By Shirley Fan, RD, CDN
Compared to adults, kids need to eat more nutritious food in proportion to their size to support their growing bodies. Though their energy and nutritional needs can vary depending on age, growth rate, body size, and level of activity, kids should eat a variety of foods with different tastes, textures, and colors in appropriate amounts.*
A balanced meal for kids should include low-fat dairy (for ages 2+), iron-rich protein, nutrient and fiber-packed fruits and vegetables, and whole-grains. Fat is also an important source of energy for their growth and development. Between 25 and 35 percent of calories (ages 4-18) should come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids in the form of fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
Adequate nutritional intake can be tricky, since many kids are picky eaters. Because parents have a major influence on a child's habits and tastes, they can foster an environment that promotes healthy eating and avoid "food battles" by creating a balance between the child needs and wants. The following are some strategies in promoting positive eating habits with children:
- Set a good example: Food attitudes of parents are the strongest predictors of food likes and dislikes for children.
- Create a regular meal schedule: Kids will snack less when there are set meals.
- Have sit-down meals together. Designate family dinner nights to encourage connectedness and conversation. Studies also show that family meals promote healthy eating habits and higher consumption of vitamins and minerals.
- Do not force or bribe children to finish their plates: Stressful situations over food can make kids develop negative feelings around eating.
- Don't be too restrictive: It's okay to eat junk food in moderation. Being too rigid will make kids develop intense cravings.
- Empower kids: Let kids help out in the kitchen or have a say in what they eat.
- Be flexible: Understand that things can't change overnight and that habits change slowly. If kids repeatedly refuse to eat healthy foods, keep trying. Children will eventually learn to at least enjoy some of them as long as you keep providing them. Also, don't worry if your child sometimes skips food groups. It's what the child eats over the course of several days that counts, not just one day.
- Provide nutritious food: Keep fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole grain crackers around for snacks.
- Encourage exercise: Children should get around 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. It helps strengthen muscles and bones and can help ward off weight problems.
*Check MyPyramid.gov for detailed estimated energy needs and food group recommendations.