Article by Allegro Pediatrics
Nutrition can be an overwhelming topic for many parents. There is often concern that children are not getting enough nutrients or aren’t eating a balanced diet. Here are some of our tips for commonly-heard nutrition concerns.
For the most part, we try to prepare healthy and nutritious meals, but many times the snacks that children are offered tend to be less healthy. For snacks, aim to avoid processed foods and focus instead on fruits and vegetables, since many children do not eat enough from this food group. Fresh, colorful foods offer a variety of vitamins and minerals that children need. Try pairing fruits and vegetables with other items like dairy products, lean meats, and whole grains. If you keep healthy foods around the home, children may be less tempted to eat unhealthy options like cookies or chips. Here are some snack ideas from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
It is recommended that less than 10% of your child’s daily calories come from added sugars, and in actuality most children consume around 17% of their daily calories in added sugars. More than half of these added sugars come from what children are drinking, not from what they are eating. Offer water or milk instead of fruit juices, sport drinks, or sodas. This is important because childhood obesity is a prevalent problem and added sugars in the diet can contribute to this problem.
Meals and Media
Don’t do it! When a person eats in front of a TV or other screen such as a phone or tablet, the brain is distracted, leading them to eat more than if they were focusing solely on eating. It is important to teach your child mindful eating so that they can recognize and acknowledge their hunger cues to know when to stop eating due to fullness. This can be accomplished by encouraging family meals without the distraction of a TV or other screen media. Family meals also help to engage your child and enhance their communication skills.
Multivitamins and Supplements
If your child is eating a well-balanced diet, a multivitamin is typically not needed. Vitamin D is a different story though. Studies have shown that most children do not get enough vitamin D, an important vitamin for bone development. Living in the northern United States also puts us at risk because we do not get adequate sunlight. Vitamin D is found naturally in some foods, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and eggs, while some foods are fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, yogurt, and orange juice. This important vitamin is also synthesized in our bodies when exposed to sunlight. For infants who are breastfed, partially breastfed, or who consume less than 32 ounces per day of vitamin D-fortified formula or milk, supplementation with 400 IU per day of vitamin D is recommended by the AAP. Older children and adolescents who do not get at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day through their diet should supplement with 600 IU of vitamin D per day. Here is a chart of natural sources of vitamin D from the AAP that you can try implementing in your child’s diet:
Drinking too much cow’s milk increases the risk for iron deficiency anemia. Milk is filling and can lead to a decreased consumption of iron-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, and red meat. Milk can also decrease the body’s absorption of iron, furthering the risk for iron deficiency. As a general rule for toddlers, milk intake should be limited to 16-24 ounces per day.
Dieting & Energy Balance
As a physician’s assistant, I’m often asked, “My child is overweight. Do I need to start them on a diet?” The answer is no. Encouraging your child to make healthy food choices and staying active will be much more effective than placing your child on a diet. What we consume in calories (energy in) should equal how much we burn off in calories (energy out). Being healthy and maintaining weight is not just about the foods that we consume. It is also about how active we are and the balance between consumption and expenditure of calories. Being a role model and showing your child that you are partaking in healthy choices will also encourage them to continue these habits as they get older.
I’m also asked about how many calories a child should consume each day and how much of each food from each food group should they be eating. Every child is different and energy needs can change depending on physical activity and growth spurts. The following two tables from the AAP are a general guide:
Balanced meals can help children stay healthy and focused. For example, a healthy lunch should consist of about ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ grain, and ¼ protein with one serving of dairy.
As a parent, one of the most important things you can do is to help your children develop healthy eating habits. Children need a balanced diet that will help them grow and learn. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, these tips can help form nutritious meals and encourage smart eating habits. To learn more, check out the Educational Resources in the “Nutrition” section of our website.
About the Author
Hayley Cestafe, MPAS, PA-C