Before I had children I just assumed (naively) that they’d instinctively want to eat what they needed to eat. I thought their clever little bodies would say “I am going to need some more kale to satisfy my need for iron”. Ha ha! Not quite like that but I still didn’t expect that I would have to really think about clever ways to ensure they got what they really needed. As I studied nutrition from the time my eldest daughter was forming inside me to the time she was 5, when I finally graduated, by which stage she had been joined by her brother, then 2, I began to understand what nutrients children really needed. I knew where my attention should be focused. It’s still a question that I get asked today though “what nutrients and foods do my children really need?”
Allow me to reassure you that it is not that complicated, and you are probably doing most of the right stuff anyway but in case you need a little extra support these are the areas I would focus on:
- PROTEIN – this is needed to help your child build cells, to repair cells that are damaged, to fight infections and to carry oxygen. Try and make sure they have some protein with every meal and snack:
- Dairy – quark, yogurt, cheese, milk, kefir
- Nuts and Seeds
- Beans and Pulses – lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, split peas
- Quinoa, Buckwheat
- Red Meat
- Fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, white fish
- Soy – tempeh, tofu, natto, seitan
- SLOW RELEASE CARBOHYDRATES – these release glucose (your child’s primary fuel source) into your child’s body gradually, providing a steady stream of energy and nutrients. Try to focus on wholegrain versions of grains and on vegetables and fruit for the vast majority of their carbohydrate needs.
- FAT –
healthyfats supply nutrients that are essential to growth and are necessary for energy as well as the absorption and metabolism of fat-soluble nutrients. The brain itself is 70% fat so fats are needed to support the brain too. They also play a role in the production of healthy hormones. Try and make sure your child’s diet has olive oil, flaxseeds, seeds, nuts, eggs, avocadoes, fish (including salmon, mackerel, sardines), meats anddairy.
- CALCIUM – important for bone and tooth health and growth. It’s also important for blood clotting, nerve
andheart function. Most believe calcium is from just dairy foods. Whilst dairy foods do provide calcium other sources include – blackstrap molasses which can be used in healthier bakes, dark green vegetables, nuts andseeds.
- IRON – for healthy blood that carries oxygen to cells all over the body. Food sources of iron include eggs, poultry, green vegetables, beans, red meat
anddried fruit. Some foods and milksare also fortified with iron.
- FOLATE – for healthy growth and development of cells. Without sufficient
folatea child can become anaemic. Sources include lentils, beans and chickpeas, wholegrain cereals, spinach, asparagus andBrussels sprouts. FIBREis important for their lives now in terms of improving digestion and bowel function but also for their future as regular fibreconsumption is shown to reduce the chance of heart disease, diabetes andcancer later on in life. Try to include food sources that naturally provide fibre rather than adding processed “fibre-rich” foods to their diet. Naturally fibre-rich foods include oats, beans, peas, vegetables and fruits.
- VITAMIN A – often associated with eye health, a lot of foods that convert to vitamin A in the body such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash
andapricots have been found to help children’s eyes to adjust to different environments. Vitamin A is shown to reduce the likelihood of infection and keep skin healthy. Eggs, fish andliver are good direct sources of Vitamin A, whilst orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are a source of beta-carotene.
- VITAMIN D – a fat-soluble vitamin that acts as a mineral-controlling hormone in the body and helps to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. It is important for your child’s bone health and immune system. It’s hard to get sufficient amounts from food and drink, and whilst your child can convert Vitamin D when their skin is exposed to sunlight the sun has to be high in the sky and it isn’t for large parts of the year in the northern hemisphere. You may therefore need to supplement your child’s diet. A daily dose of 400 units Vitamin D is safe for all age groups, and is consistent with the recommendations of the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)
With these 9 nutrients in mind you can focus your attention on providing and consuming alongside (remember you are your children’s closest role model) the most nutritious, real foods to support their growth, immune system and long term health.