Feeding your kids can feel like a constant uphill battle. You may be cooking them all the right things–nutrient-dense veggies, quality protein, and even superfood here and there. But when it comes down to mealtime, all they want are chicken nuggets and mac and cheese.
So what’s a busy family to do when there’s no clear answer WHAT kids should be eating, and it’s a struggle to get them to eat the healthy stuff regardless?
With one in two Americans predicted to be obese by 2030, now more than ever it’s important we’re feeding our kids the right foods, reinforcing healthy attitudes toward eating, and filling gaps in nutrition with the right supplements where needed (1).
Real Food for Kids
The answer to, “What should I feed my kids?” is not all that different than the answer to “What should I feed myself?”
Kids should learn to eat what you eat, and it’s our job to guide them through that process. Their little bodies are growing and developing so quickly that it’s important to prioritize nutrient-dense foods over just calorie-dense convenience foods we know they won’t refuse.
Children 1 to 3 years should aim for a diet that contains roughly 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 30 to 40 percent fat.
From about age 4 through adolescence, protein needs to increase to as much as 30 percent of diet per day, and we should aim for fat to make up no more than 35 percent (2).
Now, those may be ratios we can ultimately aim for, but the kinds of foods we choose are also just as important (if not more so) than those guidelines. Quality over quantity, after all.
So what should children be eating?
Proteins – Made up of different proportions of amino acids, proteins are responsible for repairing DNA, making antibodies to support immune health, and for the building blocks that make up our muscles, in addition to MANY other things (3).
- Proteins come from: Chicken, eggs, beef, fish, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, beans, lentils, or chickpeas.
Fats – Fatty acids are essential, meaning we can’t make them on our own, and they play a role in the production of hormones, cell membranes, and fuel for the brain and heart (4). While it’s tempting to dive down the rabbit hole into which kind of fat is best, the answer isn’t quite that simple. Each kind of dietary fat (besides synthetically hydrogenated trans fat) has its own benefits, and a balance of these fats in the diet is usually the best plan of action (5).
- Healthy sources of fats include cheese, nuts & nut butter, avocado, coconut, grass-fed butter, yogurt, fatty fish like salmon and tuna.
Carbohydrates – This is a category that can range from cupcakes and cookies to zucchini and artichoke. Carbohydrates are a significant source of fuel for our bodies and provide phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
- Carbohydrates can come from: minimally processed grains, starchy vegetables like sweet potato and squash, fruits, vegetables, and beans, lentils, or peas.
Practical Nutrition at Home
We have a good idea of what kinds of foods create good nutrition for kids, but the most important thing to remember is that kids and parents both have different responsibilities around mealtime. As a parent, there’s only so much you can control and this is actually a good thing.
You get to choose what, when, and where your child eats, but he or she gets to choose how much or whether to eat (6).
You have a child with his or her own thoughts, feelings, and preferences, who may not always want to eat the perfect foods you so lovingly prepare.
This is a good time to take some of the pressure off of yourself as a parent and remember that it’s your job to offer nutrient-dense foods, and let your little one pick from those options when hungry.
Do you have a house full of picky eaters? Try these things first!
Serve veggies first
This is one way mom or dad can still have the upper hand at mealtime. When your kids are nagging you for dinner (that you’re trying to finish cooking), claiming they’re “SO HUNGRY” and start pleading for chips, crackers, or snacks–fill a few small bowls with baby carrots, broccoli, grape tomatoes, or any other vegetable you have handy. This gives you a chance to finish preparing dinner and placates the kids until it’s time to eat.
Serve a new food with something they already like
Seeing something on the table your child already knows she can eat will provide a little comfort, and take some pressure off the situation if you’re trying something new.
Be calmly persistent
It can take as many as 10 tries before your child is comfortable enough to try a new kind of food. But choose your words wisely–kids are very perceptive and they’ll pick up on your attitudes toward foods.
Keep kid-friendly snacks handy
Simple things like cheese, snap peas, fresh fruit, or nut butter are great things to have on hand. Snacks with a white flour base (crackers, puffs, etc) may displace mealtimes without providing any nutrition, but when snacks look more like real food you can feel better about providing them.
Don’t buy things you don’t want your kids eating
I know this sounds simple, but many parents forget this simple rule while at the grocery store. If you truly don’t want your kids eating certain processed foods, provide a nutrient-dense alternative, and don’t bring things home from the store you don’t want in your pantry or fridge.
Do My Kids Need Supplements?
Kids are at little risk of developing deficiency diseases such as scurvy, but does that mean they’re getting optimal levels of important nutrients like vitamin C, D, or iron?
We always want to rely on getting nutrients from food, but making sure this happens is a challenge for the vast majority of parents. Whether you have a picky eater, or simply want to make sure your kids are getting optimal levels of key nutrients, the right supplements have a place in your routine.
Multivitamin – A well-balanced, high-quality multiple vitamin supplement can help fill the gaps in a picky eaters’ diet, and they come in several easy forms. We like Metagenics MetaKids Multi soft chews, and Nutrition Powder.
However, as part of our Integrative Pediatric approach, we recommend NutrEval testing to determine any nutrient deficiencies to create a tailored supplement plan.
B Vitamins – If your child needs extra B vitamins, we recommend they get the active–or methylated–forms of B12 and folate. This can be difficult to find, but we like this one, or a cream that can be absorbed directly through the skin.
Omega-3s – EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids, meaning our body can’t make them on its own, and they’re absolutely necessary for healthy brain and eye development in infants and children. We tend to consume a diet high in Omega-6 fats, and lower in Omega-3, so supplementation with a clean source of fish oil, such as Nordic Naturals is a great way to support healthy brain and eye function in infants, and once your child is a little older you can transition to an Omega-3 gummy!
Magnesium/Minerals – Magnesium and other trace minerals play a role in hundreds of metabolic reactions, and many kids (and adults) do not get adequate amounts of magnesium in their diet. We should be getting this from foods, but when soil has been depleted of nutrients they’re not present in the plant for us to consume. Ortho Molecular’s magnesium powder is easily digestible and supports healthy cellular function in the whole body.
Vitamin D – Critical for so many functions–immune support, bone, mood, and hormone health–vitamin D levels are often low even when we spend plenty of time in the sun. One major benefit of working with your Integrative Medicine provider is testing for vitamin D levels to pinpoint just how much supplementation your child needs. Vitamin D gummies are a great and tasty way to up your levels.
Vitamin supplementation becomes necessary if children are following a specific diet–such as vegan, or if they have multiple food allergies that result in leaving out one or more food groups. Additionally, many children have functional issues that affect absorption and require extra nutrition beyond a healthy diet.
Teaching Kids Healthy Habits is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Raising healthy kids can feel overwhelming, and is a journey fraught with questions, uncertainties, and lots of choices, but the most important thing to remember is that we can teach our kids to listen to their bodies, and fuel based on how foods make them feel.
We won’t always be with them to tell them what to eat, or what choices to make, but we can offer them healthy, nutrient-dense foods during their formative years so they learn what kinds of foods make them feel energetic, happy, and strong.