What to Know About Proper Nutrition for Your Child

What to Know About Proper Nutrition for Your Child

As parents, you want to make sure your kids are eating the right foods with the right nutrients.

You regularly seek out health and nutrition information, but with the mixed messages about which foods or nutrients are “good” or “bad” for your child, it can get confusing.

As nutrition professionals, one of our responsibilities is to translate the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) evidence-based Dietary Guidelines into practical tips for you.

Here are the main points to know about proper nutrition for your child:

Food First

It is a basic foundation of child nutrition that their nutrient needs should be primarily met through consuming foods.

If your child eats a variety of foods and doesn’t avoid a whole food group because of an allergy or food dislike, nutritious meals and healthy snacks would supply enough nutrients for their growth and health.

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It’s Not About a Single Nutrient

Everything your child eats and drinks matters. Like your diet, your child’s diet is complex; we don’t eat isolated nutrients.

Instead, our meals and overall diet should consist of a variety of food groups and nutrients on a daily basis.

According to the Dietary Guidelines, the combination of foods and nutrients that you eat (also known as an “eating pattern“) is what results in optimal nutrition and health.

How Does Your Child’s Diet Stack Up?

The USDA reports the dietary quality of U.S. children is below standards.

The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the USDA uses the Healthy Eating Index to give a point-based dietary quality score (maximum 100 points):

There are 12 categories in which a diet scores points:

  • The nine “adequacy components” — the more your child eats of certain foods (e.g. fruits, veggies, dairy), the higher the dietary score.
  • The three “moderation components” — the less your child eats of certain foods (e.g. refined grains, empty calories), the higher the score.

Among the adequacy components, there are some food groups that you are very familiar with, and are probably already part of your child’s daily diet, like fruits and dairy.

But there are also foods that you may struggle to regularly include — like vegetables! — because your picky eater avoids them.

The Neglected Nutrients

There are other groups you may not even be aware of that can also play significant roles in your child’s diet.

Let’s talk about these two groups that can have a large impact on dietary quality, but are often neglected in nutrition messages: plant proteins and fatty acids.

Plant proteins

Plant proteins are separate from poultry and meat proteins when it comes to scoring a quality diet on the Healthy Eating Index.

Along with seafood, they are assigned different scores and have unique contributions to your child’s diet.

National data on children’s diets has shown that although children receive a very high score on total protein (4.4 out of 5), consumption of plant protein and seafood are well below the recommendations (score 3.05 out of 5).

Fatty acids

Fatty acids may not sound healthy, but with the right types and ratios they are actually an important part of a healthy diet.

There are three main types of fatty acids:

Two of them are considered healthy fats: polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).

The third type of fat, saturated fatty acid (SFA) is considered unhealthy fat.

The Healthy Eating Index gives a perfect score of 10 if the ratio of (PUFAs + MUFAs)/ SFAs is greater than or equal to 2.5.

But data shows that children’s current dietary score for fatty acids is only 3.29 out of 10, which means they’re eating much less healthy fats compared to unhealthy fats.

How to Improve the Quality of Your Child’s Diet

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1. Vary protein sources

Try including plant proteins in your child’s diet, such as beans and quinoa.

They’re natural sources of fiber, and provide a different package of nutrients compared to animal-based proteins.

2. Replace saturated fats with healthy fats

Saturated fats are found in many foods, but mainly come from animal sources such as fatty beef, lamb, and butter.

Replacing animal sources with plant sources, such as seeds and olive oil, can improve the fatty acid ratio in your child’s diet.

Choose foods that have more mono and polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats, and also avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. trans fats), such as packaged baked goods and fried foods.

(Trans fats, which have been phased out of manufactured foods, are fatty acids that have been altered to solidify them and extend their shelf life.)

3. Add in (or sneak in!) more fruits and vegetables

For picky kids, there are different strategies you can use to get closer to meeting their daily recommendations.

Research suggests to try, try, and try again: Giving children fruits and veggies that they initially dislike on multiple occasions can help them develop a preference for it and increase their intake.

Some researchers also suggest giving children their favorite food or snack with some hidden fruits and vegetables could considerably increase their intake.

4. Replace refined grains with whole grains; avoid foods high in salt and added sugars

Aim for no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day and less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day in your child’s diet.

5. Include healthy snacks

Children need at least two snacks per day to refuel their active bodies, according to MyPlate.gov.

Research suggests that replacing high-calorie snacks with lower calories ones instead of cutting back on snacks can improve the quality of your child’s diet.

Based on the USDA’s Smart Snack criteria, aim for snacks that are less than 200 calories with less than 10 percent of calories coming from saturated fat and less than or equal to 35 percent of the snack’s weight coming from sugar.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to your children’s nutrition (and your own, for that matter), keep things simple: Focus on a balanced, varied diet, filled with whole foods and healthy snacks and remember — and remember that “all food and beverage choices matter.”