The new year inspires many people to set goals for themselves, especially when it comes to diet and nutrition. People, especially parents, see it as an opportunity to reset their behaviors and develop healthier habits. Parents spend a great deal of time researching ideas and recipes for how to keep their families healthy, but sometimes researching information online can be daunting. It seems like every day there is new information regarding what is healthy and what is not, thus making it much harder for parents to distinguish fact from fiction. This article will help clarify some of this confusion by discussing several of the most important things for parents to know about diet and nutrition for babies, children, and teenagers.
Parents of newborns know they should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months (unless told otherwise by the baby’s healthcare provider) and introduce solid foods only after that, but what kinds of foods can parents introduce first? Healthcare professionals say the first solid foods babies can eat are soft ones, such as baby cereal (which is often fortified with iron to help support brain development) and pureed fruits, vegetables, and meat. These foods, along with continual breast or bottle feeding, will ensure babies are getting all the important vitamins and nutrients they need.
However, experts are now recommending parents add more foods to this list of acceptable first solid foods. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics introduced new peanut guidelines that called for the early introduction of peanuts into a baby’s diet.1 Healthcare professionals now recommend feeding babies peanut-containing food (not whole peanuts, as those are a choking hazard) as some of their first foods.2 Doctors hope that this early exposure will help prevent peanut allergies from developing. Another new dietary recommendation comes from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which calls for families, especially pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, to eat two to three servings of fish a week.3 Fish is a naturally high source of omega-3 fatty acids, which promote brain and eye development in children. It is also rich in protein and vitamins A, B, and D, making it an excellent first food.
Parents can also use snack time as a way to focus on motor control. Instead of serving snacks in a bowl or plate, try putting food into little cups to encourage babies to pick them up with their fingers. As babies get older, parents can introduce utensils. To practice scooping skills, parents can give their baby a large spoon and have them scoop small toys from one bowl to another. Children can even practice their cutting skills with Velcro food toys. For children with motor restrictions, try looking into adaptive eatery, such as spill-proof bowls, slip-proof mats, and other ergonomically friendly kitchenware. All these tools can be used to make eating easier while also developing motor control skills.
As babies grow into school-aged children, they can eat almost anything adults can eat. A common misconception is that children are inherently picky eaters who will shun anything healthy, which encourages parents to turn to kid’s menus. However, foods targeted at children are often loaded with sugar and fat; in other words: the food tastes delicious, but is not very healthy. A simple way to improve a child’s diet is to switch out foods for healthier versions. For example, use brown rice instead of white rice or whole wheat bread instead of white bread. These small changes are easy to make and virtually unnoticeable to children.
Nevertheless, no matter how hard some parents try, their child may still become a picky eater or go through phases of disliking certain tastes or textures. Thankfully, there are some ingenious solutions for encouraging healthy eating habits amongst even the pickiest of children. For the child that does not enjoy eating meat, try serving them protein rich alternatives such as yogurt, cheese, eggs, or beans. For a healthy snack, parents can offer crackers with hummus or peanut butter. If it is the appearance of meat that bothers children, try “hiding” the meat in pastas, such as raviolis. For vegetable protesters, try adding light dressings and sauces like teriyaki sauce or pasta sauce. The sweet and salty taste of sauces and dressings can entice picky eaters and help open them up to trying new vegetables. Just be careful not to use too much of these toppings, because they are often more sugary than necessary. Try to use them solely as a stepping stone to getting a child to eat vegetables. Another way to incorporate vegetables is to bake them into meals children already love, like muffins stuffed with vegetables or spaghetti made out of zucchini. If none of these tricks work, try talking to the child’s healthcare professional for advice on how to make sure they are getting all their needed vitamins and nutrients.
For school-aged children with dietary restrictions, make sure they understand the ins and outs of their nutritional needs as early as possible. Since children in school are more independent, it is important that they always have their medications near them, whether that be with the school nurse, teacher, another parent, or themselves. For children who are unable to communicate their dietary restrictions, parents can make lists with pictures of what their child can and cannot eat. Parents can also write out emergency plans that give others step-by-step instructions of what to do in case their child eats something they are not supposed to. By educating one’s child early on, parents can help their child take control of their diet and learn how to manage it without constant parental guidance.
As children grow into teenagers and become increasingly responsible for their own health and diets, their eating habits become relatively well-formed, thus further emphasizing the need for creating health eating habits early on. Teenagers will begin eating more than ever before in order to keep up with their changing bodies and active lifestyles, so it is important that parents support their children by promoting healthy eating. It is a good idea for parents to talk with teenagers and encourage them to eat three healthy meals a day, especially breakfast, which many often skip. Teenagers, particularly females, need to make sure they are consuming adequate amounts of iron (for menstruation) and calcium (for bone growth).4 These nutrients can be easily found in fish, beans, nuts, leafy greens, and dairy products.
Another thing for parents of teenagers to watch out for is unusual eating habits.5 It is important that parents start taking note of their child’s habits, behavior towards food, and general influences. Parents can promote a positive body image and good self-esteem by discussing media messages and assuring them that a healthy body comes in all shapes and sizes. Help teenagers find a healthy outlet for stress or negative emotions that does not revolve around food. Also, it’s wise to avoid using food as a reward or punishment, as this can enable these emotional eating habits. However, perhaps what is most helpful is simply listening to one’s child. By providing an open environment to share, they will be more likely to discuss their thoughts and ask questions or directly communicate their insecurities and worries.
A well-rounded diet is one of the cornerstones of health. By introducing children to healthy and nutritious foods as early as possible, parents can build the foundation for children to enjoy these foods and sustain these habits as they age. There will always be speedbumps along the way, but it is never too late to try new foods and develop healthy habits. As children grow and gain their own independence and preferences, try giving them more responsibilities when it comes to food. Have them help pick out healthy snacks in the grocery store and help prepare meals. They will be able to carry these skills over with them into their teenage years and adulthood, which will make it easier for them to maintain these habits for life.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jordan Capizola is a Program Coordinator at Genetic Alliance, where she works on the Expecting Health team. In her role, she develops stakeholder engagement tools, drafts research materials, manages website content, and researches new findings in maternal and child health. Jordan graduated from the George Washington University with a B.A. in International Affairs with concentrations in International Politics and Global Public Health and a minor in Public Health.
Lillian Duffield is an Administrative Assistant at Genetic Alliance, where she provides administrative support to key team leaders. She has a background in media, event coordination, web design and photography. Lily graduated from Goucher College with a B.A. in Communications with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Political Science.