Essential Nutrients Through Childhood
There are several basic essential nutrients that should be included in all diets throughout the childhood. Maintaining good nutrition through these years will help your child to thrive and grow as they should. It will also establish good eating habits that will stay with them into adulthood.
This is an essential vitamin for a healthy immune system, normal vision and for the body’s organs to function properly. Its antioxidant properties fight free radicals, which can cause harm if levels become too high within the body. Free radicals are linked to illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Vitamin A is found in egg yolks, butter, margarine, cream cheese, liver, whole milk and oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, kippers and sardines)
This vitamin is necessary for the growth, development and repair of all body tissue. It also supports the immune system and the health of blood vessels, cartilage, bones and teeth, and helps the body to absorb iron. Vitamin C is found in peppers (bell), broccoli, brussel sprouts, potatoes, strawberries, citrus fruits, kiwi and blackcurrants.
This mineral is essential for processes within the body like metabolism, digestion, nerve function and wound healing. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, bread, cheese, sardines, liver, wheatgerm cereals and pumpkin seeds.
We need iron to produce red blood cells, and for nerves and muscles to function properly. In children, iron deficiency is also linked to developmental and behavioural problems. Good levels of iron can be found in meat, chicken legs/thighs, oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines and kippers), hummus, dried apricots, fortified cereals like bran flakes, sesame seeds, dark green vegetables, pulses, beans and grains.
Giving foods and drinks high in vitamin C at the same time or shortly after eating iron-rich foods, will help the iron to be absorbed. Foods high in vitamin C include peppers (bell), oranges, satsumas, clementines, pineapple, kiwi and citrus fruit juices (diluted).
This vitamin is in essential maintaining healthy bones, which is incredibly important in childhood as bones are growing all the time. Too low levels of vitamin D can cause bone deformities like rickets and stunted growth. It is also an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and supports the immune system, muscle function and brain cell activity.
In the UK the sun produces vitamin D April through to September so it’s important to make sure your child gets plenty of time outside during this time. Be aware that sunscreen actually stops the skin making vitamin D in sunlight. Allow your child a little time in the sun without sunscreen so their skin is able to produce vitamin D naturally. Aim for 10-20 minutes several times a week. Then they should have sunscreen applied after that time during April-September.
Foods containing vitamin D are limited. Including oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines and kippers) in their diet is really the only way to consume good levels of vitamin D. Because getting vitamin D naturally is very limited, it’s important that your child’s diet includes oily fish and that they have vitamin supplements containing vitamin D every day. The recommended daily dose is 10 mcg per day for children over one year old, particularly through autumn and winter.
It is also recommended that children under 5 years of age are given vitamin supplements containing vitamin A, C and D.
Foods rich in fibre help us feel satisfied for longer and are good to keep bowels moving and healthy. Examples of fibre rich foods are porridge, oat bars, fruit, vegetables, brown rice, seeds, seeded and wholemeal/wholewheat breads and pasta. Fibre absorbs liquid and bulks up stool, making it easier to pass. If a child eats too little fibre and drinks too little liquid, passing stools can be a struggle.
If their diet is lacking in fibre and you want to increase their fibre intake, just be aware you should do this gradually and not overnight as it can cause tummy ache.
Changing Nutrition Through the Years
Different food types, vitamins and minerals become more important than others through the different childhood stages.
WHAT AGE GROUPS I’LL COVER HERE:
- Weaning babies
- Toddlers (1-3 years)
- School age children (4-10 years)
- Teenagers (11-18)
From six months to one year of age, baby’s diet will be supported by nutrients they are still getting from breast milk or formula. Once baby is weaning and eating a good amount of food and is dropping milk feeds, ensure that you are giving them a varied diet of protein, carbohydrates, diary, fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat with your baby as often as possible so you can role model eating and table manners.
The Toddler Years (1-3)
Your little one no longer has the support of breast milk (in most cases) or formula past 12 months, and so food becomes the only way for them to get their nutrients.
The nutritional intake of a child within their first 3 years can impact their health and social development. In general, children under five years old do not have enough meat, fish, fruit and vegetables in their diets. It is important to include a good amount of these food groups in your toddlers every day diet, so they can get the vitamins and minerals that their little bodies need for healthy growth and development. It is also important to eat family meals with your toddler every day to role model healthy eating habits, table manners and to curb fussy eating. Read more on how to tackle picky eating here >
Toddlers need more nutrient-dense and energy providing foods than older children, as they are so active and their rate of growth is so high. They need a diet enriched with iron and protein, which is why meals containing red meat are very important at this age. If you are a vegetarian or vegan family, you will need to ensure your toddler has plenty of pulses, crushed nuts and peanuts, iron fortified breads and cereals as well as dark green vegetables. In the UK 1 in 8 toddlers are anaemic and 89% of toddlers have an iron intake that is less than the recommended daily amount.
These following food groups play an important part of your toddlers daily diet.
Toddlers need plenty of these for energy. Starchy foods include bread, potatoes, porridge, rice, couscous, pasta, chinese noodles, cereals, pancakes and waffles. You can also give starchy foods as snacks, like breadsticks, dry cereal and crackers. Every meal you give your toddler should have one starchy food element.
Fruit & Vegetables
You should aim for 5 pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. You can give fruit as part of breakfast, after meals and for snacks. And then 1-2 vegetables at lunch and again at dinner. Fruit juice, smoothies, raisins, vegetables soups, home-made real fruit ice lollies, tinned fruits and vegetables also count towards their 5 a day.
You should give your toddler diary foods and drinks throughout the day, aim for three times daily. You shouldn’t using baby bottles anymore, instead give whole milk in a cup with with meals. There are other ways you can include diary in their daily diet:
- Give yogurt after lunch or dinner or as a snack.
- Offer cheese as a snack, cook meals containing cheese like pasta bakes, or give cheese sandwiches.
- Give milk-based puddings like custard or rice pudding sometimes or make homemade banana milkshakes.
Meat, Poultry, Fish and Vegetarian Proteins
You should give your toddler protein once or twice a day. Toddlers tend to prefer softer meats so make sure you cook plenty meals containing chicken, mince or ground beef, pork and lamb. Meatballs are a great use of mince. Beef and lamb chunks should be slow cooked until they are soft and flake apart. You should also give your toddler meals containing oily fish at least once a week like tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel and kippers.
If your family is vegetarian, make sure your toddler has non-meat proteins in their daily diet. You should include eggs, pulses, chickpeas, hummus, lentils and crushed nuts or peanuts in their daily diet.
Water and whole milk should make up the majority of your toddlers daily drinks. Water is always preferable over juice throughout the day as it quenches thirst and doesn’t damage teeth.
100% citrus fruit juices, diluted with water 50/50, are good to give with iron rich foods (covered above) as the vitamin C found in citrus fruits, help the body to absorb iron. It’s best to give juice with a straw to help protect their teeth from the natural sugar.
You should offer whole milk at breakfast and/or dinner time. Just remember milk is considered a food and shouldn’t replace meals after 12 months.
Healthier Toddler Snacks
Before your toddler reaches school age, and if they don’t have older siblings, it is easy to shelter them from fatty, salty and sugary foods. They don’t know any different at this point. Through the toddler years, it is better to stick to toddler snacks which have reduced salt and use fruit juice as a natural sweetner. They also are often made with more nutritious ingredients like oats and crisps made from other vegetables as well as potato. Also, continue to give snacks like fruit, vegetable sticks, crackers and breadsticks as much as possible. Avoid giving them sweets, fizzy drinks and non-toddler crisps and give chocolate, cakes and ice-cream just as a special treat.
As toddlers become more independent, sometimes they try to exert control over mealtimes. If you have a toddler who is refusing some meals, it’s important to remember that they won’t starve themselves to death. When they miss a meal or only eat a little, they will make up for it through the next meal or the next day. It’s natural to worry about their nutritional intake, but it’s better to look at their diet over a week instead of focusing on just what they’ve eaten, or not eaten that day. If you have a picky eater at home, you can get all my tips and tricks and try out my Less Picky Eater Plan here >
School Age Children (4-10)
Continue to include all the essential nutrients listed above within their diets. They also still need a diet that spans all 5 main food groups: protein, starchy foods, diary and their 5 a day of fruits and vegetables.
Establishing Healthy Eating Habits
Establishing healthy eating habits from early on will give your child the best start in life. Eating family meals together is a key part of modelling healthy eating habits and it can also help to curb obesity. You can read more about that here >
As parents, we are responsible for giving our children healthy, balanced diets. That doesn’t mean never allowing treats or meals of low nutritional value, but to give them in careful moderation and make sure the majority of food we give them throughout the week is healthy and nutritional. If you allow your child at an early age to eat meals like chicken nuggets and chips and snacks like chocolates, sweets and crisps regularly, you are teaching them that those foods are a normal part of every day diet. If you only give these type of foods occasionally, you are teaching them that these foods are a treat and not to be eaten often. And have conversations with them about which foods are healthy vs unhealthy.
Once your child starts school and moves on from the toddler years, it’s a good idea to start a treat day or sweetie day where once a week they are allowed to have sweets or chocolate bar. I’ve always done this with my kids on a Saturday, and it works for us all round. They look forward to it through the week and they never ask for sweets or a chocolate bar any other time. And I only allow them to have crisps when they have sandwiches, as part of their meal. This has taught them that these types of salty, sugary foods are not healthy and they see them just as being treats.
Grazing through the day can cause a loss of appetite at meal times, so try to just stick to one fruit or healthy snack in the morning and then one snack in the afternoon. Snacking throughout the day early on sets a precedent for the rest of their childhood and can also lead to childhood obesity.
All in Moderation
The food types that are unhealthy can be given occasionally as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to be mindful of what these are and to give them only in moderation.
Salt can increase blood pressure, leading to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. A salty diet is also linked to asthma, stomach cancer and brittle bone disease. Add only a little salt to home cooking and don’t use convenience and processed foods often as they are high in salt. Give salty foods in like bacon, crisps, cheese and salted peanuts in moderation. Keep in mind that even cereals, breads, pizza dough and cakes have salt in them. When buying foods and ingredients that are high in salt look for low salt versions, like reduced salt (and sugar) baked beans, low salt stock and low salt soy. Don’t allow you child to add salt to their meals, even as they get older.
Fatty & Sugary Foods
Give foods with high fat and sugar content occasionally. Examples of these are:
- Deep fried foods
- Cakes, puddings, biscuits and ice cream
- Sweets and chocolates
- Crisps and other salty snacks and food like bacon and cheese
- If buying ready meals, pizza, sauces etc try to choose options with less than 6g of fat per 100g. Foods with 15g of fat per 100g are much too high to be eaten regularly.
- Sweetened drinks and fruit juice (undiluted). We don’t yet know the full effects that artificially sweetened drinks will have on children in later years.
Fuel for School
Once children start school, they need regular meals and snacks to concentrate and keep their mood up. Regular energy boosts help them to think and learn properly. Having said that, they should not be grazing all day as this lowers their appetite for healthy meals. Their food routine should look like this:
- Mid-morning fruit snack
- Mid-afternoon snack
It’s also important to encourage your child to stay active alongside a healthy balanced diet in order to curb childhood obesity.
The Teenage Years (11- 18 yrs)
Teenagers often don’t get the nutrition they need, with their intake of various vitamins and minerals being below what they should be. This happens for various reasons. As teenagers get older and become more independent they spend more time away from home. They often choose fast foods while they are out and miss out on healthy homemade meals. Teenage girls in particular sometimes decide to follow a strict diet because of concern over their weight and body image, or they decide to become vegetarian. And once girls start to menstruate, iron intake becomes ever more important, but often they don’t increase the amount of iron rich foods they consume.
It’s important for parents to continue to eat family meals with their teenager as often as possible. This will allow them to ensure their teenager is getting enough healthy, nutritious meals to curb the low vitamin and deficiency trend. There are also many behavioural, psychological and family functioning reasons to eat as a family regularly, see what they are here >
These are the vitamins and minerals teenagers are often deficient in:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B2 / Riboflavin
Calcium is particularly important as teenagers tend to play a lot of sport and with a calcium deficiency can suffer bone fractures while playing. They will also be at higher risk for osteoporosis or brittle bones when they are older. Calcium is found in dairy products, dried figs, sesame seeds and tofu and should have 3-4 servings of these foods each day.
Vitamin B2 / Riboflavin
This vitamin helps to breakdown fats, proteins and carbohydrates, allowing the body to maintain a good energy supply. It also helps the digestive system, liver, eyes, muscles, nerves and skin all stay healthy. You can find vitamin B2 in diary products, meat, chicken, fish, nuts, sweet potato, mushrooms, avocados, asparagus, wholegrain breads and fortified cereals.
This mineral helps maintain nerve and muscle functions, regulates blood pressure and supports the immune system. It also helps build teeth and bones and supports heart and kidney function. Good levels of magnesium can be found in wholewheat/wholemeal flour and bread, cocoa powder and 70% dark chocolate, quinoa, black beans, edamame, avocado, tofu, spinach, rye crisp-breads, peanut butter, peanuts, almonds and cashew nuts.
The body needs this mineral to stay healthy. It helps to manage blood pressure by helping the body to remove sodium (salt). It is found in all fruits and vegetables. If your teenager doesn’t eat meals at home often, a cup of orange juice or a banana a day are good sources of potassium that can ensure they maintain a good levels. Dried apricots and prunes, lentils and kidney beans contain the highest levels of potassium.
This trace mineral helps to maintain thyroid function and is also an antioxidant. It is found in brazil nuts, raisins, fresh tuna, halibut, brown rice, eggs, white bread and sunflower seeds.
This is another mineral needed to support healthy thyroid function, which helps to maintain the body’s metabolism, bone health, central nervous system and immune response. You can find it in diary products, fish, iodised salt and seaweed.
The Adolescent Growth Spurt
During this phase bone length and height increase rapidly. Making sure your teenager has plenty of calories and nutrients through this phase is very important. After this growth spurt, their bone density, muscle and strength increases so they will continue to need a wide range of nutrients. Through these years it is still important to stick to the five key food groups. They should be doing around 60 mins physical activity everyday to strengthen bones and build muscles.
Controlling their Diet
As teenagers get more independent and are at home less, it’s hard to have much control over their diet. When they eat away from home, they are likely to choose to eat fast food. So it’s ever important that when they do eat at home, you give them healthy and balanced meals. And eating that way yourselves, can help to instill the importance of a good diet to your teenager.
If you think your child has an issue with their weight, either you think they could be overweight or underweight, the NHS have a useful resource section you can read for advice.
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