables with strong flavors, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts, are disliked by most children. They enjoy mild-flavored vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, green beans and cooked carrots. Remember to think bright colors for vegetables for their vitamin A content. Aim for 2 servings of fruits and 3 servings of vegetables daily. Try serving a fruit with each meal and a vegetable with lunch and dinner. Children also enjoy finger foods; so try cutting up strawberries, melons, tomatoes and sweet peppers for 'handy' treats. (For further advice on fruit and vegetables in your child's diet see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Getting Your Child To Eat Vegetables and 5-A-Day Challenge For Kids.
  • Dairy. Calcium-rich foods are essential for children and adults to build strong bones. Serve low fat (1%) and fat-free dairy products several times a day. Do not restrict fat until after the age of two. Choose cheeses with 2-6 grams of fat per ounce. Other kid-friendly sources of calcium that fall outside of the dairy group include calcium-fortified orange juice and waffles.
  • Protein. Protein is essential for growing tissues but is abundant in the American diet, so deficiencies are rare. Serve your family lean meat, chicken, turkey and fish, or dry beans and peas. Your child should consume the equivalent of 6 ounces of meat daily. Peanut butter and eggs count as meat substitutes and are protein-rich. Encourage you child to eat 2 servings each from the milk and meat food groups.
  • Sugars. If your child's diet is healthy, one daily sweet is fine. Added sugars contribute calories with few nutrients. Check ingredients on nutrition labels. If sugar is listed as one of the first four ingredients, eat that food in moderation. Good dessert choices include angel food cake, frozen yogurt, animal crackers, 100% frozen fruit bars, and vanilla wafers. We all need some healthy fats in the diet. Be sure your child gets most of his/her fats from fish, nuts, and liquid oils such as corn, soybean, canola and olive oil.
  • Liquids. Offer your child water and nonfat or 1% milk in place of high-calorie, sugary drinks.

Additional tips for starting healthy eating habits in children

  • Serve appropriate portions. Over-sized portions often contribute to weight gain.
  • Many children do best eating three main meals and two snacks daily.
  • If your child is a snacker, space snacks at least one hour before meals. Stock up on healthy foods kids love, such as crackers, apples, low-fat chocolate milk, and whole-grain cereals.
  • Children's mouths are naturally sensitive, so serve foods warm rather than very hot or cold.

As long as your child is gaining weight and has a normal activity level, then you have little to worry about. The best way to ensure your kids get the food they need and still maintain a healthy weight is to provide them with a variety of nutritious foods with moderate-to-low amounts of fat and sugar.