If your child had their own way, there would be a pizza delivery vehicle in front of your house at least twice a day. While it’s great to allow your child to have occasional dietary indulgences, your child needs a steady, balanced diet to grow and thrive.
Here’s what you need to know about crafting the perfect plate and explaining the importance of nutrition to your kids. Maybe you’ll wind up throwing a few extra veggie toppings on that Friday night pizza.
Start by Talking to Your Kids About Nutrition
Children are masters of asking “why” everything is the way it is. You may not always have time to fully answer that question, preferring to settle for a brief but honest answer.
When a child asks, “Why do I have to eat my vegetables?” and you say, “because they’re good for you,” you’re telling your child the truth. It’s just not enough of the truth to emphasize the point.
Your child doesn’t understand what “good for you” means in the context of this situation. They don’t know anything about vitamins and minerals, and they have no way to conceptualize what can happen if they don’t eat a balanced diet. They aren’t concerned with their health and longevity at such a young age, but you can help them discern the bigger picture.
Explain vitamins and minerals to your child. Give them examples of the roles that vitamins and minerals play in their diet. Children know they’re going to grow up. Tell them about how calcium and vitamin D work together to keep their bones strong as they’re growing taller.
Tell them about how their bodies need vitamin C to help their skin heal after they scrape their knee at the playground.
Once your children begin to understand how the food they eat directly correlates to their wellness, they may change their attitude towards the green foods on their plate. You’ll also be equipping your children with the knowledge they need to make healthy decisions throughout their life, setting them up for a better future.
The Basic Building Blocks of a Healthy Plate
A well-balanced diet should contain several core components. It’s not always possible to incorporate them all into a single meal, so if you can’t, don’t stress out about it. As long as your child is getting sufficient food from each group every day, it doesn’t matter what meal they come in. If your child wants leftover baked chicken for breakfast and fruit and yogurt for dinner, it won’t matter in the end. The most important thing is that they’re eating the right healthy foods in the right amounts.
Lean proteins like chicken, eggs, and seafood are easy to incorporate into almost every healthy meal. Most children find chicken and poultry agreeable, but not in every form.
Nutritionally, a chicken nugget doesn’t hold the same value as a roasted chicken breast. Let the occasional handful of chicken nuggets find its way to the dinner table, but don’t let it become your child’s primary source of protein.
Beans, tofu, and lentils are valuable plant-based sources of protein for meat-free or flexible households.
White bread, white rice, and white pasta are processed carbohydrates. They lose valuable nutrients and fiber when they’re processed, making them empty calories. Stick to whole grains. Whole grain or whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice are easy swaps that amplify the nutritional value of every plate.
Most kids will be happy to learn that popcorn is a whole grain. Air-popped popcorn with minimal added salt is a convenient whole grain snack. If you’re looking to ditch chips and sugary granola bars, start stocking the cabinets with popcorn.
Most fruit juice contains a substantial amount of sugar, and it’s nowhere near as filling as an actual piece of fresh fruit. It’s usually easy to introduce children to new fruits, mostly because they find their sweet flavors enjoyable.
Berries are fun and easy to incorporate into many meals. If you have a little green space in your yard, your child might appreciate growing a few berry bushes as a fun outdoor project. Bananas and oranges also make great options.
Vegetables are the food group that parents often find is the most challenging— especially leafy greens like spinach or cruciferous veggies like broccoli. There are so many vegetables, and each vegetable has its own unique blend of vitamins and minerals that are crucial to your child’s growth and development.
The easiest approach is to incorporate as many colors as possible. It takes a rainbow of vegetables to raise a healthy child, from carrots, to tomatoes, to peas.
Low-fat dairy products are a valuable source of crucially important nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. The importance of dairy as part of a balanced diet is heavily emphasized, and its emphasis isn’t helpful to families raising lactose-intolerant children.
Although most nut milk and plant-based milk are marketed as healthy and sufficient alternatives to dairy milk, they often come up short. They’re water infused with the starches from nuts or plants, which are then filtered away from the finished product. In many cases, sugar is added to the final product. These kinds of milk lack protein and other vital nutrients, and they won’t serve the same purpose in your child’s diet.
Unsweetened soy milk is the best alternative to dairy milk in nutrient content. It contains protein, substantial amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and several other essential nutrients.
What to Avoid in Foods You Feed Your Children
Read the full nutrition label before you purchase snacks or prepackaged foods for your children. Foods for kids are often marketed with a health halo. Packaging and marketing terms are often designed to make food appear much more wholesome than it actually is. Don’t let the picture of fruit on the front of the box lead you astray.
Added sugars are everywhere. Sugar is a cheap and easy way to make food taste better, and it works its way into almost everything we eat, but especially sodas and junk food like ice cream. Even salad dressings contain added sugar.
Children should never have more than 25 grams of added sugar a day, but less is always better.
You’ll also want to keep in mind that children would likely prefer their added sugar in the form of homemade after-dinner cookies that they’ve helped prepare. Added sugar in fruit drinks or peanut butter won’t quite address their desire for treats in the same way. Always think of the big picture before you serve your child foods with added sugar to avoid accidentally introducing too much into their daily diet.
High Sodium Content
Sodium is often used as a preservative to keep canned or packaged goods shelf stable for longer periods of time. Children should have less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. It sounds like a lot, but it’s shockingly easy to exceed that limit.
A single hot dog contains more than 560 mg of sodium. A single can of a popular brand of chicken noodle soup contains nearly 2,000 mg of sodium. Be vigilant with processed foods. You won’t encounter substantial amounts of sodium in whole foods.
An entire apple only contains about 2 mg of sodium.
Plenty of fats are great for your child and are included in dietary guidelines. Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats, like those in fish and avocados, help support overall health. It’s trans fats and saturated fats that should be watched closely due to the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more.
Trans fats are technically banned, but small amounts still pop up in margarine, frosting, and fried foods. Saturated fats, like those in red meat, can have a negative impact on cardiovascular health. Limiting the consumption of red meat can keep saturated fats down to more reasonable levels.
Vitamins and Minerals for Kids
Children need all the same vitamins and minerals as adults do. Adults typically have set needs for their daily values of these vitamins and minerals. The needs for children will fluctuate from birth until adulthood.
Ideally, your child will be getting all the vitamins and minerals they need due to eating a healthy and well-balanced diet. Not all children are eager to do so. It might take you a while to explain the merits of kale to a toddler, and that’s normal. As long as you continuously make an effort to introduce new foods with gentle enthusiasm, you’re bound to help your child fill vitamin and mineral gaps in their diet.
Speak with your pediatrician if you’re concerned that your child may not be getting enough vitamins or minerals. Using child-friendly supplements might be a great way to help your child grow and thrive while they’re learning to love beets and salmon.
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