Health and wellbeing of growing children depends on many factors, one of them being nutrition. While children need the same nutrients as adults – vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fat, the amounts of them differ depending on child’s age. In the environment we currently live in dietary center stage is often reserved for convenient, quick and highly palatable foods that are not always the best choices to address the needs of growing children (read: fast-foods, candy, processed junk foods, soda). Children don’t always have the capacity to understand that some of the food choices they make (or their caregivers make) are not in their best health interest, and they simply cannot provide food choices for themselves, when they depend on their caregivers to do it. The more they eat foods high in fat, sugar and sodium, the higher their drive for them develops, as these foods are known to hijack the brain and hormones responsible for hunger and satiety (1). In order to prevent this vicious cycle from happening, it is important to keep a balance of healthy fresh whole food choices – “anytime foods” along with some of the less healthful options, “sometime foods”.
Many young children often show some picky eating behaviors, which makes it challenging to ensure their healthy eating. It is important to note that consistency is key when it comes to offering healthy choices. Parents may get frustrated and impatient and quit putting certain foods in front of their children after a few unsuccessful attempts, but this will only make matters worse, since now children are being stripped of the choice. Kids also pick up on their parents and caregivers’ habitual patterns – if parents frequently eat fruits and vegetables, they are being role models in cementing healthy eating habits for their children. Family style dining, where everybody sits together at a table and passes around communal bowls of dishes may help in instilling preferences for new healthy foods.
The following foods are great options for a child’s healthy growth and development and they are somewhat kid-friendly, if you are dealing with picky eaters:
- Root vegetables: Beetroot, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Yams, Japanese Purple Potatoes, Carrots, Parsnips. Starchy root vegetables are rich sources of potassium, magnesium, fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins B, C, iron – just to name a few. Their different colors (orange, purple, yellow, white) speak for the content of potent antioxidants (anthocyanins, carotenoids, betalains) that are important in proper immune function and disease prevention (2). Most of them have a slightly sweet taste (beetroot, potatoes, turnip), while others are truly sweet (sweet potato, carrot, yam), making them appealing and palatable all the while offering good nutrition for growing children. You can roast them, add them to stews, boil and mash, and even make baked goodies with them.
- Fruits and berries: Apples, Pears, Oranges, Kiwi, Blueberries, Raspberries. Fruits and berries are an easy sale – they are sweet, juicy and flavorful making them loved by nearly all children. Fruits and berries are abundant in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – vitamin A, B, and C, folate, potassium, magnesium, copper and fiber. They are easy to incorporate into recipes – such as toppings for oatmeal and yogurt, in baked goods, smoothies or as a snack by themselves.
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Kale, Brussel Sprouts, Arugula. Before you throw your hands up in the air – please read on! While these may be tougher to get kids to eat, wait till you learn about all the important benefits they offer – you’ll get creative in how to feed them to your children. Cruciferous veggies are excellent sources of folate, vitamin A, C and K, fiber and phytonutrients – plant-sourced compounds that may help lower inflammation, strengthen immune system and reduce the risk of developing cancer (3). One particular compound in cruciferous vegetables, that makes them cancer-fighters is sulforaphane, which can potentially prevent DNA damage, activate defenses against pathogens and pollutants, and boost your liver detox enzymes (4). Kids can crunch on them raw dipped in their favorite dressing, or they can be added to your regular fare – steamed cauliflower mixes well in mashed potatoes or macaroni-and-cheese, you can top a home-made pizza with fresh arugula and add chopped broccoli to pasta dishes.
- Legumes: Beans, Peas and Lentils. Legumes are a rich source of fiber, vitamins and minerals like vitamin B, iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, and plant protein. High fiber content of these healthy foods will help alleviate occasional constipation, prevalent among young generation due to less than optimal fiber intake. It will also help their little tummies with gut microbiome diversity – our friendly gut bacteria feeds and proliferates on fiber, so keeping them fed keeps us healthy. Adequate consumption of foods rich in iron, like beans, prevents and treats iron deficiency anemia, that is sometimes observed in young children. Beans and lentils are versatile and could be easily added to soups, chilis, stews, casseroles, salads, eaten as side dishes or blended and used as base for sauces and even baked goods.
- Seeds: Sunflower, Pumpkin, Hemp, Chia, Flax. Seeds are a great source of high concentrations of vitamin E, minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats. Small amounts go a long way as they are a dense source of minerals such as magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, zinc, iron, and potassium. Ensure to crush or chop them in a food processor to avoid choking in young children before adding them to breakfast cereals and oats, applesauce, yogurt, or salad. Seeds are great sources of monounsaturated fatty acids and some polyunsaturated fats, making them a great choice for cardiovascular and neurological protective benefits (5). Some seeds, like chia, hemp and flax contain essential fatty acids that are important for brain development. Even though their conversion rate into functional EPA and DHA types of essential fats is low, they are still a valuable source that also offers all other benefits, listed above.
- Whole grains: Brown Rice, Quinoa, Buckwheat, Bulgur Wheat, Barley, Oats, Millet, Corn. Many packaged foods along with commercially produced pastries contain lots of processed white flour, making it the most widely consumed grain in our diets. Processed flours are stripped of their beneficial nutritional values, like bran that is rich in fiber and trace minerals iron, zinc, copper and magnesium, and germ – a source of vitamin E, B, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Often processed flours are enriched, which means vitamins and minerals are added back after processing, however doing this disrupts grains’ natural integrity making nutrients less bioavailable (6). Whole grains, on the other hand, have all the nutrients in their unadulterated form, making them a better source for growing children.
- Home–made baked goodies and such: Pancakes, Waffles, Brownies, Pies, Mug-cakes, Muffins, Cupcakes. You read that right, these are not all villains when it comes to healthy nutrition for children. But I am not talking about store- or bakery-bought items, not even the “healthy” options from your local Whole Foods. I am talking about made-from-scratch foods where you control all the ingredients and their quality, get creative and experiment with different whole grain flours, ground nuts and seeds, fresh fruits and even veggies, blended cooked beans, unsweetened chocolate and avocado-based frostings. The internet sources are endless when it comes to finding healthy dessert recipes. To my knowledge and experience with my own children and children I work with, no one had canceled kids’ sweet tooth and the excitement you see on their cute little faces when “faced” with a decadent cupcake. Why not to tackle both – satisfy their need for the “good stuff’ and feed them healthy choices? And an added bonus, a true cherry on top – you are now their favorite superhero! Not allowing children to eat their favorite sweets will create a sense of deprivation and may set the stage for developing an eating disorder later in life. An important caveat here is to explain to children that not all, seemingly same, foods are created equal. Home made items are usually healthier than store bought. Teaching kids the importance of quality of all foods will go a long way in helping them develop healthy eating habits and treat their body and health with respect.
Final words. The dietary approach and the amounts of needed nutrients might be different for children, however generally children are no different than adults in their need for healthy foods. The strategy in getting kids to eat healthy mostly depends on consistency, role modeling and involvement of all family members to ensure success. At the end of the day they will lean on their families’ eating habits while building their own, so keep up the good work of leading by example.
Stay nourished my friends,
Tatiana Larionova, MS, LDN, CNS
- Wiss, David A et al. “Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 545. 7 Nov. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545
- Petropoulos, Spyridon A et al. “Grown to be Blue-Antioxidant Properties and Health Effects of Colored Vegetables. Part I: Root Vegetables.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,12 617. 4 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3390/antiox8120617
- Ros, Emilio, and Frank B Hu. “Consumption of plant seeds and cardiovascular health: epidemiological and clinical trial evidence.” Circulation vol. 128,5 (2013): 553-65. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.112.001119