The ages between one and four are a crucial time for learning good dietary habits that can lay the foundations for future good health.
This article was reviewed by Fiona Hunter in April 2011.
Food and nutrients help to form strong teeth and bones, muscles and a healthy body; agood diet can also help to protect your child against illness now and in the future.
Young children’s need for energy and nutrients is high, but their appetites are small and they can be fussy, too, and it can be a challenge to get your child’s diet right.
Remember, pre-school children can normally eat the amounts they want, even if it seems they’re not taking in very much. At this age, children are often good at regulating their appetite. If they’re not hungry, insisting on larger amounts of food can create a battle, which you’re likely to lose.
Base your child’s intake on the following food groups to help ensure she’s getting all the important nutrients.
There’s no need to rely on pre-prepared toddler foods. If the family diet is healthy, children can just have family food.
Make sure your child has the following, every day:
At least one kind of starchy carbohydrate, such as bread, rice, pasta, noodles, cereals or potatoes.One or more of these should be served with all meals.
Young children have small appetites, so fibre-rich carbohydrates can be bulky and inhibit the absorption of some minerals. Gradually introduce higher fibre carbohydrate foods, such as wholewheat pasta and brown rice, so that by the time children are five, they’re eating the same fibre-rich foods as the rest of the family.
Fruit and vegetables
Aim for at least five servings a day, where a serving is about a handful in size. Use fruit in puddings and as snacks. Frozen and canned fruit and vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh varieties.
Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked (serve crunchy rather than very soft to preserve the vitamins and minerals).
If your child doesn’t like vegetables, try hiding them by pureeing in to soups, sauces, casseroles and pizza toppings.
Milk and dairy foods are an important source of calcium. Your child should be having the equivalent of about one pint (500 to 600ml) of milk a day.From the age of one, normal cows’ milk is fine, and you don’t need to use formula.
Use full-fat varieties for the under-twos; semi-skimmed may be given from the age of two if the overall diet contains enough energy and nutrients.
Milk can be used on cereals or in drinks, puddings and sauces, and cheese, fromage frais or yoghurt can be given instead of some milk. Grated cheese, cheese spread or cheese portions can be used on sandwiches or toast. Try yoghurts as a pudding or snack between meals, served alone or with fruit.
Meat, fish and alternatives should be eaten once or twice a day. Cook minced beef, turkey, chicken and pork slowly to ensure it’s soft and tender.
Nutrition experts recommend at least two servings of fish a week, one of which should be oily. But don’t give your child more than four servings of oily fish a week for boys and two servings a week for girls (shark, swordfish or marlin should also be avoided, as these contain high levels of mercury, which might affect a child’s developing nervous system).
Use eggs, either boiled, in sandwiches, as omelettes or scrambled.Try different beans and pulses, such as lentils, baked beans, peas and chickpeas.
Fatty and sugary foods include spreading fats, cooking oils, sugar, biscuits, cakes, crisps, sweets, chocolate, cream, ice cream and sugary drinks. Don’t give these often, and when you do, make sure they’re in small amounts only. Many of these could affect your child’s intake of more nutritious foods and lead to a less healthy diet.
Sugary foods and drinks (including fruit juice) can also contribute to dental decay, especially when eaten or drunk between meals. Some sugar-free or diet drinks can also cause decay because of their acidity. Water is the best drink to have between meals.
Try to limit the amount of sweets your child eats. Offer them at the end of a meal rather than between meals as a snack.
Iron deficiency is common in toddlers and pre-schoolers. Iron is found in meat, some dairy foods and in dark green vegetables and whole grains. It’s also in some dried fruits. Foods rich in vitamin C, eaten at the same time, can help to maximise iron absorption from non-meat sources, so include a glass of orange juice with the evening meal, or citrus fruit and vegetables rich in vitamin C.
This is vital for the growth of bones and teeth. A child’s requirement will usually be met if milk and other dairy products are consumed daily as a regular part of the diet.
Vitamins A, C and D
Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin and cell development. Vitamin C is important for the immune system and growth, and its intake may be low in children who don’t eat many fruits or vegetables. Vitamin D is essential for the body’s calcium metabolism and can be produced by the body when skin is exposed to sunlight.
In winter, and if your child is always covered when outside, make sure you include dietary sources of vitamin D, along with supplements (in tablet or liquid form) containing this vitamin.
Young children can be given extra A, C and D vitamins in supplements as vitamin drops. Your health visitor or health centre can supply them.
- Give your child regular meals and snacks, and try to time these for when your child isn’t too tired or hungry
- It’s helpful to sit down and eat together as a family, and to include your children in buying food and preparing meals
- Offer small portions on a small plate, and allow your child to have more if they’re still hungry
- Keep sweet foods out of sight until the main meal has been eaten
Breakfast is a very important meal – not only does it break the overnight fast, but it can provide essential nutrients, too.
Serve a low sugar or no-sugar breakfast cereals, with a glass of fresh fruit juice or fruit.Toast, fruit and yoghurt, egg or beans can all be offered as an alternative.
Healthy snacks include fresh fruit, vegetable sticks (such as carrots and peppers), dried fruit, cheese cubes and crackers, toast, small sandwiches, and yoghurt or fromage frais.
Many children go through phases of refusing to eat certain foods or anything at all. This is particularly common for children up to the age of five, and is a normal part of growing up and asserting independence. In fact, children won’t harm themselves if they don’t eat very much for a short while.
It’s quite normal for young children to refuse a new food without even trying it. If this happens, stay calm and don’t force your child to eat it. Take the food away and introduce it again in a few days’ time. Research shows new foods often need to be offered several times before some children will try them.
Offer regular meals and snacks to establish a structured eating pattern rather than allowing your child to pick at food throughout the day. Use brightly coloured plates, present the food in an attractive way, and try to remain calm and relaxed. If the problem shows no sign of improving, speak to your health visitor, GP or dietitian to get further advice.
If your child’s putting on too much weight, cut down on snacks, particularly sweets and chocolate, and give sugar-free or no-added-sugar drinks. Seek advice from your health visitor or GP, who may refer your child to a dietitian. Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities for exercise every day.
If your child isn’t gaining weight well, talk to your health visitor or GP who will check for any underlying medical reasons. As some children have very small appetites, try to make all meals and snacks as nutritious and calorific as possible.
If you ever notice swelling of your child’s mouth or face, or breathing difficulties during or after eating, seek medical advice immediately. Keep a diary of all foods and drinks consumed and try to pinpoint which foods triggered the reaction.
Symptoms such as a rash,or vomiting after eating,may also mean there has been an allergic reaction to a food.
Don’t diagnosel allergies yourself or eliminate foods from your child’s diet without medical advice.
The previous advice on peanuts has changed – there’s now thought to be no reason for children to avoid peanuts, unless they already have a diagnosed allergy to them, or to another food, or a close relative has a food or nut allergy. Check with your health visitor if you are unsure.”
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