Nutrition for Kids

This article will focus on how parents should think about their kids’ nutrition. I will start by briefly detailing the importance of nutrition with regards to growth and development and then moving onto practical strategies that might help to actually get them to eat right.

The Importance of Healthy Nutrition for Kids…and Getting Them to Eat Right

By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian

Regardless of what age you are, physical activity and adequate nutrition are known to be beneficial to bone and muscle. Good nutrition is a fundamental key to not only fueling your daily activities but also making sure that you are properly supporting the maintenance of your vessel.

As important as it is to maintain a strong and healthy body as you get older, much of what we may deal with as we age stems from the habits and health of our younger. Infancy through puberty makes up our formative years, where we set the foundation for our bodies. We can’t go back in time and make better choices, but we can pay forward what we know about health, strength, and fitness to younger generations. With fewer kids in school, parents are more responsible now for their kids’ daily exercise and nutrition, presenting new challenges for many parents. And, while “making healthy choices” may seem like a good blanket approach to kids’ nutrition, their needs differ from adults’, and parents can make better choices with more understanding of how nutrition affects children’s growth and health.

This article will focus on how parents should think about their kids’ nutrition. I will start by briefly detailing the importance of nutrition with regards to growth and development and then moving onto practical strategies that might help to actually get them to eat right.

The Importance of Nutrition for Kids

“Nu·tri·tion”

-The process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.

Childhood and adolescence are characterized by periods of rapid physical growth. We observe the structural changes—bone elongation and muscle mass accretion—in children’s rapidly growing bodies, as they get taller, bigger, and stronger. An average 2-year-old boy’s height typically doubles by age 20, and his weight increases five times over his starting weight.[1]

Even as we grow physically, astounding development occurs in nearly every system of the body, particularly the nervous system. The brain grows in size and complexity, neurons grow (including myelin sheath), neurotransmitters are synthesized.

Just as with our external growth, nutrients serve as both structural building blocks and as factors that regulate the development of cognitive and sensory systems.

In general, the recommended intakes of macronutrients and micronutrients for children are higher relative to body size compared with nutrient needs during adulthood. When it comes to proper growth and development, the two most important things to consider are total overall calories and protein intake (not unlike a well-formulated weight gain phase for lifters). These are the building blocks of strong and functional bodies. Insufficient calories may delay growth spurts and lead to stunting. (“Does Lifting Weights Stunt Growth?” Read More.)

When you factor in activity levels, it’s no surprise that energy requirements for kids are higher than for adults. But part of these recommendations helps ensure that they are growing properly. It can be hard to set a guideline for calorie intake for kids because of the great inter-individuality between different ages, sexes, and activity levels. The 2015-2020 set of Dietary Guidelines suggests that young children need from 1,000 to 2,000 calories per day, with the range for older children and adolescents varying substantially from 1,400 to 3,200 calories per day, and with boys generally having higher calorie needs than girls.[2],[3]

Regarding protein, children’s needs are slightly higher. According to the World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization (WHO/FAO), the reference values for protein intake is 0.9 g/kg/day from 3 to 18 years of age for boys and from 3 to 15 years of age for girls, decreasing slightly after age 18 to 0.8 g/kg/day.[4]

As we move beyond those two key factors, it’s essential for children to consume a well-varied diet with a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals. There are a few important key micronutrients of concern that are needed in increased amounts to support proper growth and development: [5]

  • As a major component of blood and muscle tissue, adequate intake of iron during growth is essential. Iron supports the myoglobin molecules in growing muscle, and the synthesis of hemoglobin helps to keep up with the capacity to carry oxygen through increasing blood volume. Iron also has a role in developing the myelin sheath and synthesizing neurotransmitters of the nervous system.
  • With up to 90% of peak bone mass being acquired by 20 years of age, adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D is essential during childhood and adolescence.[6] As a brief tangent, weight-bearing activities like running, hiking, dancing, tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and especially resistance training can help to strengthen bones as well.
  • Zinc enables metabolic processes associated with growth and sexual maturation by acting as a catalyst for dozens of reactions. It’s also important for brain health, as deficiency impairs signal transmission throughout the nervous system related to including motor skills, attention, and learning.
  • Iodine plays an important role in the synthesis of thyroid hormones that play a role in both metabolic processes and cognitive development. Deficiency is one of the most common causes of preventable brain damage in the world.
  • While fatty acids are a primary component of every cell membrane in the body, they are even more critical for the brain. Brain cells are enriched with the specific long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
  • Vitamin A and two other carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) are essential for the transduction of light into neural signals in the eye, making them key nutrients for proper vision and preventing blindness.

Finding a Balance

We are surely in an interesting period of time where there are both alarmingly high rates of childhood obesity and childhood eating disorders.

  • The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled over the last four decades, from 5% in 1978 to 18.5 percent in 2016. Obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2 to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6 to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12 to 19-year-olds.[7], [8]
  • Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of 12 years old increased by 119% between the years of 1999 and 2006. [9]
  • A study from Europe reported that 10.5% of 258 hospitalized patients with anorexia aged 8-18 years were under the age of 12.[10]
  • Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their same-aged peers.[11]

The balance of fostering healthy eating and developing a child’s long-term healthy relationship with food only adds an extra layer to the work that parents must do. It’s like Goldilocks…not too much pressure and control where it destroys kid’s relationships with food and might harm their health BUT also not too lax where kids are allowed to eat amounts of energy that set them up for weight management concerns.

Practical Strategies

As important as proper nutrition is for kids, there are a lot of obstacles. Picky eaters, hectic schedules, school lunches, high-energy needs, increasing independence, etc. What are we to do?

First…take a breath.

Getting kids to eat everything they need without being perfect is totally possible. It’s not necessary that they stun everyone with their brown-bag lunch. You don’t have to make the world’s healthiest family dinners, and it’s okay if they are not shunning sweets and treats in favor of fruits and vegetables.

Providing kids with small amounts of choice and control, a basic understanding of why nutrition matters, and a healthy environment to see the value of food beyond fuel can help to change things for the better. With patience, persistence, and taking the long view, you can help to ensure that you’re feeding your kids properly.

With the help of Precision Nutrition and Holistic Nutritionist Alex Picot-Annand, here are a variety of suggestions to help your little ones make healthier food choices on their own.[12]

(1) Define Your Roles (Make Meals Flexible)

Ellyn Satter is an internationally recognized dietitian and authority on eating and feeding. Probably her most recognized and well-distributed work is “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” In it, she encourages parents to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat what you provide.[13]

 

Parents/GuardiansKids
Shop for food

Prepare the food

Provide meals at set times

Making meals and eating times fun and enjoyable

Decide whether to eat

Decide which of the foods available they will eat

Decide how much to eat

 

One of the best ways to make this work is to offer customizable meals that present a lot of healthy options that allow kids to confidently build their own meals from what they like.

It can be as simple as offering a few different protein options, a few different grain/starch options, and a few vegetable options. If you want to make it more fun, you could add a theme to the meal.

 

Pizza NightPitas, sauce, cheese, onions, peppers, mushrooms, spinach, chicken, Canadian bacon, pineapple, etc.
Taco NightCorn/whole wheat tortillas, rice, beans, ground beef, chicken, tomatoes, cheese, guacamole, peppers, onions
Salad BarSalad greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots, avocado, nuts and seeds, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, choice of dressings

 

The options don’t have to be this extensive, but the more you provide, the more likely you are to get them to eat. If you have multiple options made up at the beginning of the week, you can make sure that you will use up all that you cook, and nothing goes to waste.

(2) Be a Role Model

If you’re eating a diet full of sweets, treats, and processed foods, it’s unlikely that your kids will grow up wanting to eat lean meats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. What you are eating is going to be the first place that kids look when they are forming their eating habits.

Just like kids mimic your words and actions as you go through your life, this happens with the way you feed yourself. Actions may be even more important than what you say to them. Therefore, it’s imperative that you set a good example of what proper nutrition looks like.

  • Are you gobbling down frantically or mindfully eating your food?
  • Are you eating without distractions, or are you chowing down in front of the TV or other screens?
  • Do you only eat five foods, or are you open and curious about new foods?
  • Do you eat strictly for pleasure, or do you find a balance of pleasure and eating for nourishment, and what makes you feel good?
  • Do you disregard hunger cues, or do you stop meals when you are satisfied and not stuffed?

(3) Get Input

While your role as a parent/guardian should be to shop and prepare what foods you provide, it doesn’t mean that it is a dictatorship. Instead, make this a partnership.

Asking kids for their input on what food they want to see in the house and on the menu makes it less likely that you will deal with pickiness at meals and gives them a sense of partially being in control of their choices.

Some ways to get kids involved in this would be to ask…

  • I’m going to the grocery store. What would you like to add to the list?
  • Look at all these different fruits and vegetables? Which of these sounds fun to try out?
  • Want to pick a new recipe out of this beautiful cookbook that we can try for dinner this week?

This point is even more relevant with kids being stuck at home and not getting provided school lunches. When it comes to having food for lunches on hand, make sure to get their input on some of the choices. Stock stuff that’s easy to prepare and eat. What are some of the best foods that you might have on hand?

 

 

Quick and Easy Staples

Greek yogurt

String cheese

Hummus and veggies

Hard-boiled eggs

Homemade trail mix

Fruit

 

Whole wheat bread and wraps

Nut/seed butters

Cottage cheese

Lean deli meat

Jerky

Nuts and seeds

 

 

(4) Set Up the Environment for Success

You may think that you control most of your choices, but the truth is that a large portion of your choices every day is simply responses to the environment design around you. If your pantry is filled with processed food and there is nothing fresh in your refrigerator, you cannot expect your kids to eat healthily.

It’s unlikely that your child won’t clamor as much for cookies, candy bars, or chips if they aren’t around. Instead, fill the pantry and fridge with the exact foods that you want to emphasize.

This seems to be counter to the point above, but even with input from a child, you still have the purchasing power and can control what comes into the house. If anything, allowing a few treats into the house isn’t going to do much harm (and can actually be beneficial for a positive relationship with food). However, the majority of what is in the house should be suited toward making healthy choices.

(5) Connect with Superpowers

“Make sure to eat your veggies so that you build biceps like Popeye”

Okay, I wouldn’t pass it off for this to be said around a Barbell Logic household, but when you connect why healthy nutrition for kids is something to be desired, they are more likely to make good choices. It’s important to focus on what eating healthy will do for them or allow them to become. For example,

  • “I can see your muscles getting bigger and stronger even as you chow down on those eggs.”
  • If you want the energy to play hard, it’s a good idea to eat a healthy carbohydrate like sweet potatoes, brown rice, or fruit.”
  • “Healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, and nuts and seeds will help develop your brain so that you can be even smarter.”
  • “All those fruits and veggies are going to help prevent you from getting sick.”

The key is to keep it very simple and connect to something that they find desirable.

(6) Avoid Moralization

The quickest way to ruin a kid’s relationship with food is to start moralizing them by having off-limits foods or defining them as “good” or “bad.”

This can lead both to shame (when eating something “bad”) or to approval-seeking behaviors (when eating something “good”). Over time, this can be a slippery slope to a point where food choices become limited, and it’s possible that disordered eating habits can be crafted.

When speaking about food:

  • Talk about a balance between nourishment and pleasure with food
  • Acknowledge that hunger varies
  • Discuss all of the roles that food plays in our lives beyond fuel (memories, connection, pleasure, etc.)
  • Bring up the idea of an all-foods fit mentality

(7) Encourage Experimentation

Young children need to taste a new food somewhere between 6 to 15 times before preference increases.[14] Therefore, repeated food exposures can help to increase children’s preference for new foods.

Using the tips mentioned above, such as exposing children to foods in a positive and pleasurable environment, using behaviors such as being a good role model, and making it fun can help children accept new foods. On the other hand, pressure behaviors such as using rewards (like ice cream) for eating vegetables typically decrease a child’s preference for the food being encouraged.

Real Life Happens

Even with some of these strategies put into place, you may not feel like you are doing a perfect job of feeding your kids. That’s not realistic, though.

Kids’ appetites and intake will vary. Realize that some kids are exceptionally sensitive to flavors. Opinions and preferences may change quickly. Life gets busy.

Remember…roll with change, put in your best effort, and trust that it will work out over time.


Notes

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/data/set1clinical/cj41c021.pdf

[2] DeSalvo, K. B., Olson, R., & Casavale, K. O. (2016). Dietary guidelines for Americans. Jama, 315(5), 457-458.

[3] https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-2/#:~:text=Estimated%20needs%20for%20young%20children,higher%20calorie%20needs%20than%20girls.

[4] Hörnell, A., Lagström, H., Lande, B., & Thorsdottir, I. (2013). Protein intake from 0 to 18 years of age and its relation to health: a systematic literature review for the 5th Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. Food & nutrition research, 57(1), 21083.

[5] https://khni.kerry.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/12988_KHNI_Sept_White_Paper_Nutrition_support_youth_9.21.17_Final.pdf

[6] https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/juvenile

[7] Anderson, P. M., Butcher, K. F., & Schanzenbach, D. W. (2019). Understanding recent trends in childhood obesity in the United States. Economics & Human Biology, 34, 16-25.

[8] https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html#:~:text=For%20children%20and%20adolescents%20aged,to%2019%2Dyear%2Dolds.

[9] https://mirror-mirror.org/facts-staticstics (Footnote 7)

[10] Bühren, K., Herpertz-Dahlmann, B., Dempfle, A., Becker, K., Egberts, K. M., Ehrlich, S., … & Kaess, M. (2017). First sociodemographic, pretreatment and clinical data from a German web-based registry for child and adolescent anorexia nervosa. Zeitschrift für Kinder-und Jugendpsychiatrie und Psychotherapie.

[11] Smink, F. R., Van Hoeken, D., & Hoek, H. W. (2012). Epidemiology of eating disorders: incidence, prevalence and mortality rates. Current psychiatry reports, 14(4), 406-414.

[12] https://www.precisionnutrition.com/nutrition-for-kids-infographic

[13] https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/handout-dor-tasks-cap-2016.pdf

[14] Ventura, A. K., & Worobey, J. (2013). Early influences on the development of food preferences. Current biology, 23(9), R401-R408.

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