Pediatricians are often asked about children who are described as “picky eaters” from parents concerned that they “don’t eat.” Commonly, young children become very finicky with food, turning their heads after a few bites or resist taking a seat at the table for mealtime. Even if a parent believes their child should eat more, especially if they are more active, there is a good reason they do not.
As growth rates fluctuate, there can be periods of decline when children do not need as much food. In general, children need approximately 1000 calories a day, spread across three meals and two snacks, to meet needs for growth, energy, and good nutrition.
However, do not expect children to eat that way every day. Like any of us, they can have good days, exhibiting voracious appetites, but also bad days in which they choose to eat very little. Toddlers are also notorious for taking their time before accepting new foods, tastes, or textures. Research shows that it may take up to 15 times before a child will actually accept a new food!
Optimal food choices for children are fresh, minimally processed meals, with no added sugars or salts. Examples include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, seeds and nuts, and whole grains. It is important to remember that parents set an example when eating and should also eat a healthy diet and reinforce positive food relationships.
Forcing children to eat can create a stressful or negative relationship with food. On the contrary, mealtime should be a pleasant time in your child’s day— make it an opportunity for family time together! That is one way to begin teaching children to enjoy food. The idea is for parents to provide a healthy diet and allow the child to decide what and how much to eat.
Download and print the activity and coloring sheets below to work on as a family!
Healthy Nutrition for Kids
Building a nutritious meal for your child starts with finding healthy foods they like and ensuring the meal is well-balanced. Here are some details about children’s dietary needs to guide you:
Limiting good fat in children’s diet is not recommended as certain fatty acids are essential for the child’s neurological development- before the one year of age, fat should not be limited in the child’s diet. Preferred fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Trans fats should be avoided.
Foods high in monounsaturated fatty acids include olive oil, peanuts, sunflower seeds, avocado, most nuts, and animal fat: chicken, pork, and red meat. Foods high in polyunsaturated fatty acids include corn oil, sunflower seeds, soybeans, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and flaxseed. Trans fats to avoid are found in margarine, processed oils (“hydrogenated”) and foods.
Children require protein for proper growth. Protein should also comprise up to a quarter of daily energy intake. Foods filled with protein include chicken, fish, and red meat. Alternative protein sources can include eggs, dairy, nuts, and beans.
Carbohydrates should comprise the largest percentage of macronutrients of daily energy intake. Complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, whole grain, beans, lentils, are preferable to processed carbohydrates (simple sugars and starches).
Calcium, Vitamin D, and Iron
700mg of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D is recommended for proper bone growth. Both nutrients can be found in dairy products, and calcium in green vegetables, nuts, beans, and fortified cereals.
It is recommended that children consume 7mg of iron a day in their diet. Foods rich in iron include red meat, chicken, spinach, broccoli, beans, fortified cereals. Multivitamin supplements are not recommended in a healthy child with a balanced diet. It is preferable for the child to obtain nutrients from natural sources.
Dr. Gilma Marimón is a proud member of the TopLine MD Alliance practicing medicine in Miami-Dade County.