Helping children to develop healthy eating and activity patterns at a young age is important for many reasons.
We know habits developed in childhood often carry over into adulthood. In order to help children avoid diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and becoming overweight or obese (metabolic syndrome), we should provide guidance and examples of what we put into our bodies and how active we should be throughout the day.
Figuring this out for children can be a challenge. Thankfully, we have the newly released “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” a guide set by health professionals and made accessible for us to use as reference.
How much should your child be eating, and how much physical activity do they need?
Children in different age groups have different calorie, nutrient, and activity requirements. Regardless of age, all children require nutrient-dense calories, as well as protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. “Nutrient dense” describes calories that come from foods that are generally not processed, or those that are low or absent in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Nutrient-dense foods, especially those made from scratch, also help provide important vitamins, minerals, and fiber in the diet.
There are many helpful ways to foster healthy nutrition. Here’s a quick look at some essential food sources that, sometimes with a little creativity, provide great nutritional value for kids of all ages.
Protein helps kids build and maintain healthy muscles, as well as keeping them feeling full.
Aim for proteins low in saturated fats and high in healthy fats. One way to do this is to swap beef for shrimp, salmon, cod, or another seafood option. Seafood tends to be saturated-fat-free, often containing essential fatty acids such as DHA and EPA. If your child isn’t into seafood, you can opt for lean meats like skinless chicken breast or lean cuts of pork or beef, as well as beans, legumes, nuts/nut butters, and soy products such as tofu or tempeh. Milk and dairy, as well as dairy-free options, also contain protein while providing some important vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D.
Protein requirements in ounces per day:
Ages 5-8: 3-5 ½
Ages 9-13: 4-6 ½
Ages 14-18: 5-7
Fruit and Vegetables
While many children do not lack in the fruit department, the ratio of recommended daily requirements to actual intake of vegetables is something to consider as a parent or caregiver.
Kids of all ages (adults, too!) should be “eating the rainbow” each day to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake. Most of our colorful foods come from the fruit and veggie department. Try and increase your child’s vegetable intake by offering vegetables with dinner each night, as well as packing healthy snack options in their lunch bags. Carrots and hummus or celery and easy-to-make Greek yogurt dips such as tzatziki, are great choices. Salads are another easy and delicious way to increase vegetable intake and variety.
When it comes to fruit, whole is best. Most fruit juices, regardless of health claims, provide more calories from sugar than anything else and completely lack the fiber that fruit provides. Fiber is important for maintaining gut health as well as helping to slow down the rate of sugar absorption in the blood.
Vegetable requirements per day:
Ages 5-8: 1½-2½ cups
Ages 9-18: 2½-4 cups
We all need carbohydrates – they provide quick energy and are the brain’s preferred food source.
Healthy carbohydrate options include whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa or foods made with whole wheat flour. Beans, legumes, and starchy vegetables also provide healthy carbohydrates when prepared correctly. For example, make French fries at home rather than buying them from a drive-through where they are likely deep-fried in saturated fat.
Whole grain requirements per day:
Most children require between 3-10 ounces of grains per day. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of these should be in whole grain form, so try to avoid or minimize refined grains or food made with white flour.
Vitamins & Minerals to Consider: Calcium and Vitamin D
As children get older, they tend to drink less milk. As a result, your child could be missing out on essential vitamins and minerals found in milk products such as calcium and vitamin D.
Other dietary sources of vitamin D include fish, red and organ meat, eggs, and fortified foods such as cereals and juices. Other dietary sources of calcium include green, leafy vegetables, yogurt, cheese, and fortified foods soy products and flour.
Daily recommendations for calcium and Vitamin D:
Ages 4-8: 1000 mg/day
Ages 9-13 1300mg/day
All ages: 600 IU day
Hydration and Sugar-sweetened Beverages
Your child should drink water throughout the day to maintain well-functioning body systems. Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as juice, soda, and sports drinks, are full of empty calories. Water is the best option, followed by unsweetened, non-caffeinated tea and low-fat milk. If water is getting boring, get your kids excited by letting them flavor it themselves with a variety of fruits and herbs.
How much water your child needs depends on age, weight, and activity level, so check with your child’s primary care provider for more information.
The Role of Physical Activity
Well-rounded nutrition is always important, so, too, is physical activity.
According to the Dietary Guidelines and pediatricians, children need at least 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per day. Physical activity is crucial for childhood development of motor skills, muscle, and cardio fitness. It’s also proven to help alleviate depression and anxiety.
Spring is almost here so try getting outside together whenever possible. You can go to a playground, take bike rides, or enjoy walks together to achieve the recommended 60 minutes per day. Everyone wins!
For more information
Talk to your child’s primary care provider and ask if a referral to a registered dietitian may be helpful for your child. For information about Saint Anne’s Hospital’s outpatient nutrition services, call 508-674-5600, extension 2160.
A graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor of Science degree in culinary nutrition, Haley Blanchette is currently completing a dietetic internship through Sodexo at Saint Anne’s Hospital.
Kid-friendly recipes (for kids and adults of all ages!)
Banana Bomb Cookies
Child-friendly tip: Let your child mash the bananas and mix the batter!
2 large ripe bananas
1 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup each crushed walnuts* and dark chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Peel bananas & place in a mixing bowl; mash with a potato masher or fork until smooth.
Add oats, walnuts, & chocolate chips; stir to combine.
Drop a heaping tablespoon of the cookie batter onto lined baking sheet and flatten with spatula or hand; continue until there is none left.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until edges are browned.
Remove from heat & let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.
Serving size: 2 cookies
Number of servings: 8-9
Savory Veggie Wraps
Child-friendly tip: Help your children help build their own wraps!
4 medium flour tortillas
1 cup arugula
½ cup shredded or thinly sliced carrots
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 ripe avocado, sliced
½ cup chopped cucumber or ½ cup pickled cucumber or radish
Salt & pepper, to taste
½ cup plain Greek yogurt*
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon dried or fresh dill
1/8 teaspoon each salt & pepper
Wash & pat dry all vegetables.
Spread a 1/2 tablespoon of yogurt dressing in the center of each wrap and layer arugula on top.
Arrange all other vegetables on top of arugula.
Place chopped cucumber (or pickled cucumber or radishes) on top of vegetables.
Sprinkle with salt & pepper.
Roll tortillas & cut in half
Serving size: 1 wrap
Number of servings: 4