Eating healthily is important for children. They need large amounts of calories and nutrients to meet their energy needs, for repair and maintenance and to fuel growth. Developing good eating habits in children early on will mean they are more likely to eat healthily as they grow up and reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease and other illnesses in later life.
Healthy eating for young children is different to the lower fat and high fibre diet recommended for the majority of adults in the UK. They have relatively high requirements for energy, and most other nutrients too, and need concentrated sources of these to make up a well-balanced diet. This doesn't mean they can't have low or reduced fat products or fibre-providing foods. But they shouldn't have too much of these either.
What foods should they have?
The easiest way to give advice on the foods that will help make a healthy balanced diet is to divide them into five groups. (www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/eatwellplate)
Bread, other cereals and potatoes
4-6 portions a day
Foods included in this group are; all breads i.e. white, wholemeal, multigrain, pitta bread, chapatti; breakfast cereals; potatoes; rice; pasta; noodles; yam; cassava; oats and other grains. These foods provide energy in the form of carbohydrate. Bread contains B vitamins as well as protein and calcium. Breakfast cereals may be fortified with some vitamins and minerals too.
Fruit and vegetables
At least 5 portions a day
This group includes all fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruit and vegetables as well as fruit (and vegetable) juices. They contain various vitamins and minerals that are essential for healthy growth and development, perhaps most importantly vitamin C. Some of these may help prevent the occurrence of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer in later life, so establishing a good eating pattern of fruit and vegetables now will obviously reap benefits later.
Meat, fish and alternatives
2-4 portions a day
The products in this group includes meat of all kinds, whether fresh, canned or frozen, as well as meat products such as bacon, ham sausages and beef burgers; poultry; and fish, in all its forms including fish fingers! The main nutrient supplied by these foods is protein — essential for healthy growth and development of muscles. In addition to this, they also provide some minerals such as iron in a form that can be used more easily by the body, as well as vitamins.
Milk and dairy foods
2-4 portions a day
This group includes all kinds of milk, whether fresh or UHT, cheese in all its many forms and varieties, yogurt and fromage frais. Milk and foods made from milk, are the major source of calcium in the diet. These help with the formation and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. They are all good sources of energy, B vitamins and many other vitamins and minerals.
It is recommended that children under two years old have full-fat milk, but after that they can have semi-skimmed if the calories and nutrients are supplied by other sources in a healthy, varied diet. Skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of five.
Sugary and fatty foods
Up to 1 portion a day or in moderation
This final group of foods contains all fats, oils, sugars, biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate etc. The consumption of these foods should be limited, and when they are eaten if should only be in small amounts.
Are there any particular foods or nutrients to watch out for?
Fats provide a concentrated source of energy, giving twice the numbers of calories present in other important sources of energy. They also provide some essential fatty substances that can't be produced by the body, as well as the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
While children shouldn't have a very low-fat diet, it's a good idea to try and get the balance of fats similar to that recommended for adults. This means cutting down on saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated ones. In adults, this may help to keep blood cholesterol at favourable levels and may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Starting children on this pattern now may well mean they take it into adult life.
Saturated fats are found in larger amounts in animal products — meat and meat products, cheese, butter and cream and in some manufactured foods. There are two kinds of unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable and grain oils i.e. corn, sunflower and rapeseed oils; oily fish; and dark green vegetables. These are essential for the body to function properly. Mono-unsaturated fats are found in olive oil, nuts and avocado.
Sugars and Teeth
Children's teeth are most at risk from tooth decay, so try and avoid too many sweets, especially the sticky, chewy ones. Keep sweets and chocolates for meal times only — banning them altogether does not usually work. Dilute fruit juices or give them milk or water to drink. Make sure they brush their teeth after eating sweets and have good dental care routine. Your dentist can give you more details.
Vitamins and Minerals
A good variety of foods in the diet should ensure children get all the vitamins and minerals they need. Iron is important for young children as it helps to keep the blood healthy. Meat and dark green vegetables are rich sources of iron; it's also found in bread, eggs, nuts and lentils. Calcium and vitamin D are important for making the bones of growing children strong and healthy. Milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium (even low-fat varieties), which is also found in white bread, the soft bones of fish e.g. canned sardines, and pulses such as baked beans. Vitamin D is made in the body by the action of sunlight on the skin and is also found in foods like liver, fresh oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring) and eggs.
If your child is a faddy eater and will only eat chips or jam sandwiches, don't worry. Different foods are favourite at different times during childhood and as long as they continue to grow and develop there's no need to worry. If you are concerned however, you might like to consider giving your child a vitamin and mineral supplement. This must be one made for children, as those made for adults are not suitable. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for further information.
Children can suffer from a variety of food allergies, some of which they may grow out of as they get older. If you think your child may be allergic to a main food item — such as wheat or milk — it's important to get it properly diagnosed. For this you need to see your GP.
Any dietary modifications that are needed as a result of this will be discussed with a dietician. They will inform you of all foods that should be excluded from the diet as a result of the allergy and will also indicate which foods can be included to provide any nutrients present in the foods no longer allowed. For example, if your child had a cow's milk allergy, you could be advised to use calcium enriched soya milk instead.
It will help your child further if you try to encourage them to follow a healthy lifestyle and not just a healthy diet. This means trying to get them to exercise regularly. With the advances in technology, many children are less active than they used to be, and this reduction in activity has been linked with the increasing number of children becoming overweight and obese.
This might mean setting limits on the amount of time they spend in front of the TV or computer. Let them play in the garden with other children and they'll soon find fun ways to be active. Try and encourage them to take up an after school sport of some sort.
Children also pick up lots of habits from watching their parents. So why not go swimming with them or do some other regular exercise of your own? They may be more likely to be more active if they see you doing it — and enjoying it — too!
Unless you have consulted your GP or a dietician it is not recommended that young children are put on a low calorie diet. Cutting down too drastically on the amounts and types of foods they eat might actually result in them not growing as they should. If you are concerned about their weight, contact your GP.
Tips for Healthy Eating
Younger children only have small stomachs and so won't be able to eat large amounts of food at any one time. They may need to have several small meals a day instead of three larger ones.
Appetite can vary quite a lot so take this into account if your child doesn't always eat as much as you'd like. They won't let themselves go hungry!
Only buy the foods you want your children to eat. Then let them make their own choices from the selection you provide.
Don't restrict all treats. This will end up being counter-productive as children will want them more and may end up swapping other foods at school for the foods you won't let them have. Try setting a particular time every day or week for treats and let them have them then.
Encourage children to get involved in planning and preparing meals — it will help them form an interest in what they are eating and may mean they eat more of it. For example, children who help make their packed lunches are more likely to eat them.
Set an example by eating the right foods and having regular meal times. Make all meal times an occasion and try to avoid distractions such as the TV.
Try to make foods attractive and fun, especially for younger children. If making fish cakes, form them in the shape of a fish. Or make sausages and mash into a boat on a baked bean sea. Form a face out of salad or pizza, cut fruit and vegetables, bread or potatoes into stars, hearts or other shapes. The list is endless!
There are several things you can do to try and increase the appeal of vegetables to children. Try and find their favourite way of eating them — some may prefer them raw and crunchy while others prefer them lightly steamed. Vegetable soups, stir fries and pasta sauces with vegetables in are good ways of getting children to accept vegetables without realising it! Try including them in Bolognese sauces, chillies and shepherds pies; and how about adding sweetcorn to fishcakes?
Some vegetables may be more acceptable than others. Baby cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cucumber, carrots and peas are all quite mild flavours that are usually popular with kids. If they have a favourite vegetable, try mixing some others with this — they're bound to at least try it and they might find they like the new ones!
Even if vegetables are passed over a few times, it's important to continue serving them. It can take up to 10 exposures to a new food for it to become familiar and for the child to get up all the courage to try it. And once they do, they'll hopefully find it's no so bad after all.
Give your children fruit for snacks instead of sweets. Choose smaller fruits such as small bananas, tangerines or small bunches of grapes. Make up a mini fruit basket for them, so they can make the choice themselves.
Puree fresh, canned or frozen fruit and stir in fromage frais for an easy dessert.
Grill food, especially meat products like sausages and burgers and choose low-fat ones where possible. Trim any excess fat from meat before eating.