Make it your mission to offer a variety of foods and taste experiences. Don’t get drawn into food battles, but be persistent. It can take many tries for a child to like certain foods. The payoff is worth it: healthy children are much more likely to be healthy adults.
What should a healthy diet include?
Use the United States Department of Agriculture food plate (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ ) and the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy) as your guide. At each meal, your child’s (and your) plate should contain:
- Half fruits and vegetables (with more veggies than fruit)
- A quarter grains (preferably whole grains)
- A quarter protein (such as lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds and soy products such as tofu)
- One serving of dairy (low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt or soymilk with calcium
The amount of food from each food group that your child needs depends on his or her age. You’ll find specific portion-size recommendations and examples of good food choices for each age group at www.Choosemyplate.gov.
Do children have any particular nutritional requirements?
Some vitamins, minerals and nutrients are especially critical for healthy growth. These include:
Vitamin D: A lack of this important vitamin can cause serious illnesses such as rickets, a disease that weakens bones. Although breast milk is definitely best for your baby, it does not contain enough of your baby’s daily requirement of vitamin D. That’s why your baby should take a daily dose of 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D that comes in a liquid multivitamin for the first year of his or her life. If your baby is drinking formula, know that it is already formulated with vitamin D. It will depend on how much formula your baby drinks whether he or she needs an additional supplement. Once your child is over a year old, he or she will be getting more of the vitamin D needed from fortified solid foods and milk. A supplement will still help ensure there is no deficiency.
Calcium: Sufficient calcium is critical for strong bones and good health. Toddlers need about 700 milligrams (mg) and teens about 1,300 mg of calcium daily. Good calcium sources include milk and milk products or milk alternatives fortified with calcium, green leafy vegetables and fish. As a guide, an 8-ounce glass of milk contains about 300 mg of calcium.
Iron: Not eating enough of this important mineral can hamper your child’s growth. By the age of six months, your baby has depleted the iron stores he or she received in utero. As you start to introduce solids, make sure to include pureed green leafy vegetables, meats and beans and keep including iron-rich foods in your child’s diet.
Healthy Fats: Before the age of 2, your toddler’s diet should be high in fatty acids to ensure healthy brain development. Good sources include whole milk products, fish and olive oil. After age 2, you should switch your child to low-fat foods.
&pagebreaking&Follow these tips to help the whole family enjoy healthy foods:
- Make family mealtimes an enjoyable experience. Banish distractions such as toys, electronics and television.
- Be a positive role model. If your child sees you enjoying healthy food, he or she is more likely to follow your lead.
- Don’t force it. Present healthy options; let them choose what they eat. It’s normal for young children to be picky and refuse foods. Look at what your child has eaten during the course of the week, rather than what they had in one day.
- Get creative. Add pureed vegetables to sauces and make delicious shakes from a variety of fruits. Offer fruits and veggies prepared in different ways.
- Involve your child. Encourage your child to help choose and prepare foods for meals. He or she is much more likely to try those foods.
- Limit snacks to two hours before mealtimes and offer fruits and veggies as healthy snack options.
- Start each day with a nutritious breakfast, keeping the five food groups in mind.
- Ditch the fruit juice. Instead, choose water and milk. When your child turns 2, switch from whole milk to low-fat milk.
- Make sweets an occasional treat. Keep sweets and sodas out of the house so it’s easier to resist. Instead, keep fresh fruits and ready-to-eat veggies easily available.
Is it possible for my child to be healthy as a vegetarian or vegan?
Definitely, but you do need to make sure that your child’s diet is well planned and balanced, especially if it doesn’t include dairy and egg products.
For a healthy vegetarian diet, pay particular attention to the following nutrients, vitamins and minerals:
- Protein (dairy and soy products, eggs, beans and nuts)
- Calcium (dairy products, broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables)
- Vitamin B12 (dairy, eggs and fortified products such as cereals, breads and soy and rice drinks)
- Vitamin D (milk and fortified products such as orange juice)
- Iron (eggs, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, dried beans and fruits, iron-fortified cereals and breads)
- Zinc (wheat germ, nuts, dried beans and fortified cereals)
If your child or teen wants to become a vegetarian and you are unfamiliar with this diet, talk to your child’s doctor or a registered dietitian who can help.
Susan Sombatpanit, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Los Gatos Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.