Proper Nutrition: Is Your Child Getting Enough of the Good Stuff?
When my son Ben turned 6 months old, I remember feeling excited about introducing him to solid foods. Blender at the ready, there was so much anticipation about the purees of new tastes I was so hopeful he would love. Bananas? A hit. Apple sauce? Great. But anything that had the slightest tinge of green was rejected. The kid wouldn’t touch a vegetable, and not much has changed since the early days in that regard.
If a child so fervently rejects a well-rounded diet, how do we know he is getting the nutrients he needs to support a healthy life? The answer is unique to the individual child, but a good judge is whether or not he is maintaining his height and weight growth.
Whether you have a picky eater or a problem feeder (keep reading to learn the difference), here are some basics to consider at varying stages of your child’s development.
Infants & Nutrition
If you’re a new parent, there’s a strong likelihood everyone (even those without any sort of nutrition degree) has tried to offer up advice about both breast or formula feeding and the introduction of solids.
In terms of the latter, providing a veggie puree is often lauded as the best first taste because once they get a taste of the sweetness of fruit, you’ll never get a spoonful of peas past those tiny lips again. But Rebecca Toutant, a clinical dietitian at Cambridge Health Alliance, a community health system serving Cambridge, Somerville and communities north of Boston, offers up a different take.
“Different cultures around the world start their children out differently in terms of introducing solids. I think the belief that’s more widely accepted is to start with the introduction of protein,” says Toutant. “That typically will give the child a lot more nutrients and a bit of a head start. Part of that transitioning phase is changing where they’re getting a lot of their energy from – they go from breast milk to getting it from food. You want to make sure they’re still getting enough energy during that transition.”
With that being said, parental modeling of food behaviors is already starting at this age, so Toutant suggests if a child appears interested in what you’re eating (within reason), then go with it.
“If a child is watching you eat something like a banana and they’re intrigued by it, I wouldn’t in turn give them chicken,” she says. “You want them to watch you, learn from you and then want to build off that positive experience of them being interested in something you’re eating.”
Toddlers & Nutrition
Oh, toddlers, they can flip the switch and go from terrific to terrors in the blink of an eye, and it may feel as though they’re just as fickle, if not more, about their likes and dislikes when it comes to food. It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to lead the way when it comes to choosing what goes on their plates for each meal.
“The role of the parent is to identify what the child gets to eat, where and when. And then the role of the child is whether or not to eat it and how much to eat,” Toutant explains. “That’s the dynamic you want to set up, whereas if you have a child leading the introduction of new foods, that’s where you tend to run more of a risk of a child just eating goldfish and chicken nuggets. They’re going to eat what they like to eat and not necessarily try new foods.”
Similarly to infants, you want to balance their meals in terms of what their energy requires. This includes lots of fruits and veggies, lean proteins and three servings of dairy a day. And aside from the rather obvious reasons for steering our kids away from foods high in sugar or salt, our taste buds are trainable, so if we eat a lot of that stuff each day it tends to be the flavor profile we crave.
“Things that are ‘bland,’ according to that flavor profile, aren’t as interesting and we don’t want to accept them anymore,” she says.
School Age Kids & Nutrition
If your child comes home from school each day completely ravenous, it could be contributed to a growth spurt, but don’t count out the possibility that she isn’t eating a ton at lunch. It could be that the school lunch served doesn’t appeal to her, or that there simply isn’t enough time during the period to consume what was packed in her lunchbox.
Toutant, who says it’s natural for kids to be hungry about every three hours or so, says the nutrient requirements for children of this age don’t change dramatically, but in the United States the nutrient deficiencies tend to involve either iron or fiber.
“Iron is sometimes a big factor because picky eaters in particular may not be big fans of meat – the texture is just different,” she says. “Fiber tends to be a thing a lot of kids are lacking, especially in our culture.”
Teens & Nutrition
So how accurate is that stereotype of the teenagers who will eat anything that isn’t nailed down? While there is an uptick in intake at this age if there’s a growth spurt occurring, what needs to be addressed is how much of their hunger is based on the quality of what they're eating.
“If they’re eating meals that are low in fiber and lower in protein, they’re going to be hungry more often and to a greater extent,” says Toutant. “Making sure that their meals include enough protein and are high in fiber, so lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. That’s the way to make sure their hunger is genuine and authentic and not just based upon snack foods all day.”
Picky Eater vs. Problem Feeder
If your child only accepts a stable of four or five foods, you might be quick to label him a picky eater. But there is actually a difference between kids who fall into that category and those who are problem feeders.
“A picky eater is a kid who is going to restrict their intake to six foods,” says Toutant. “They’ll only eat these six foods and won’t look at anything else. That’s starting to evaluate if there’s something else going on physically or even sensory wise.”
If that’s the case, your child may be a problem feeder, meaning he might have difficulties with chewing or swallowing or has had a negative experience with certain textures so he doesn’t want to try new things.
“Kids have a natural phobia where they’re not too psyched about new foods,” she says. “You have to continue that repeat exposure. The more they see it and the more they’re exposed to it, the more likely they are to try it. It takes about 10 to 20 exposures for a kid to consider trying a food. And repeated positive exposures.”
Toutant encourages families to play with food, like building a log cabin with carrot sticks. She cites programs like City Sprouts in Cambridge (citysprouts.org) as a wonderful way to encourage children to try new things because they’re experiencing food in a new way. Get your kids in the garden, take them grocery shopping, have them act as your sous chefs in the kitchen – it could lead to a more rewarding mealtime.