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Understanding Your Child’s Nutritional Needs At Every Age

June 25, 2020

Children's Nutrition Riverside Medical Clinic

Nutrition plays an important role in your child’s physical and mental development. Whether you have a toddler, a teen or an in-between, kids need specific nutrients at different ages to fuel their growth. From stabilizing their energy level, improving their ability to learn and even helping their mood, proper nutrition has many benefits. Also, the good habits you instill can set your children up for success throughout their life. Yes, what you do now can help prevent the onset of chronic disease later, such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Nutritional guides can be confusing, however. How much protein does your child need? Is he getting enough calcium and iron? Are vegetarian diets OK? And what about picky eaters? We’ll explore all this and more.

What The Little Ones Need

In toddlers and preschoolers, calcium is needed to develop healthy bones and teeth. Milk is still the best source. However, if your child is lactose-intolerant or allergic, you can look for calcium-fortified juices, cereals and more. Your RMC pediatrician can also recommend supplements. 

This is also the age when kids can get picky about their food. Although it can be tempting to give in to chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese every night, kids need fiber to stay regular and prevent heart disease down the road. A five-year old should get about 10 to 15 grams of fiber every day. Good sources include beans, lentils, split peas, fruit and whole grains such as oatmeal and whole wheat bread. Make sure to add fiber slowly to the diet to avoid cramps and ensure your child drinks plenty of water to help move fiber through the system.

Involve your picky eater with the meal prep – from grocery shopping to choosing recipes and (supervised) kitchen help. Maybe you can make the food look more appetizing by arranging it in fun shapes or grouping colors together. Try not to bribe your child to eat if she isn’t hungry. Give her a choice of two healthy options and don’t feel pressured to make a second meal different from the rest of the family.

To prevent picky eaters from the start, offer babies a variety of flavors and textures as soon as they’re ready for solid foods. Include veggies and meat in addition to fruit.

A Look At The Diet Of A 6- To 12-Year-Old

By the time kids reach elementary school age, they become more curious about food. They may experiment more based on what they see other kids eating. Your child may suddenly decide to become a vegetarian after finding out where meat comes from. Giving up animal-based foods can make it a little harder to get some essential nutrients but, rest assured, it’s getting easier to find good sources of plant-based protein. Ovo-lacto vegetarians can get protein from eggs and dairy. Otherwise, try peas, beans, lentils and enriched whole grains. Vitamin B-12, zinc, iron and calcium are other nutrients your new vegetarian could be missing. You can find them in fortified cereal. Of course, spinach is rich in iron too. Who knows? Maybe the whole family can become flexitarian. Try meatless Mondays or fish Fridays. According to MyPlate, the US government’s food guidance system, a six-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes of daily exercise should eat four ounces of grains, 1.5 cups of vegetables, one cup of fruit, 2.5 cups of dairy and three ounces of protein every day. If your child is very active, you can double that.

Raising Healthy Tweens And Teens

As adolescence kicks in, your child will need more calories to support all the physical changes, brain development and academic demands. A lot of bone mass is built during these years, so calcium is important. However, watch the soda and sweetened beverages. They can disrupt the way the body absorbs calcium. This is also the time when young teens become conscious of weight and body image. Parents should be aware of any changes to eating patterns that can lead to unhealthy behavior. Getting too few calories can leave teens feeling tired and lead to poor concentration. Teens should aim for three meals a day plus two snacks. Start with a breakfast that includes protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats to regulate blood sugar. Teen athletes should consume between 2,200 and 2,800 calories per day. About 60 percent of those calories should come from carbs. Though they get a bad rap, carbs turn sugar into energy and help teens stay focused. Aim for complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, grains, peas and popcorn instead of the refined carbs found in chips and candy. All teens should strive for 45 to 60 grams of protein per day. Healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, eggs and salmon, can help the body absorb needed vitamins. Iron and Vitamin D are super-important. A cup of fortified cereal with milk takes care of both. Teens should also have two cups of fruit and three cups of vegetables per day. Believe it or not, it will help with decision-making skills. 

7 Tips For Parents

  1. Kids are looking to you for a good example of eating habits. 
  2. Remember that a lot of their likes and dislikes are formed during ages 6 to 12. 
  3. Make mealtimes a priority. Children really thrive on routine. 
  4. Say yes to healthy snacking. Kids and teens need to eat something every 3 to 4 hours. It’s the portion size you’ll want to watch.
  5. A protein-packed breakfast can help kids focus at school. 
  6. Don’t use food as a reward or punishment.
  7. You’re not alone. Your child’s doctor at Riverside Medical Clinic is here to help you come up with a great nutritional plan. If you have questions about anything or want to make an appointment, call 951-683-6370.
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