Some of the most common questions I get from parents of young children relate to food. Does my child eat enough? What kind of foods help young children grow and get the nutrients they need? Here are some guidelines to help you make those decisions.
THE FOOD PYRAMID FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
In 1999, the Federal Food and Drug Association designed a special food guide pyramid for young children. You may already be familiar with the concept of the food pyramid, which has been around since we were children. Recently, the FDA realized that parents and educators need more guidelines to help them choose proper food for their young children and the result is the food pyramid for young children. The food requirements are not significantly different from adult requirements, but they include a presentation that is attractive to children and explanations to help guide parents of young children make appropriate choices.
Here are the basics:
- Milk Group - 2 servings
- Meat Group - 2 servings
- Grain Group - 6 servings
- Vegetable Group - 3 servings
- Fruit Group - 2 servings
- Fats and Sweets - Limit calories from these
On the food pyramid, which you can download and print out now, you will find an explanation of what foods are included in each group and what amount constitutes a serving. You will also find a chart to print out that you can use to help you keep track of what your child eats each day.(Food Guide Pyramid)
When reviewing the information, please keep the following points in mind:
THESE ARE GUIDELINES AND NOT REQUIREMENTS
While, yes, your goal should be to get your young children to eat the amount of food recommended by the FDA, you should not be upset if some days go by without your child eating a specific type or amount of food. Children, like adults, have days when they are hungry and days when they are not. If your child is not hungry one day, don't make a big deal about it.
While the attached checklist should be used as a tool to help you keep track of what your child is eating, do not worry at the end of the day if all the items are checked. If a day goes by when your child refuses to eat anything but pasta (or if there is a day when you are simply too busy to push the issue,) don't worry. Do make sure that the next day you concentrate on filling in the gaps in her diet and present lots of vegetables, fruits and proteins.
THE KEY IS VARIETY
Perhaps the most important concept pointed out by the food pyramid is that what your child eats is as important as how much your child eats. Five servings of bread are not equivalent to two bread servings, one protein, one vegetable and one fruit. Children (as well as adults) need variety in their diet. Make sure that your child eats selections from each food group each day. Make a varied diet for your child an important goal.
THINK OF THE MEAT GROUP AS NON-DAIRY PROTEINS
A main criticism of the FDA food pyramid is that it uses the word "meat" to refer to non-dairy proteins. Do not misinterpret the word meat. While red meat can certainly be a part of your child's diet, your child should not eat red meat every day. Types of proteins should also vary. The meat group also refers to poultry, such as turkey and chicken, fish, peanut butter, eggs, tofu, soybeans and other legumes.
USE SUGAR IN MODERATION
Try and limit, but not totally eliminate, the amounts of sugar in your child's diet. I personally find that if you try and deny your child all sweets, you may only increase his desire for sugary foods. Instead, allow "sweets" every now and then, but present them as treats and let your children know that these kinds of food are not necessary for health and growth.
Children need snacks between meals, but you can teach your child that a snack does not have to mean food made with processed sugar. A snack can also be a fruit, a cracker and peanut butter or wedges of cheese.
USE WHOLE MILK, BUT LIMIT THE USE OF FAT
Preschool children do not need to drink low-fat milk. In fact, the fat in whole milk is important to help growth in young children. Wait until your child enters school to start giving low-fat milk.
You should, however, try and monitor your child's fat intake from other sources and make sure that he is developing eating habits that will lead to a lifetime of healthy eating choices. When cooking, use small amounts of oil and fat. You should choose lean cuts of meat and poultry and take off any visible fat from these foods. Try and broil or bake foods rather than fry them. (These are good tips for adults as well.)
Keep in mind that children (and adults) need some fat in their diets. All types of food are acceptable and sometimes necessary, in moderation.
CONSIDER WHOLE GRAINS
Whenever possible, offer whole grains instead of plain white breads and pasta. Try a cheese toast on whole wheat or make brown rice instead of white rice. Throw a teaspoon or two of wheat germ into some of your recipes. Whole grains give your child more nutrition and fiber that is essential for a healthy diet. Don't assume your child won't eat whole wheat. Try it, she may like it!
EDUCATE YOUR CHILDREN
Preschool children are not too young to learn about proper nutrition. Tell your child ages four and up about the importance of eating different types of foods and teach her which foods come from what groups. During mealtime you can play a game to see what your child remembers. See how many foods your child can put in the right "food group" or have her count how many different types of foods there are on the table during each meal. (Your goal should be to have several at each meal.)
SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
Don't expect your child to stick to a healthy diet if all she sees you eat is junk food. If you don't eat vegetables, don't expect your child to want to. As in every part of life, you need to be a good model for your child. Sticking to a healthy diet yourself is perhaps the best way to teach your child what she should eat.
While proper nutrition is important for your child's health and appropriate growth, do not worry if your child does not eat "exactly" what she is supposed to all the time. There are all different kinds of eaters and not every child needs to eat the same things. Use the food pyramid for young children, the accompanying checklist, and the hints in this article as a guide.
If you have any concerns about your child's health or growth rate, take a trip to the pediatrician. But, as long as you are presenting the right kind of foods and your child seems to be happy, healthy and growing at a good pace, do not worry.
For some suggestions on how to deal with those picky eaters, "I Don't Like It" Avoiding Meal Time Stress
HAPPY AND HEALTHY EATING!
Thanks to Connie Steinberg, clinical nutritionist, for her input on the above article.
Some of the information for the article was taken from Dietary Guidelines for Children Age Two to Five, by H. Darlene Martin, Extension Nutrition Specialist. The article can be found at NebGuide.