Working with families to make sure their kids meet all their milestones is a great part of my job. One way I help families is by encouraging them to provide healthy foods for their kids. A balanced diet is essential for the healthy growth of every child. As their bodies grow and their brains develop, children need to have a diet that provides them with all the essential nutrients. The good news is this can be done deliciously. Here are a few essential nutrients I recommend all kids get every day.
Protein is your body’s main building block. It helps form muscles, produce hormones, strengthen skin and bones, and transport nutrients. Protein helps a child's body build cells, break down food into energy, fight infection and carry oxygen. Also, it helps to boost the immune system.
Good sources of protein include fish, chicken, turkey, lean meats, nuts, eggs, milk, yogurt, string cheese, peanut butter and edamame (soy beans).
People have long feared fat, and it’s a bit misunderstood. For young kids, especially, fat and cholesterol play important roles. The good kinds are key for brain and nerve growth, and should not be excessively limited or banned. They also help with healthy metabolism, blood clotting and absorption of vitamins.
Good sources of healthy fats include oils like olive, avocado, or coconut oil, chicken or fish. The fatty acids in salmon, flaxseed and walnuts are healthy for children, too.
While a lot of trends and fads tout a “low carb diet,” carbohydrates are actually the body's most important source of energy. They help a child's body use fat and protein for building and repairing tissue. Not all carbs are created equal, though. Carbohydrates come in several different forms — sugars, starches and fiber — and kids should be eating more of the starches and fibers, and less of the sugar. Carbohydrates in foods containing refined sugar are much less nutritious than those in unprocessed foods and provide few essential vitamins and minerals. When choosing carbohydrates for your child’s diet, it's essential to focus on complex carbohydrates to provide the necessary energy for the day and a hefty dose of fiber (another important nutrient I’ll get to).
Good sources of carbohydrates include potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, whole grain bread, fruits, beans and lentils.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body doesn't digest or break down. Dietary fiber is found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Fiber helps make bowel movements easier for both kids and adults. If you’ve ever had a constipated child, you know how much pain hard stools can cause. Making sure they are getting enough fiber in their diet can help reduce their risk for constipation. Fiber can also play a role in reducing the chances of heart disease and cancer later in life.
Good sources of fiber include beans, broccoli, berries, whole grains, apples, potatoes, nuts, and dried fruits such as figs, prunes and dates.
Calcium is a mineral that builds strong bones and teeth. It helps the body in lots of other ways, too. It’s also important for blood clotting, and for nerve, muscle and heart function. In babies, calcium combined with vitamin D helps prevent a disease called rickets, which results in distorted bones.
Good sources of calcium include dairy milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese and plant-based sources include broccoli, edamame (soy beans), kale, collard greens, almonds, oranges, prunes and figs.
Vitamin C is a powerhouse nutrient. Many people know that it helps fight common colds, but did you know that it also helps kids build their brains and immune systems, promotes healing from cuts and scrapes and helps our bodies to absorb iron?
Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits (think oranges), strawberries, kiwi fruit, and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and bell peppers.
Iron is a nutrient that is essential to your child's growth and development. Iron is necessary for kids to build healthy blood cells that carry oxygen all over the body. It also helps muscles store and use oxygen. Without enough iron, the body can't make hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) and therefore it produces fewer red blood cells. This means tissues and organs won't get the oxygen they need.
Good sources of iron include beef, pork, poultry, seafood and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and Swiss chard. Iron is also added to some foods, such as infant formula and cereals.
A note about kids' diets in general. Limiting or eliminating food groups should only be done under the guidance of your pediatrician who may also recommend a dietician. If your child has food allergies or sensitivities to common sources of the important nutrients listed above, your pediatrician can help navigate healthy ways to incorporate these essential nutrients into your child’s diet.
Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring. Cutting fruits and vegetables into fun shapes, and giving them silly names — like calling broccoli “little trees” — can make them more appealing to kids. There are lots of cookbooks and websites dedicated to incorporating healthy foods into your lifestyle. Check them out and if you have any questions, always talk to your pediatrician.