Healthy eating is important at any stage in life, but even more so in childhood. Growth and development rely heavily on a child’s health and nutrition so it’s important for kids to eat the right food.
Poor nutrition can contribute to poor brain development, low energy, a lack of mental alertness, and even serious health conditions in adulthood. It can also lead to childhood obesity—eating a lot may seem to indicate a “healthy appetite,” but eating a lot doesn’t automatically make children healthy. It also matters what kind of food they’re consuming.
To ensure that you raise healthy kids, make these five things a regular part of their diet.
5 Things Your Child Should Be Eating
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the other two are carbohydrates and fats) and is essential for tissue growth and repair, and aids in the production of enzymes and hormones. The body uses protein by breaking it down into amino acids. There are 20 known amino acids; 12 (known as non-essential amino acids) are produced by the body, while the rest (known as essential amino acids) have to be ingested.
Not consuming these essential amino acids may hinder bodily functions like tissue growth. Thus, it’s important for growing children to get the right amount and right kinds of protein.
There are two sources of protein: animals and plants. Both have their pros and cons. Animal protein typically has all essential amino acids but some animal sources come with bad stuff like saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol.
Plant sources don’t have saturated fat but they aren’t complete sources of the essential amino acids—you’ll have to mix and match to find the right combination of plant sources to get all the necessary protein.
When going for animal protein, choose the healthiest kinds: fatty fish (which contain omega-3 fatty acids, also essential for good health), lean cuts of meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Avoid processed meat like hotdogs and use healthier methods to cook your protein (bake or grill instead of deep fry).
If you’re cutting back on meat, you can get protein from tofu, beans and legumes, and soy milk. Note that if you’re bringing up vegetarian children, you have to work closely with a nutritionist to make sure that your kids get all the protein they need.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which keeps kids’ digestive systems healthy. They can help boost kids’ immune systems, help them grow and develop, and reduce the risk of diseases later in life.
The more kinds of fruits and vegetables they eat, the better. Encourage them to “eat the rainbow”—you can even make a game of it for younger kids and have them track the colors of produce they eat each day. Some options for each color:
Red – tomatoes, apples, peppers
Orange – oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes
Yellow – bananas, pineapples, corn
Green – leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli
Blue and Violet – blueberries, grapes, and eggplants
When feeding kids fruits and vegetables, it’s best to go for organic produce to make sure that what you’re getting is pesticide-free.
Grains provide plenty of fiber and the energy kids need to fuel them throughout the day. Rice is a staple in every Filipino household, but go for brown rice instead of white for a lower glycemic index and sustained energy. Other grain options are oats and quinoa. Ancient grains have been shown to have many health benefits. Some to try: buckwheat, sorghum, farro, kamut, teff, amaranth, millet, bulgur, and freekeh. All are available at Healthy Options.
Calcium is important for developing strong, healthy bones and teeth. Some of the best sources of calcium are dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Aside from calcium, these dairy products also offer other nutrients like protein, iodine, and Vitamin B12. Calcium needs vary per age. In the U.S., it’s recommended that children 2 to 3 years old get 2 cups of dairy daily; those ages 4 to 8 should get 2.5 cups; those 9 and above should get 3 cups.
A Day in the Life of a Healthy Eater
Below are some meal suggestions to help your kids eat the five things that are important to their diet.
- Omelet with cheese, bell peppers, and spinach
- Baked salmon with quinoa and mixed vegetables
- Yogurt parfait made with Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and nuts
- Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and meatballs with carrots grated in; fresh fruit for dessert
If you’re having a tough time getting kids to eat their fruits and veggies, get creative—you can turn them into smoothies mixed with milk, bake them with some cinnamon, or serve them with healthy dips (like homemade ranch dressing, hummus, or salsa) or spreads (all-natural peanut butter). And remember: Kids will likely be encouraged to eat healthy if they see their parents doing the same. So don’t let healthy eating just be for the benefit of your children’s health and nutrition but yours as well.