Proper eating tips for kids broken down by age group
Dr. Kimberly Dozier-Thornton
Nutrition is an important aspect of life.
It is also a very important aspect of childhood growth and development.
One of the major issues that we have in the United States is childhood obesity.
Nearly 30% of children in the United States are overweight or obese.
Furthermore, childhood obesity often leads to obesity into adulthood and associated health complications such as insulin resistance, diabetes, physical mobility issues, fatty liver, sleep apnea and heart disease.
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We understand that prevention is key and should start during early childhood.
Prevention includes providing and encouraging healthy food options and teaching healthy eating habits, so that children who are growing have the education to make consistent healthy food choices in the future.
Infants, birth to 6 months
For the first 6 months of life, it is recommend that children only take in breast milk and/or formula unless otherwise advised by the child’s health care provider.
This includes not adding baby food or cereal to bottles that are fed to the infant.
At 6 months of age, slow introduction of foods starting with cereals and then progressing to puree’s of fruits, vegetables and proteins are advised and should be incorporated into their daily diet.
Likely they will continue with the same intake of formula and breast milk.
The newest guidelines suggest early introduction of peanut butter to infants with severe eczema or egg allergy at age 4 to 6 months.
Otherwise, recommendations are to introduce infants to peanut butter at 6 months of age.
Remember that there are certain foods that are choking hazards and foods need to be prepared properly so they are safe to eat, according to size, shape and texture.
The child should also be sitting upright in a safe chair without distractions during mealtimes.
Toddlers and young children
It is normal and maybe frustrating to parents that toddlers tend to eat in “spurts.”
They grow in spurts and may have days where they eat very well and days where they are not eating as much.
This can be normal.
The focus should be on providing consistent and balanced meals of vegetables, fruit, protein, healthy fats and fiber.
Because children in this age range tend to move toward beige foods — for example the good old chicken nuggets and fries — they tend to struggle more with constipation.
Ensuring they have a good source of fruit and vegetables and plenty of water daily can help.
Also, remember they need a healthy source of vitamin D and calcium and should take in about 16 ounces of whole milk for ages 1 to 2 years and 1-2% milk for ages 2 years and older.
It is ok to give alternatives such as lactose free milk or other fortified milk substitutes if needed.
Children in this age group may be more exposed to different choices of food which may include processed foods, candy and other sugary options.
It is important to encourage healthy food choices and discuss having those other options in moderation and not too often.
Continue to encourage fruit, vegetables, lean proteins and limited amounts of healthy fats.
Encourage plenty of water daily.
Pre-teens and teens
Unhealthy eating habits may manifest as binge or overeating, snacking often on sugary and processed foods or overly restricting calories.
Because they are continuing to grow and develop, there are key nutrients that should be considered such as adequate iron in teen girls, adequate protein in teen boys and adequate calcium and vitamin D for good bone health in both genders. Again, adequate daily water intake is a must.
Overall, it is understood that demonstrating healthy eating habits and consistently providing healthy and nutritious eating options are important factors in the long-term health and nutrition of your child.
Here are some suggestions to help encourage healthy eating:
- Make family dinner a priority. Demonstrating healthy eating habits and eating together without the distractions of technology (phone, tablet, TV) is important not only in the nutrition of the family as a whole but helps with bonding and making the parent aware of the child’s eating habits.
- Hydration is key. Encourage plenty of water daily. There are special bottles and apps that help you stay on track with your daily water intake. You can use these tools to ensure that the daily amount of water intake is adequate.
- Moderation, moderation, moderation. We do not need to eliminate foods unless recommended by your health care professional. It is ok to have a “treat” occasionally. However, it should not be an everyday staple.
- Balance with fruit, vegetables and lean protein. Fruit helps with preventing constipation and is nature’s treat. Vegetables provide key micronutrients. Lean protein provide the building blocks that we need to repair our body and for children to grow and develop.
- Healthy fats in moderation. Healthy fats are important for brain growth and development in children and is helpful in keeping us feeling satiated.
- It is ok to make changes slowly. Incorporate healthy habits once every few weeks so that it is not overwhelming to provide the most success.
- Make it fun. Try different healthy recipes, cook and meal plan as a family and be open to trying new foods!
Dr. Kimberly Dozier-Thornton joined Pediatrics in Brevard in 2014. She is a board-certified pediatric physician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.