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The Importance of a Balanced Diet for Growing Children

Mother and son preparing a healthy meal together

Babies, toddlers, and young kids often prefer to be fueled entirely on macaroni, chicken nuggets, and sugary soda even though they’re going through the most important developmental periods of their lives. Kids can be picky and fighting against their preferences to make sure their growing bodies get all of the nutrition they need can be challenging. The benefits of healthy eating in early childhood aren’t just about their growth and development–it’s the secret ingredient to crafting a lifelong love affair with healthy food, ensuring they savor a lifetime of health and well-being. Fortunately, healthy eating for kids isn’t as complicated as it might seem!

The Food Pyramid For Kids

Most of us remember the five food groups for kids from grade school and the pyramid which was meant to demonstrate the relative importance of each group. While there has been some variation in the pyramid over the last few decades, the five food groups remain intact. The foundation of your pyramid (and the largest chunk) should be made of grains, fruits, and vegetables. As we go up the pyramid, reaching smaller levels at each stop, we get to protein, then dairy, and finally a mixed group of foods you should only eat sparingly. Those include red meat, butter, sugary drinks, and other sweets.

When your baby first comes home, it lives on an incredibly simple diet of breast milk, formula, or some combination of the two. As a baby grows, parents start introducing new foods and expanding dietary choices. Maybe that’s why kids tend to find a few foods they like and stick to them, hearkening back to the days when every meal was the same. Helping your child navigate past that roadblock to try a variety of nutritious foods might be your biggest challenge.

Fortunately, you already know the road map for healthy food for kids because it’s the same road map you have for yourself. Once a child is off the bottle and eating solid foods, they have the same nutritional requirements as adults. Little bodies and big bodies need the same mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat with a sprinkling of vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy and happy. The most important thing is getting a good variety of nutrient-rich foods to ensure the right mixture and ratio of nutrients in your child’s diet.

  • Grains: These are things like bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, and oats. To get the most nutrients in your carbs, try choosing whole grains like whole wheat bread instead of white bread.
  • Fruit: Fresh, frozen, or canned fruits are all good nutritious foods packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. As long as your child is eating whole fruits (not juiced) you really can’t go wrong. No one ever did damage to their development by choosing a banana over a peach.
  • Vegetables: Veggies are very similar to fruits in that it’s difficult to go wrong. However, variety is important with both fruits and vegetables as too much of one thing can sometimes result in an excess of certain vitamins and minerals. Eating too many carrots, for instance, can cause a buildup of beta carotene and a condition called carotenemia (more common in kids than adults) which turns the skin orange. The good news is it doesn’t cause any other known problems and goes away if you lay off the carrot sticks.
  • Protein: The majority should come from seafood, lean meats, poultry and eggs, beans, soy products like tofu, nuts, and seeds.
  • Dairy: While dairy is one of the most popular ingredients on our plates, it’s actually one of the food groups you need the least of. Small additions of milk, yogurt, and cheese will do the trick. You can also substitute with non-dairy alternatives like soy, almond, or oat milk—many of which are fortified to offer comparable nutritional benefits.

Foods to Limit in Your Kids’ Diet

Right up front, these foods should not be entirely avoided but should be limited. Limit foods like added sugars, saturated fats, and added salt. As a simple rule of thumb, fill the plate about halfway with fruits and veggies, then fill the other half with meat and carbs, leaving a little bit of room for dairy. If your child is filling up on nutrient-rich foods at mealtimes, you’re unlikely to wreck everything with a sweet treat once in a while. The goal here is balance, not total restriction.

Guiding our children to a lifetime of healthy eating habits doesn’t have to be difficult and always pays off in the long run. Whole grain breads, fruits packed in water instead of syrup, and low-sodium canned veggies are all healthier choices and can be served right alongside those beloved chicken nuggets to introduce variety. A handful of salted nuts may not be as healthy as unsalted, but it’s still a better choice than a candy bar. We understand that you and your child live in the real world, not a perfect world. Compromise is okay and expected. And if you’re concerned or unsure about anything, don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare team at Families First Pediatrics.

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