A healthy child is a happy child, which makes healthy eating a top priority. Food and drink provide the energy and nutrients that a young child needs to grow and thrive. Compared to adults, children need more nutritious foods for their size to support growth, develop bones, build muscle and provide the energy needed to actively explore the world.
Forming the foundation for good eating habits
What a child eats in their early years can have lifelong consequences on their eating habits, either good or bad. As your child begins to establish their own relationship with food, it is important to set the scene for healthy eating habits at a young age. Picky eaters, children with food allergies, children on restricted diets, like vegan diets, and sick children with poor appetites have a higher risk for undernutrition.
Worldwide, 40-67% of parents and caregivers report experiencing feeding difficulties with their children, which shows that many children – even those in loving and caring households – are at risk of growth faltering.
Food provides more than just nutrition: it is also important for hand-eye co-ordination and skills, physical growth, strong bones, improved concentration at school and healthier sleep patterns.
What are South African children eating?
Results from the 2014 Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card show that South African children are not consuming enough fruit and vegetables. Tuck-shop purchases, soft drink and fast-food consumption is unfortunately on the rise. One in five South African children skip breakfast and more than half don’t take a lunchbox to school each day. In fact, an increasing amount of the total energy that children eat is coming from unhealthy snacks and larger portion sizes. If not addressed, this could lead to a generation of unhealthy adults at higher risk for obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
It’s a balancing act
Your child’s diet needs to be balanced with the right combination of a variety of foods from each of the three macronutrient groups:
How much should my child eat?
Your child’s diet each day should include three main meals with two smaller nutrient-rich snacks in-between.
Carbohydrates are the body’s first choice for fuel, a source of energy to support a healthy and growing child.
Include complex and minimally processed carbohydrates in your child’s diet. These include:
- Wholegrain high fibre bread
- Brown rice
- Wholewheat pasta
Save sugar and sugary treats for special occasions.
Sugar is part of the carbohydrate macronutrient group. It has little nutritional value, yet contains a lot of energy. Sugar should be limited in a child’s diet, either as added sugar or as part of sugar-rich foods and treats like cakes, soft drinks and sugary cereals. These foods tend to also be naturally high in undesirable saturated fats and salt.
Protein provides the building blocks for muscle, growth and a healthy immune system.
Protein rich foods include:
- Lean red meat
- Plant proteins such as lentils, beans and chickpeas.
Aim to eat fish at least three times a week and include mostly fatty fish such as salmon, pilchards and herring. Eggs are an easy and cost-effective protein, and dairy is rich in bone-building calcium.
Include healthy fats in your child’s diet. These include:
- Nuts and their oils.
Benefits of healthy fats
- This macronutrient group contains more energy than carbohydrates and protein.
- Fats provide fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Monounsaturated fats (avos, olives, nuts and nut butters) are healthier than saturated fatty acids (butter, cream, bacon and fatty meat), as they protect the heart and improve how the body’s cells function.
- These fats also keep the immune system strong and provide essential fatty acids for healthy eyes and brain development.
What about fruit and vegetables?
As any parent can attest, it’s a daily struggle to get children to eat fruit and vegetables. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and fibre. They’re also great for preventing illness and disease and improving overall health.
Here are some tips on how to get your little ones to include more fruit and vegetables in their diet:
- Use a star chart to mark off how many fruit and vegetables are eaten at each meal. Place it somewhere visible and offer your child a reward, such as going to the park or an extra story before bed, when a goal is reached.
- Make a game of it. Print a picture of a rainbow and place it on the fridge. Encourage your child to eat a fruit and vegetable each day from a different colour of the rainbow. For example, tomatoes and watermelon are red, berries and beetroot are purple, and mangos and carrots are orange.
- Build a vegetable garden. Children love getting their hands dirty. Show them how to plant vegetables and when ready harvest the vegetables to prepare together at dinner.
- Blend it. Boost your child’s nutrition by blending fruit of your choice (for example, berries, mango, banana, apple) with yoghurt and/or milk. Serve as a snack between meals. You can also blend diced vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, baby marrows and celery into dishes like mince or soup.
- Be a good role model. Set an example by allowing your child to see you trying new and interesting fruit and vegetables. Choose an interesting fruit or vegetable at the supermarket and encourage your child to do the same.
- Give your child a nutrient-rich, lactose-free drink that provides balanced nutrition. PediaSure Complete is a source of pre- and probiotics, 16 essential vitamins and minerals and essential omega 3 fatty acids.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.