Childhood Nutrition: Food for the Growing Years | Reader's Digest

Childhood Nutrition: Food for the Growing Years

Set guidelines for lifelong healthy eating, from toddlers to teens.

from Foods That Harm, Foods That Heal

Practice Healthful Eating
During the first few years of life, it’s vital to meet a child’s nutritional needs in order to ensure proper growth and also to establish a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

Eating a meal should be both a healthy and an enjoyable occasion — a fact that many parents may overlook when planning a meal for their growing children. Instead of a fast meal (especially one short in nutritional value) that family members eat at different hours, mealtimes should promote family togetherness whenever possible.

Relaxed dining experiences with good food and conversation (that doesn’t involve criticizing table manners or pleading with children to eat) help to foster family relationships, as well as good digestion. You can also involve children in family meals by having them help out with simple mealtime tasks, such as peeling potatoes, preparing salads, or setting the table. If mealtime is a pleasant event, children may practice healthful eating habits later on in life.

The Growing Years
Between the ages of 2 and 20, the human body changes continuously and dramatically. In general, muscles grow stronger, bones grow longer, height may more than double, and weight can increase as much as fivefold. The most striking changes take place during puberty, which usually occurs between the ages of 10 and 15 in girls and slightly later — between the ages of 12 and 19 — in boys. Sexual development and maturity take place at this time, which results in a startling physical transformation.

Children need energy for all the growing years: typically 1,300 calories a day for a 2-year-old, 1,700 for a 5-year-old, 2,200 for a 16-year-old girl, and 2,800 for a 16-year-old boy.

The amount of food that a child needs varies according to height, build, gender, and activity level. Left to themselves, most children will usually eat the amount of food that’s right for them; however, it is up to the parents to make sure that their children have the right foods available to choose from. Don’t fall into the age-old trap of forcing them to eat more food than they want or need. Yesterday’s notion of “cleaning your plate” can lead to overeating and weight problems in some cases, or to a lifelong dislike of particular foods. Parents may find it better to serve smaller portions in the first place or to allow children to serve themselves.

Changes in Appetite
In most children, appetite slackens as the growth rate slows after the first year; it will then vary throughout childhood, depending on whether the child is going through a period of slow or rapid growth. It is perfectly normal for a young child to eat ravenously one day and then show little interest in food the following day.

Eating patterns change with the onset of the adolescent growth spurt; teenagers usually develop voracious appetites to match their need for additional energy. At the same time, many develop erratic eating habits — for example, skipping breakfast, lunching at school or at a fast-food restaurant, then snacking almost nonstop until bedtime. Although snacking is not the ideal way to eat, a “food on the run” lifestyle won’t necessarily cause nutritional problems as long as the basic daily requirements for protein, carbohydrates, fats, and various vitamins and minerals are met. You can generally keep your teenager out of nutritional danger by providing snacks that are high in vitamins, minerals, and protein but low in sugar, fat, and salt. This basically means buying healthful snack foods, such as fresh and dried fruits, juices, raw vegetables, nuts, cheese, whole-grain crackers, unadulterated popcorn, and yogurt — not candy, cake, cookies, potato chips, corn chips, and soft drinks.

Foods for Toddlers
After the first year children can eat most of the dishes prepared for the rest of the family. Toddlers, however, have high energy requirements and small stomachs, so they may need five or six small meals or snacks a day. Schedule a toddler’s snacks so they don’t interfere with food intake during meals. An interval of about an hour and a half is usually enough.

Toddlers often go on food jags — for example, eliminating everything that’s white or green. Such food rituals are often short-lived, although they can be annoying or worrisome if they get out of hand. Respect the child’s preferences without giving in to every whim; offer a reasonable alternative.

Balance and Variety
Children need a wide variety of foods. Carbohydrates — breads, cereals, fruits, and vegetables — should make up the major part of the diet. Protein foods can include meat, fish, milk, soy products (such as bean curd), and combinations of grains and legumes. Milk is an important source of calories, minerals, and vitamins. Children 4 to 9 years old should have 2 to 3 milk-product servings every day (some of the milk may be in the form of cheese or yogurt). Grilled and baked foods are preferable to fried and fatty ones for children of all ages.

The Value of Dietary Fats
Fats are probably the most misunderstood nutrients. Although everyone should avoid excess fat, we all need a certain amount for important body functions. Several vitamins (A, D, E, and K) can be absorbed only in the presence of fat, and fats are necessary for the production of other body chemicals, including the hormones that transform boys and girls into men and women. Despite the benefits of fat intake, excessive fat intake in childhood may lead to obesity and many adult diseases. The current recommendation for fat intake is similar in the United States and Canada. The general recommendation is that children should consume a diet containing no more than 30 percent of energy as fat and no more than 10 percent of energy as saturated fat. The transition to this diet should begin after 2 years of age with a gradual reduction in fat intake over time.