Carol Slager Times correspondent
When my boys were young, they went through food phases. One week, avocados were a staple on the highchair tray. The next, the only place an avocado would end up was on the floor. I remember freaking out, just a little, because days would go by and the only creature younger than 5 consuming vegetables was the dog.
The good news is that once the teenage years hit, it was a challenge to keep food at home. They ate everything in sight, making up for those picky early years. I learned as they grew up that it wasn’t a crisis if a few days went by without vegetables or some other food group. They usually made up for it over the course of a week.
When we look at nutrition for children, the same basics apply as for adults. Whole foods, a variety of colored fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats and a special treat on occasion. Enjoying mostly nutrient-dense foods — those high in nutrients with no or limited added sugar, saturated fat or salt — helps their immune system, dental health, growth, bone formation, brain function and overall development.
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One of the greatest challenges with meeting nutritional needs in children is the heavy marketing of foods and beverages that are processed, high in sugar and other ingredients that do not promote good health. Trans fats, artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners are best avoided as well. Between commercials, sack lunches and snacks with friends and appealing grocery shelves, parents are working against tough odds. I remember having to press mom pretty hard to get her to cave and bring home those pastries that you pop in the toaster. It was a victory for me at the time. I now know that she was doing her best to keep me from a habit that could lead to problems. She also knew that the occasional sugar rush was probably not going to do me in.
Nutrient-dense selections include:
- Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables with no additives. Frozen may be more nutritious if the produce is quickly frozen within a short time of being harvested. Choose a variety of colors and textures.
- Protein such as chicken, fish (fresh, frozen or canned and preferably wild caught), beans and legumes, grass-fed beef, eggs, dairy.
- Whole grains such as whole-wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, wild or brown rice, oatmeal (not instant) and popcorn (made without hydrogenated oil).
- Healthy fats include extra virgin olive oil, nut and nut butters, seed and seed butters, avocados and avocado oil.
Dairy is a common source of necessary nutrients, including vitamins A and D, calcium, potassium and protein. Those with dairy allergies or sensitivities can get some of these nutrients from sources including fortified nut and plant milks, fortified goat milk, dark green leafy vegetables, fish with bones, beans/legumes and broccoli.
Ideally, each meal would include protein, fruit and/or vegetables, healthy fat, starch from a grain or some variety of potato. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks can consist of vegetables with hummus, fruit with nut butter, cheese and whole grain crackers, homemade energy bites (oats, nut butter, dried fruit) and smoothies (your imagination is the limit with ingredients) .
Children also need to drink water throughout the day. Fiber is important and can be found in produce, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. Any type of vitamin or mineral supplement should be discussed with their health-care provider.
Most important is to keep your kitchen stocked with these healthy options. Depending on the age of the children, include them in the planning and preparation of meals and snacks. Less nutritious or fun foods should not be totally avoided. It’s important for them to develop a healthy relationship with food. Absolute restrictions may lead to weight gain or other eating disorders. They may snack more and overindulge in traditional snack foods. Set an example for healthy eating habits and eat meals together as a family.
When age appropriate and when you’re well rested, take them shopping. Maneuvering your way through the produce section together is an educational adventure. Growing a small or patio garden helps them learn about the importance of farming. Even growing herbs in your kitchen window and using them to flavor your food allows for teaching opportunities.
It’s not a big deal if the dog is the only one getting vegetables for a day or two. What matters most is what your child eats over a week or several weeks.
Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach in Northwest Indiana. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com. Opinions expressed are the writer’s.