Optimum nutrition for your kids
Kate Mirow on 04 April 2014. Posted by WellBeing Natural Health & Living
Where do the days go? Between working, school drop-offs, loads of washing, weekend sport, house cleaning, swimming lessons, the sun’s shining so you’d better mow the lawn… well, food can turn into something you grab on the run! Social trends show we are now eating more meals outside of the house and buying more convenience food than ever before. It’s a hectic life but you need to remember to put food back on top of the to-do list. We all know a child’s diet and lifestyle set the foundations for their, so let’s dump the guilt and raise happy, healthy kids by focusing on healthy living.
The preschool years
Around age four, a child’s energy needs tend to increase dramatically. Four-year-olds are typically very active and they learn at a rapid rate. Jumps in language skills, motor skills and social skills are evident almost on a daily basis. Many children in this age group attend pre-school or day care, which they love, but it’s exhausting for them. At this age children need energy-dense foods which build their growing bodies. Healthy and nutrient-dense food such as avocado, scrambled eggs, wholegrain bread, shredded chicken and plain yoghurt are good options.
This stage also brings the onset of the dreaded “pester power”. You need to stay strong! Make it easy for yourself by not having poor food options in the house. If you’re looking for convenient quick snacks, the individual packets of nuts found in supermarkets are a great option. While kids can’t take nuts to preschool, little packets of nuts are very convenient in the home. Think of blueberries, fresh dates or interesting fruit such as mangoes, peaches, plums and passion fruit to keep snacks healthy. You may be surprised to find your little one will happily snack on cut-up carrot, capsicum and cucumber, especially if there is some hummus to dip them in.
Kids in this age group love their special treats. Buy a set of icy pole moulds and your preschooler will love helping you squeeze oranges or use the juicer to produce guilt-free icy poles. If you use an electric juicer, having apple as the base means you can easily add a vegetable such as celery, spinach or cucumber for a tasty and nutritious treat. You can also use fresh juices to make homemade jelly by adding some gelatine. If you have time to bake, then mini blueberry muffins using molasses as a sweetener and wholemeal flour are fun. Quick and easy is the old-fashioned banana icy pole. For the simplest version, cut a peeled banana in half and insert a wooden icy pole stick in each half, then freeze. If you have more time on your hands, you can coat them in plain yoghurt then roll in shredded coconut before freezing. Again — your preschooler will love helping you with this.
The primary school years
A child’s relationship with food changes enormously when they start school. Suddenly out of the protective environment and control of the family home, kids become exposed to increased choice and independent decision making around food, as well as peer pressure. As these early years are critical for developing food attitudes and habits, food eaten in the family home becomes even more important for several reasons. First, food eaten in the home teaches children eating patterns they will take with them into adulthood. Second, a nutritious diet at home means children’s growing bodies will cope better with the small amount of poor food choices made outside of the home.
Once your children reach primary school age, you’ll find you have to walk the talk! You can get away with feeding a younger child well while indulging in poor food habits yourself, but primary-school-age children are not going to stand for that. If you stock chocolate biscuits or bags of chips in the pantry, they will eat them. The days of “mummy and daddy biscuits” are gone. At this point, more than ever the focus needs to be on a healthy family and not just what to feed the kids.
Children in this age group generally experience slow and steady growth and the nutritional emphasis is slightly different. Now in school five days per week, these young children need to be well nourished to pay attention, learn and thrive in their school environment. B vitamins, iron and magnesium are some key nutrients to help children achieve well and, if you want to help your kids succeed in school, don’t underestimate the power of a healthy breakfast. If children fly out the door with only a snatched drink and breakfast bar or even if they sit down to a sugar-laden commercial breakfast cereal, their blood sugar levels will rollercoaster, leaving them inattentive at best and disruptive at worst.
Oats are a fantastic food to start the day as they give the body a lasting energy as well as a magnesium and B vitamin boost. Think of porridge, muesli or a soaked bircher-style muesli. Note that quick-cooking oats are higher GI and whole oats are a better choice. Whole grains in the form of wholegrain bread or better still wholemeal rye, spelt or kamut sourdough bread will also provide sustained energy and B vitamins. Spread toast with avocado or a nut spread to really get them off to a nutritious start. If you have the time, eggs are packed full of protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin E and can be a nice break from muesli or toast every morning. Avoid a morning “juice” as these heat-treated, often preservative-laden drinks are simply not the health food they are marketed as. Children need to be well hydrated to concentrate so a big glass of water or even a herbal tea for the more discerning child is a better option.
Starting school brings with it a new meal time — the exhausted and starving, just-home-from-school meal. Remember that at this time of the day your school-age child may be dehydrated after their long day so a big drink and a light snack are in order. Try dips with vegies and toasted bread sticks, fresh fruit salad with a dollop of natural yoghurt or a fruit smoothie. If you think they need something a bit heavier, your child may prefer a homemade wholemeal muffin, small cup of vegetable soup (cooked on the weekend and frozen in individual portions) or rye crackers with avocado, cheese and tomato.
To give school children all the iron and zinc they need, red meat contains a form of iron that is easily absorbed as well as being a good source of zinc. Primary-school-age children are often not very keen to sit down to a steak or a lump of red meat and, while they are happy to eat sausages, these are a poor choice nutritionally and often very high in salt. Slow-cooked casseroles and stews are often enjoyed much more by this age group and are an easy way to increase their red meat intake. Serve your casserole on a bed of brown rice and quinoa (boil half quinoa and half brown rice together as they cook in the same amount of time) and you have a nourishing meal rich in iron, zinc, B vitamins and fibre. Zinc is also found in pepitas and sunflower seeds. These can be toasted for a crunchy snack or thrown through soups, stews, salads or even in home-cooked slices and muffins.
The high school years
Adolescence is a time when food habits loosen, independence increases and family influence decreases. All these factors feed into a typical deterioration of healthy eating habits when they are most sorely needed. It’s during puberty that adolescents experience their “pubertal growth spurt” during which requirements increase in both energy and almost every nutrient. Unfortunately this is also the time when many teens start missing meals (often breakfast) while eating more unhealthy snacks, confectionary and fast foods. Teens are vulnerable to a wide range of nutritional deficiencies, the more common being low iron (especially in girls), calcium, A, C and zinc (particularly in boys).
The pubertal growth spurt begins on average around age 10 to 11 in girls and age 12 to 13 in boys. At this time there is a marked increase in both body weight and height as well as hormonal upheaval. Teens are often struggling with their identity and their place in “the group” and in the world at large. And parents are often struggling with their teen!
While the teen years can sometimes test family, this is a time when children need nourishing and lots of it. Calcium is a priority during these years as this is an important time for bone formation, particularly in girls. Nature assists with this by improving calcium absorption. Include more high-calcium foods in the diet, such as tinned salmon and sardines (you have to eat the bones), whitebait (try whitebait patties for dinner), milk and dairy products, almonds, dried figs and fortified foods. Studies suggest intakes between 1200–1500mg per day are required to achieve optimal bone density while amounts above this do not appear to add any further benefit. Consuming too many soft drinks and juice leads to an increase in phosphorus excretion which compromises bone development, so keep up the water!
It’s important to note that physical activity typically declines in adolescence. There is a known relationship between physical activity and subsequent bone density in adulthood, particularly for bone health in girls. Between the ages of 12 and 18, physical activity decreases by around 50 per cent on average with boys consistently more active and fitter than girls. This decline in physical activity can be multi-factorial and includes issues with self-confidence and the competition-based nature of school sport or even body image issues. As parents we need to encourage an active family life and find activities that suit the needs of our teens. If school sports are being avoided, think outside the square for something else. Perhaps bushwalking, surfing, yoga, rock climbing or even surf lifesaving will be a better fit.
Zinc is important in the teen years as it helps with immunity, wound healing and skin health. Zinc-rich foods include red meat, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, oysters, eggs, almonds, Brazil nuts, hazel nuts and walnuts.
Iron deficiency can lead to poor concentration, breathlessness, hair loss, cracks in the corners of the mouth, depression, mouth ulcers and even anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Girls with heavy menstrual periods are most vulnerable to iron deficiency and need to focus on good nutritional sources including red meat, cashews, prune juice, eggs and spinach. Note that iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed as animal sources. Adding vitamin C to your iron-rich meal also helps with absorption. So think of a freshly squeezed orange juice, squeeze of lemon on your meal or a side salad with fresh capsicum and tomato.
During the teen years, parents need to be vigilant about self-enforced dieting. This is a sensitive age and issues of body image can cause your child to pursue an inappropriate diet. Weight-loss diets aimed at adults are often not appropriate for growing teens as these diets do not adequately allow for the energy and nutrient needs of teenagers. This is also an age group which may experiment with vegetarianism. Vegetarian diets can be healthy and nutritious but they take more thought, preparation and nutritional knowledge than a less-limited diet. If your teen wants to pursue either a weight-loss or a vegetarian diet, a visit to a nutritionist for personalised advice is recommended. While you may worry about their limited diet, if it’s pursued responsibly you may find it opens them up to all the healthy food you have struggled to get them to eat!
Keeping kids on track with a healthy diet and lifestyle is definitely challenging. Most parents are time poor and kids have an amazing capacity to refuse certain foods while using pester power to demand others. Stay strong! A healthy family diet is one of the best gifts you can bless your kids with. If kids are raised with a variety of natural wholefoods — whole grains, nuts and seeds, fresh fruit and vegies as well as lean meat, fish and eggs — you are giving them the building blocks they need to step out into the world and really shine!
Superfoods for kids
Sunflower seeds. An excellent source of protein and zinc which is vital for a healthy immune system and skin.
Oats. Packed with B vitamins and magnesium, oats are the perfect food for nourishing the nervous system and keeping exhaustion and stress at bay. With zinc and calcium it’s no wonder oats make a fantastic start to the day.
Red meat. Contains the iron and zinc that growing bodies so desperately need. Try kangaroo for the ultimate in lean, grass-fed meat with a higher omega three profile than other red meats.
Eggs. Eat them boiled, poached or scrambled and you have a quick protein-rich meal with iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins A and E.
Apples. Packed full of fibre and containing 10 per cent of your daily vitamin C needs, the humble apple is terrific for the digestive system and has that anti-squish factor needed in the school bag!
Bananas. Eat them whole, mashed or blended into a fruit smoothie and you have a snack filled with potassium, B6, folic acid and fibre.
Yoghurt. Natural live yoghurt is a fantastic source of calcium, protein and B vitamins as well as delivering gut-friendly bacteria to encourage a healthy digestive tract.
Brown rice. The foundation food for many civilisations, humble brown rice cannot be underestimated. It delivers B vitamins, potassium, iron, fibre and is just plain tasty. Raise kids with brown rice and they will thank you for it.
Quinoa and amaranth. Two ancient grains that deliver a fantastic protein profile as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. They are low GI, gluten-free and high in fibre. The Aztecs and Incans fed these grains to their warriors so make sure you feed them to your warriors!
Broccoli. Rich in vitamin C, beta carotene, B vitamins, iron, calcium as well as potassium and folic acid. It is high in fibre and low in calories, which means it should be on top of your shopping list.
Spinach. An excellent source of C, folate and beta carotene. It’s also a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that protect studious eyes.
Avocado. Stock up on fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants with this creamy and filling food.
Oily fish. Salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines all contain protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin D and of course the beloved omega 3s that growing brains need.
Soft drink. Anyone for a glass of sugar, colouring, preservatives, carbon dioxide and phosphoric acid which leaches calcium from the bones? No — I thought not. Research also links a high intake of phosphate-containing drinks with hyperactivity and other behaviour problems.
Fruit juice. Often thought of as a healthier option, this is not the case. Many fruit juice-based drinks contain only a small amount of juice and are accompanied with flavourings, colourings and preservatives. Even pure fruit juices are not the best as the fruit acids can damage tooth enamel and fruit juices are still high in sugar. When you do give your child fruit juice, mix it with water as a special treat.
Caffeine. A strange thing to list in an article for children’s food? Sadly many caffeinated soft drinks are marketed at adolescents, and teens now meet “for a coffee” — something the generation before them never did. A small amount of caffeine can increase mental alertness but too much can cause anxiety, dizziness, headaches and insomnia. Caffeine can also cause the body to lose calcium. Teens should have no more than 100mg per day and preferably less (a single espresso shot is roughly 100mg). Younger children should not have any caffeine.
Sugar. There are obvious sugars in the diet, such as chocolate bars and lollies, and there are more insidious sources including tins of baked beans, pasta sauces and most junk foods including crisps. Sugar messes with children’s blood sugar levels causing mood swings, impairing concentration and increasing insulin levels, which encourages fat storage (obesity).
Potato chips. They have high levels of fat and salt, not to mention artificial flavour and preservatives.
Ice cream. Kids love it! But have you read the listed ingredients? Hydrated fats, lots of sugar, powdered milk and plenty of additives. Be strong. Don’t buy it! Save it for treats or special occasions only.
Packaged breakfast cereals. Many have huge amounts of sugar, high salt and highly refined grains with added vitamins so they can make health claims. Savvy parents know better!
Quick tips for a healthy family
- Ensure the whole family eats a nutritious breakfast.
- Only serve dessert on special occasions or on a particular night of the week. It is a short step from baby yoghurt or baby custard after a meal to the bad habit of dessert every night.
- Children should drink water. Do not keep soft drink, cordials or juice in the house. Add ice, slices of lemon or even fresh mint to water to make it seem special. Use mineral water as a special drink.
- Turn the TV off at meal times.
- Make sure the family sits together at the table for at least one meal per day.
- Involve your children in cooking and preparing food as early as possible.
- Avoid using food as a reward.
- Avoid childhood obesity by restricting TV time and ensuring kids are physically active, eating healthy food and drinking pure water.
Kate Mirow is a naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist and homoeopath practising at Your Health in Manly, NSW. She specialises in fertility, women’s health and weight loss and is the proud mum of two vigorous little boys. Call her clinic on 02 9977 7888.