The Ages and Stages of Nutrition

At every stage of life, nutrition plays a vital role. In childhood, nutrition is a critical component of growth and development. During pregnancy, key nutrients are needed for fetal growth, proper weight gain and maintaining a healthy body. As we age, nutrition plays a key role in preventing many chronic conditions, such as cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Although there are many important nutrients at each stage of life, these are of highest priority.
Pregnancy: Folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, iron and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA are among the most important nutrients for pregnant women to consume because they play a vital role in the baby’s development. It is always best to get as much of these nutrients from whole foods, but if it’s not possible to meet the requirements, talk with your health care provider or registered dietitian about the proper amount to supplement in your diet.
Infants: Infants require more calories for their size than at any other stage in life because they are growing and developing so fast. Breast milk or formula is the most important food in the first 12 months. Check with your health care provider before starting solid foods between the ages of 4 and 6 months. Honey and cow’s milk should be avoided during the first year. Check with your doctor regarding introducing eggs, nuts, nut butters and fish if you have a family history of allergies to these or other foods. At about 9 months, most babies are able to eat finger foods. To determine if a finger food is safe to offer, use these guidelines:
Does it melt easily in the mouth? Some cereals and light crackers will melt easily.
Does it mash easily? Well-cooked vegetables and canned fruits and vegetables work well.
Is it naturally soft? Examples include cottage cheese, shredded cheese and small pieces of tofu.
Can it be gummed? Small pieces of ripe banana, canned fruits and well-cooked pasta are easily gummed.
Toddlers: Growth rate slows during this time, frequently resulting in decreased appetite and interest in food. It can also be a time of pickier eating and food jags (loved those green beans yesterday, refuses them today). Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone growth and will remain an important nutrient from this age onward. Whole milk is recommended until age 2 due to the increased fat needs for brain development. After age 2, low fat (1%) or non-fat milk is recommended for most children. However, it is important to note that serving too much milk can lead to iron deficiency, which can negatively affect growth and learning. To help prevent iron deficiency, follow these guidelines:
Limit milk intake to a maximum of three cups per day for toddlers.
Serve iron-rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, beans, tofu, iron-fortified cereals)
Serve vitamin C-rich foods (tomato, broccoli, orange, strawberries) alongside iron-rich foods to improve the absorption of iron.
School-Age: Snacks can contribute as much as one-third of daily caloric intake at this age, making healthy snack choices really important if kids are going to get all the nutrients their bodies need. Many kids are hungrier after school than at any other time of day, so when I meet with parents, I encourage them to make the most of big appetites after school by planning and prioritizing healthy snacks. I also encourage parents to serve at least two different food groups and to create a list of healthy snacks together with their child. By doing so, the snacks will deliver on nutrition, while also being kid-approved. Some examples include:
Yogurt + fruit
Milk + low-sugar cereal
Vegetables + hummus or bean dip
String cheese + whole grain crackers
English muffin pizza
Homemade smoothie
Nuts + dried fruit
Additional ideas and strategies are available in my 400 Moms book and in the resources section of my website.
Teens & Tweens: After infancy, adolescence is the most critical time for nutritious eating because calorie and nutrient needs increase during puberty and for students who are very active in sports. The bad news is teen diets tend to take a turn for the worse during this time as they eat more meals and snacks away from home. As a result, teens are commonly falling short of four key nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc. Dairy foods are the best sources for calcium and vitamin D, while beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, lentils and garbanzo beans are among the best sources of zinc. (See the toddler section above for food sources of iron). Consider encouraging your teen to meet with a registered dietitian to discuss nutritional needs and work together to create an eating plan that will help them perform at their best in school and in sports.
Tagline Jill West, R.D.N., is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health coach with a private practice in Lafayette. She works with women, families and student athletes to help them make lasting changes that improve their health and performance. Jill is a professional speaker and author of the book 400 Moms. To learn more, call 925-310-5545 or visit or


Surfing Moms

Moms Bond Over Waves and Friendship For many new moms, staying home with a baby can lead to feelings of isolation and even to postpartum depression....

Help for Youth Sports

Since its humble beginnings in a Stanford University closet in 1998, the Oakland-based national nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance has gone on to reach more than...

Family-Friendly Running Events

Participating in a running or walking event with your kids can be a great way to get exercise and raise money for charities. Older kids...

Better Eating for the New Year

This year, more than most, we are all in need of nourishment. 2020 was a hard year and while the beginning of a new year signals the possibility of hope and a fresh start, we no doubt will carry the lessons of 2020 into 2021. 

Follow us on Social Media


Most Popular