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Healthy eating has an immediate impact on a child’s overall growth—particularly proper brain and organ development, bone health, cell development and immunity.

Improper nutrition during childhood can lead to numerous health problems in childhood and into adulthood, including obesity/overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure and nutrient deficiencies.

Responsible parents acknowledge that good nutrition is important for growing children—but how do you actually know if you are meeting their nutritional needs? 

Colour their world

Children’s plates should resemble a colourful box of crayons. Variety is key to ensuring a child is getting all the required nutrients. Colour is an indication of the abundance of vitamins and minerals found in a particular food. For example, orange fruits and vegetables indicate beta carotene which plays a role in skeletal growth, skin and mucous health as well as having a protective effect against cancer. Not only is it important to incorporate foods from all food groups, but it’s also important to have variety within each food group.

The balancing act

Canada’s Food Guide has specific recommendations based on the age of a child. The size of a serving is standard for all age groups, but for children it may be divided between meals such as a half slice of bread at breakfast, and the other half as a snack. It’s important that a child’s meal consist of at least three of the four food groups—two food groups per snack.

Younger children fill up much more quickly. That means they need smaller regular meals, plus regular snacks throughout the day. No matter what the age, breakfast is the cornerstone of good health. Research shows that children who eat breakfast are more alert, have better concentration and perform better in school. 

Wonderful fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are key providers of many important minerals and vitamins such as potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. They are also packed with fibre and low in calories. A serving consists of a medium-sized fruit or ½ cup of cut-up fruit. As for vegetables, ½ cup (125 mL) is generally considered a serving, although a full cup (250 mL) is required for lettuce or spinach. Remember that emphasis on colour ensures variety of vitamins and minerals.

Energy to play all day

Grains and starches provide a good source of energy and fibre. To ensure that your child is getting the most from this food group, provide whole wheat breads, crackers, pasta, whole grain and bran cereals and brown rice. Avoid refined white products.

Most children are not meeting their daily fibre recommendations. You can calculate the fibre needs of a child aged three to 18 by adding five to his or her age. For example, a four year-old should eat 9 g of fibre per day. The fibre helps maintain energy levels and keeps hunger in check and bowels regular. Thirty grams of cereal, 1 slice of bread, half a bagel or ½ cup (125 mL) rice or pasta make a serving. 

Building blocks to strong bones and teeth

Milk and alternatives provide calcium and vitamin D for the maintenance and development of strong teeth and bones. If a strong foundation is not built in childhood, brittle bones and osteoporosis can result later in life. On the other side of the spectrum, excessive milk intake can cause weight gain or suppress a healthy appetite in smaller children. Children two years and up should stick to skim, 1% or 2% milk. Whole (3.25%) milk is recommended for children under two years because the extra fat promotes brain development. One cup (250 mL) of cow’s milk, soy milk or rice milk, 1.5 oz (42 g) cheese or ¾ cup (175 mL) yogurt are considered a serving.

Meat, chicken and beans

Meat and meat alternatives can provide a child with many essential nutrients for maintenance and growth such as, protein, iron, B vitamins, vitamin A and zinc. Legumes such as beans and lentils are low in fat and a great source of fibre. Nuts and seeds are a rich source of healthy fat which contributes to heart health and brain development.

Always choose lean cuts of meat and remove any skin and excess fat. If a child is not getting the recommended servings, they can develop deficiencies in minerals such as iron. One serving is 2.5 oz (85 g) meat, poultry or fish, ¼ cup (50 mL) nuts or seeds, 2 tbsp (30 mL) nut butters, or ¾ cup (175 mL) legumes.

Fluids, fluids, fluids!

Hydration is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to children’s health. This is especially important when kids are active and during the warmer months. Children may not be in tune with their thirst cues, so monitoring fluid intake is important. Juice, milk and water all contribute to fluid intake but they are not all weighted the same. It’s important to limit pop and juice intake, even 100 per cent fruit juice, because the sugars can promote tooth decay and add too many empty calories. Milk is a good choice, but after the daily intake recommendation is met, water should be the beverage of choice.   

Monkey see, monkey do

Out of sight, out of mind is usually a useful tactic to avoid high sugar and fat foods, but with the abundance of advertisements targeted towards children, this poses a challenge. “Junk” foods cause unhealthy weight gain and tooth decay in children, and empty calories take the place of nutritious foods, leading to potential deficiencies. The key to success is not to classify foods as “good” and “bad,” but to focus on the enjoyment and benefit of healthy foods.

(Maureen Tilley is a Registered Dietitian with Capital Health in Nova Scotia and the author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!, cookbooks offering quick and easy recipes to help lower blood pressure and promote healthy eating.)

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