A Guide to Healthy Eating for Children

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As a parent, you undoubtedly want nothing but the best for your child. That is especially applicable when it comes to ensuring they are getting a variety of nutritious and healthy foods in their diet. That said, mealtime with your child doesn’t come without hiccups. From picky eating to untouched lunchboxes to raiding the cookie jar, children can make it a challenge to provide them with a diet that touches all the bases. Healthy eating for children is however crucial for their growing bodies. This guide will help you take the stress out of dinnertime and provide tips and tricks to encourage healthy eating, overcome common challenges parents face, and dive into which foods are best for growing bodies. Healthy eating habits begin at a young age, and by providing your child with a healthy structure and example, you can help set the benchmark for a healthy diet and healthy weight later in life.

Importance of Nutrition for Growing Children

As you well know, kids grow up fast. They need a wide variety of nutrients to support their rapid and ongoing growth and development. They need everything from adequate protein to support growing muscles to the vast array of micronutrients found in common fruits and vegetables. A diet that considers the daily intake suggestions supports your child’s development, now and into the future. On the other hand, a lack of adequate nutrition can lead to severe health conditions and improper development. In fact, a study conducted by Anett Nyaradi et al. showed a link between proper nutrition and cognitive ability in children, saying that a lack of adequate nutrients, such as fatty acids, B Vitamins, zinc and folate, could lead to cognitive impairments. Most parents know this intuitively, and encouraging our children to eat their veggies is a common battle, but you’re not alone. Encouraging children to eat healthy foods and avoid junk food and snacks with saturated fat and loads of sugar is a common struggle.

Overcoming Challenges For Encouraging Healthy Eating

If we’re honest, sugary sweets or oily snacks can be delicious. But as adults, we understand the negative health impacts of consuming junk food. Fried foods high in saturated fats, or sweets with added sugars, offer little to no nutritional value while providing loads of unhealthy calories. 

Studies have shown this is largely due to the billions spent promoting processed foods. Children learn early on to associate unhealthy foods with ‘yummy’ and healthy eating as dull or bland. As parents, we can do several things to prevent children from developing unhealthy food habits. These include:

  • Lowering Sugar and Sodium intake in a child’s diet.
  • Encouraging involvement in shopping and cooking.
  • Reducing availability or providing healthy alternatives.
  • Packing healthy snacks for when your child goes to school or on outings.
  • Encourage drinking water over soft drinks.
  • Opt for home cooked family healthy meals over takeaway.
  • Check nutrition labels when buying meals and snacks.
  • Be a role model for healthy eating in the home. It starts with you!
  • Creating a feeling of excitement around trying new foods.

Undereating and Overeating: What to do?

A common concern amongst parents is whether their child is under or overeating. It’s hard to gauge sometimes whether chidlren are just being kids or whether there is a reason for concern. Undereating can stunt growth and lead to nutrient deficiencies, while overeating can lead to weight gain.

If your child isn’t hungry at regular mealtimes, try to reduce the number of available snacks, and promote a healthy appetite at family mealtime. Encouraging children to eat healthy foods at set times is a great way to overcome undereating and overeating, as it creates a routine within the home. Secondly, make sure the pantry is always stocked primarily with healthy options. But what foods are best for children?

Healthiest Foods for Growing Bodies

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that healthy eating in children includes the regular consumption of foods from the following 5 categories; fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans, cereals, lean meat, fish and poultry and milk yoghurts and cheeses.

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Serving sizes for your little one

The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommends the following serving suggestions of the above five food groups for your children daily:

  • 2 to 3 years of age: one serving of fruit; two and a half serves of vegetables; four serves of grains; one serving of meat/poultry; one and a half serves of dairy
  • 4 to 8 years of age: one and a half serves of fruit; four and a half serves of vegetables; four serves of grains; one and a half serves of meat/poultry; one and a half to two serves of dairy
  • 9 to 11 years of age: two serves of fruit; five serves of vegetables; four to five serves of grains; two and a half serves of meat/poultry; two and a half to three serves of dairy
  • 12 to 13 years of age: two serves of fruit; five to five and a half serves of vegetables; five to six serves of grains; two and a half serves of meat/poultry; three and a half serves of dairy

Of course, there are special occasions and times in which your child will consume unhealthy food. The key is to accept this but continue your day-by-day healthy eating every other day of the year. By encouraging healthy eating habits and offering healthy food choices when it comes to family eating, you are helping to set the baseline behaviour; special occasions and the occasional exception doesn’t take away from this.

Below we will include some of the best food types to help your little one to form the habit of eating healthy foods from a young age.

Healthy Fats Like Avocado, Salmon & More

Fat is important for brain development. Healthy fats provide a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are detrimental to brain development, cell growth and function. Avocado is also an excellent source of ‘healthy monounsaturated fats’ and vitamins and minerals. The best part? Avocado falls into the nutrient-dense foods that are so easy to include in family meals and healthy snacks. It’s also great to introduce when your baby first begins eating solid foods.

Note: Avoid high levels of mercury usually contained in older fish like swordfish, catfish, perch, shark and marlin. These are not recommended for children to consume.

Healthy Protein Sources

Protein provides the body with the needed energy for growth and development. Protein is also necessary to repair or maintain the body, including muscles, bones, skin and hair. Some healthy protein sources that can help your child’s growth are lean meats such as chicken or fish, eggs, lentils or beans, tofu and yoghurt. Avoid processed meats as a primary source of protein.

Fresh Fruit for Micronutrients

The micronutrients found in fresh fruit are essential components to the growth and development of children. Among these micronutrients are vitamins C, A, and E, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. The micronutrients found in fruits aid in your child developing a healthy immune system and vision. Kids tend to love fruit for its sweetness without added sugar; we suggest changing it up and including a wide range of fruits. A lot of fruits are considered superfoods; some include; blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, pomegranates, grapes and acai berries.

Milk For Strong Bones

You are likely already familiar with this tip, so we will keep it short and sweet. Milk is an excellent source of calcium, vital for bones’ growth and strength. Milk in addition contains protein, Vitamin A and Vitamin D. Other dairy products might include cheese or yoghurt.

Whole grains for a Balanced Diet

Whole grains provide your child with the energy they need to grow and develop. Whole grains are also responsible for providing your little one with fibre, vitamins, and minerals that aid in maintaining healthy digestion and helping your child to feel full. Some good ideas for adding whole grains to your little one’s diet include whole wheat bread, brown rice, oats and quinoa.

Eat Your Veggies!

Vegetables are essential for your child’s diet as they are stocked full of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In addition, vegetables help to support your child’s digestive system, immune system, healthy bones and general growth and development. Leafy greens such as kale or spinach are excellent choices, as are broccoli and carrots.

Good luck, and have fun!

We hope this article has helped you to identify some key aspects of healthy eating habits for your child. Remember that eating is an enjoyable time; you are setting the example of your relationship with food, and your child will adapt to this — don’t forget to have fun with food!

Let their learning story start with us.

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story house early learning logo symbol