Children are precious and the future of the world. Since kids are always evolving and growing, it is imperative for them to have good habits in childhood that will serve them their entire life. These years are where not only the body grows, but the brain goes through radical development also. Food is a very important component to the maturation of the young brain. Though kids have their own preferences, they also follow the examples set by their parents and peers. It is therefore key to harbor and display good eating habits as trend-setters for our kids. Often times, the food habits that children learn in childhood, they carry on into adulthood, and set the standards for their kids. In this article we will look at some worthy tips for healthy childhood eating habits, as well as some foods that are valuable for the growing brains of our children.
Tips for good eating practices in childhood:
- Eat together as a family. Try to have at least one main meal of the day, together as a family unit. Eat at the dining table, instead of in front of the TV. Make it a comfortable and happy environment that the kids look forward to.
- Eat home-made meals rather than take-out or restaurant food. Eating at home defines a healthy meal, along with a safe setting for children. Restaurant meals are generally not very considerate of sodium, sugar and fat content, and should be reserved for special occasions.
- Involve your kids in the process. Children are like sponges, and absorb everything that they see, hear, and do. Kids can help all the way from grocery shopping to the cooking process. They can even put together small meals for themselves as they get older.
- Give healthy snacks. Replace the soda, chips, and cookies with healthy snacks such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and nutritious drinks (e.g. water, milk, 100% fruit juice). Try to limit snack to two times a day, so that they have room for their main meals. Also, try presenting fruits and/or vegetables in an appealing manner (e.g. decorate on top of cereal; create a food collage; incorporate in fruit smoothies; add into baked goods, etc.).
- Portion control. Always be mindful of your child’s appetite. Don’t force food down, or use it as a bribe/reward.
- Limit sugar. Though this can be a challenge, it is essential to do so. The American Heart Association’s recommendation is three teaspoons (i.e. 12 grams) of sugar per day for children. Most baked goods, canned foods, frozen foods, ketchup, and fast food have a large amount of sugar content. Aim for fruits and vegetables which not only contain fruit sugar, but also added vitamins and minerals, along with fiber.
- Don’t eliminate sweets completely. This will initiate cravings and promote overeating of sugar items.
- Modify recipes to incorporate less sugar.
- Avoid or eliminate sugary beverages. Sodas are notorious for having very high sugar content (about 10 teaspoons in a 12 fl. oz. soda). Also, high caffeine levels can leave the kids with anxiety and depression when it wears off. Freshly squeezed fruit juices, or 100% fruit juices are a better option. You can even try making popsicles with 100% fruit juices, by freezing them in ice-cube trays with wooden sticks to hold.
- Reduce processed foods. Cakes, white bread, cupcakes, etc., all make your blood sugar fluctuate, and therefore are energy zappers for kids.
- Serve fruits instead of sweets, either fresh or frozen as dessert.
- Limit salt. Salt is often hidden in many items that we purchase for children. The maximum intakes are as follows (per day): 1,500mg (for 1-3 year old); 1,900mg (for 4-8 year old); 2,200mg (for 9-13 year old), and 2,300mg (for 14-18 year old).
- Stay clear of processed, restaurant and fast food. Processed foods include canned soups and frozen dinners. Both these and restaurant food are very high in sodium, so should be limited or avoided completely.
- Use fresh produce, instead of frozen or canned vegetables.
- Reduce salty snacks like chips and pretzels.
- Consciously choose low or reduced salt products.
- Have variety. Introduce children to a variety of foods, from a young age. Make them experiment with different flavors, textures, types, colors, and shapes of food. Also remember that children take time to acquire certain tastes, so the same food has to be introduced multiple times (e.g. 15-20 times) before the child may accept it, so don’t give up if they are picky at the beginning. Variety in foods also ensures that children get a variety of nutrients, from different food groups. So, change it up!
- Avoid junk foods. This is often difficult to do, as the temptations are many. It is best to substitute them with healthier options.
- Substitute French fries with baked or grilled fries.
- Substitute ice cream with low-fat frozen yogurt; fresh fruit smoothies and sorbet.
- Substitute doughnuts with whole grain bagels; English muffins; home-made goodies with reduced sugar and fat content.
- Substitute potato chips with air popped popcorn or baked crisps.
These are some general guidelines that can set a standard for healthy eating habits for our young children, and will carry forward with them lifelong. Not going into the actual nutritional needs of each age group of children, we will look at what foods are good for children from a general point of view. The following list is a short compilation of the foods that will help kids stay energized and alert all day long, and help brain function/development. The list is by no means complete, and is meant to serve as an informative piece.
Healthy Food Choices for Children:
- Greek Yogurt . The full fat version of Greek yogurt is rich in the healthy fats that are essential for brain health in children. It is also a valuable source of protein, as it has more than most other yogurts. Fat is crucial for brain development, with respect to neuron activity and cell membrane malleability. You can serve yogurt as is, or add some toppings that kids enjoy such as chocolate chips.
- Green vegetables. Such vegetables as kale, spinach, collard greens, and lettuce are sometimes difficult to incorporate in children’s menus, but are nonetheless packed with nutrition. Kale for example hosts compounds such as sulforaphane, and dindolylmenthane (which detoxify and help grow new cells respectively). You can try serving them as part of healthy smoothies, add in stir fries, or even make kale chips (by baking in the oven with some salt and olive oil).
- Purple Cauliflower. This contains compounds called anthocyanins, which help to reduce inflammation. Purple cauliflower is also low in sugar, has good levels of fiber, and is loaded with folate and vitamin B6, which help to improve mood, memory and attention span in children. Be creative in ways to serve this, maybe roasted, pureed into a dip, or cooked with herbs and spices.
- Seeds and nuts. There are many varieties of seeds and nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, melon seeds, sesame seeds, etc.), but please insure that your child is not allergic to any of them before serving. Nuts and seeds provide protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals. They therefore promote a healthy nervous system and elevate mood. Nuts and seeds can be consumed as is, roasted, in butter form (e.g. almond butter), or be incorporated into a recipe.
- Oatmeal. This is a good source of protein and fiber. It helps to lower cholesterol and keep the arteries of heart and brain clean of plaque build-up. Research also shows that oatmeal helps to boost memory of kids. You can serve oatmeal made in plain water or milk (or even milk alternatives, such as almond milk). Try sprinkling a touch of cinnamon for added taste, and use 100% honey to sweeten, instead of sugar.
- Apples and Plums. These contain a compound called quercetin, which is an antioxidant. This will help in cognitive function in children. These fruits also have natural sugars, which is what kids crave when energy is running low. They are of course also packed with vitamins and minerals, which promote overall health of children and adults alike. As a lot of the nutrition is in the skin, try to buy organic and have apples and plum with the skin on. Remember, that most fruits are great for children to consume, as they are very rich in nutritive value.
- Turmeric. Turmeric is an ancient spice from the East, with a rich yellow color, and unique taste. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which has many properties, such as anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-bacterial, etc. Curcumin dwarfs inflammation, and blocks plaque formation, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric can be incorporated in an array of dishes such as curries, lentils, stir fries, soups, etc.
- Milk. Except for children under the age of two, low fat or 2% milk is recommended. Milk is rich in protein, vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. Unless a child has a milk allergy, or is milk intolerant, it is advised to include it in their diets. You can serve milk as is, or with flavoring of chocolate/strawberry syrup. Milk is also available in many varieties, such as cow, goat, etc. Milk alternatives also exist, such as almond, rice, hemp, soymilk, etc. These are often fortified with calcium, and vitamin D. As you can see, there is ample to choose from, so make sure to pick something your child enjoys.
- Whole grains. Choose to give children whole wheat or whole grain choices, such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat crackers, and of course whole wheat rotis (i.e. flatbread). Whole grains are rich in fiber, and many of these items are fortified with folate, which is a B vitamin utilized to make memory cells in the brain. The other B vitamins that these products are enriched with also provide benefits with regards to improved alertness. These can be used to make wholesome sandwiches for children’s lunches, or otherwise.
- Water. Many children don’t drink enough water. Water is often overlooked by children, especially while at school. Lack of or lessened water consumption, can lead to mild to severe dehydration, depending on the intake. Dehydration can make children restless, lethargic, irritable, and can create false hunger in them. Therefore, be sure to give children water as part of their healthy beverage allowance, and especially after an active day.
Try incorporating some or all of these foods into your and your children’s diet, to reap the benefits of each. The key to healthy child brain development is a combination of good nutrition, good eating practices, as well as a constructive environment to thrive in, with positive role models, and teachers. Investing in our children today, will give rise to exemplary adults of the future.