Healthy Foods For Kids

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Healthy food is essential for everyone. Kids are at the developmental phase, so they need a healthy diet with all the nutrients. Healthy eating habits should be inculcated in kids from the beginning. Kids try to imitate us, so as parents and caregivers, we should be setting good examples. Children should be taught about 'healthy' and 'junk' food and encouraged to eat healthy foods as much as possible.  

The role of nutrition in child development 

Nutrition is important in a child's development as it impacts their overall growth. Women are advised to take care of their diet during pregnancy as it affects their child's health. Research has proved that brain development occurs at a rapid rate in pregnancy and from birth to two years of age. Previously, researchers used to focus their studies on kids till their fifth birthday and then from around 14 years of age as they thought interventions at later stages are of no help if a child is malnourished. However, they later realised that research should be conducted in pre-teen years too as it is never too late to intervene.

A study was conducted on Peruvian children to show the impact of stunting. 'Stunted' growth refers to low height compared to the age group. The Young Lives study was conducted on children from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. There were two groups;  one enrolled at one year of age while the second group enrolled kids at eight years of age. From this study,  data was collected about Peruvian children from urban as well as rural areas. Data collection was done at 6-18 months of age and 4.5-6 years of age. Results showed that undernutrition causes poor cognitive development, reduced productivity levels and short adult stature compared to well-nourished children.¹

So, it is essential to nourish kids adequately in their early years. 

Key nutrients for kids

A healthy diet consists of macronutrients and micronutrients

Macronutrients are essential nutrients that provide our body with the energy needed for functioning. They are required in large amounts for proper body functions. They are measured in grams (g). 

Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins and fat. 

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates  are the main source of energy for the body as they break down into glucose. Sources of carbohydrates include bread, grain, rice, and fruits
  • Protein: Protein is used for repairing and building the tissues and helps in regulating hormones. Food such as meat, fish, eggs, and cheese are  good sources of protein
  • Fats: Fats break down into fatty acids and glycerol and provide fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K

Micronutrients are required in small amounts compared to macronutrients for proper body functioning. They are measured in milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg) and International Units (IU). Vitamins and minerals such as; calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C are some of the micronutrients.²

Here's a chart for some vitamins and minerals with their benefits and sources.

NutrientBenefitSource
Vitamin AEyes and skinCheese, eggs, green leafy vegetables
Vitamin B1Nervous system and heartBread, nuts and seeds
Vitamin B2Skin and nervous systemDairy products, eggs, almonds
Vitamin B3Skin and nervous systemFish, meat, poultry
Vitamin B6Immune systemMeat, poultry, fish
Vitamin B12Nervous systemMeat, cheese, eggs
Vitamin CSkin, bones, nervous systemBlackcurrant, strawberries, kiwi
Folic acidNervous system development in foetus, immune systemGreen leafy vegetables, berries, oranges, bread
Vitamin DImmune system, bones and musclesOily fish, eggs
Vitamin EProtect cells from damageSunflower oil, olive oil,almonds
Vitamin KBlood clottingBroccoli, peas, olive oil
CalciumBones and teethMilk, bread, green leafy vegetable
IronMake red blood cells and immune system functionRed meat, beans, pulses
MagnesiumBonesNuts and seeds, quinoa

According to the World Health Organisation, key nutrients that are required in kid’s diet are:

  1. Fruits and vegetables: Try to incorporate two servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Consuming raw (but cleaned) vegetables is considered more healthy as cooking them destroys some of the essential vitamins and minerals. Consuming fruits instead of fruit juice is recommended as store bought juice might contain some sugars. Consuming green leafy vegetables is highly recommended as they are a good source of iron. 
  2. Pulses and grains: Pulses like chickpeas, kidney beans, peas etc. are healthy options. Try including whole grain foods such as whole wheat or brown rice which are more healthy compared to processed grains like white rice and bread. 
  3. Dairy products: Dairy products include milk and milk based products such as cheese and yogurt, they are a good source of calcium and vitamin D. Kids need calcium as their bones are growing.
  4. Meat based: Animal based foods such as fish, eggs, chicken are also good for health. Limit the consumption of red meat such as beef, pork or lamb. 
  5. Fats and oils: Fats and healthy oils are essential for the body. Include plant based oils such as sunflower, peanut, corn, and olive oil. 
  6. Water: For the first six months of life, infants should only be given breast milk or formula milk. After six months, infants should be introduced to semi-solids and little amounts of water. Slowly, the amount of water should be increased. 

Healthy eating habits

Healthy eating habits should be inculcated early in life. Parents or caregivers should be good role models and follow a healthy diet. Let's check out few ways in which we can inculcate healthy eating habits in kids³,

  • Self-regulation: As caregivers, we should not be force feeding and override their ability to understand their reflexes. Parents should supervise mealtimes, but not be controlling.
  • Eating socialisation: Eating socialisation refers to the process where parents teach their kids about healthy eating practices that are accepted by family as well as community. Home is the first place of learning and it acts as a base. But, as they grow and start school, they will get influenced by their friends and others around them. 
  • Grocery shopping: Teach your child about healthy food and take them for grocery shopping, if possible. 
  • Meal preparation: Studies have shown a positive correlation between meal preparation and healthy food intake. Kids who helped in meal preparation chose healthy food over junk food. 
  • Create a schedule: It is recommended to create a weekly schedule and try to include a variety of foods so that kids don't get bored. 
  • Importance of nutrients: Teach your child the importance of various vitamins and minerals we receive from our food. Talk to them about how they help our body and what happens when our body gets deficient in those nutrients. 

Common challenges

Challenges are quite common in almost all stages of parenting. Teaching good habits, be it dietary or ethical, requires consistency and hard work. Nowadays, nuclear families and single parent families are increasing. Due to lack of time, it might be difficult for parents or caregivers to implement healthy eating habits. At times, they might not be able to prepare a healthy meal at home. 

Junk food items are marketed on a big scale, easily available and easy to consume. This makes them a good choice for kids and some parents too. As caregivers, it is our duty to teach them the consequences of eating junk food. 

Picky eaters are another challenge for parents. We should be teaching them about healthy eating, not forcefully feeding them. I can tell from my experience that teaching kids takes time as their likes and dislikes keep changing. 

A recent research proved that kids in the UK consume the highest levels of ultra processed food among all European nations. This has led to the UK being the highest nation in obesity among 10-19 year olds all over Europe. School meals in the UK are also substandard as almost 64% calories in school meals is ultra processed food.⁵

So, our aim should be to avoid processed foods as much as possible.

Summary

Kids need a fully balanced diet as they are in their growth phase. As they grow, their dietary needs and likes keep changing. Parents or caregivers should evolve with time and circumstances. We should be creating awareness about nutrition and how healthy food affects us. Schools should also aim to provide  healthy balanced meals. 

Macronutrients and micronutrients are part of an essential diet. Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are required for proper functioning of the body. 

Key nutrients of a healthy diet consist of fruits and vegetables, dairy products, pulses and grains, fats and oils and animal based foods. Hydration is equally important for health. 

References

  1. Crookston BT, Dearden KA, Alder SC, Porucznik CA, Stanford JB, Merrill RM, et al. Impact of early and concurrent stunting on cognition. Matern Child Nutr [Internet]. 2010 Jul 8 [cited 2023 Sep 11];7(4):397–409. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6860723/
  2. Cena H, Calder PC. Defining a healthy diet: evidence for the role of contemporary dietary patterns in health and disease. Nutrients [Internet]. 2020 Jan 27 [cited 2023 Sep 12];12(2):334. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071223/
  3. Haines J, Haycraft E, Lytle L, Nicklaus S, Kok FJ, Merdji M, et al. Nurturing children’s healthy eating: position statement. Appetite [Internet]. 2019 Jun 1 [cited 2023 Sep 12];137:124–33. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666318313412
  4. Quelly SB. Helping with meal preparation and children’s dietary intake: a literature review. The Journal of School Nursing [Internet]. 2019 Feb [cited 2023 Sep 12];35(1):51–60. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1059840518781235
  5. Parnham JC, Millett C, Vamos EP. School meals in the UK: ultra-processed, unequal and inadequate. Public Health Nutrition [Internet]. 2023 Jan [cited 2023 Sep 13];26(1):297–301. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/school-meals-in-the-uk-ultraprocessed-unequal-and-inadequate/35D1B4D60006DDEF87AA50C8AF33288C

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Simmi Anand

B.Sc. Nuclear Medicine, Manipal University
MBA Healthcare Services, Sikkim Manipal University

An experienced Nuclear Medicine professional with a passion for writing.

She is experienced in dealing with patients suffering from different ailments, mostly cancer.

Simmi took a career break to raise her daughter with undivided attention.

During this time, she fine-tuned her writing skills and started writing stories for her child. Today, Simmi is a published author of 'Story time with proverbs' series for young ones. She also enjoys writing parenting blogs on her website www.simmianand.com.

Simmi hopes to reignite her career as a medical writer, combining her medical knowledge with her zeal for writing to produce informative health articles for her readers.

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