Basic Nutritional Needs of Preschoolers
The basic nutritional needs of young children are similar to those of other family members. If you eat a varied and balance diet and ensure your children eat the same you will not have to worry. Little ones, just like adults, need to eat a variety of foods from all the food groups to ensure they meet their nutritional requirements of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. But of course the quantities needed are different. A good rule to follow for serving sizes for preschoolers is about one tablespoon of each type of food per year of age.
Small children need to ingest some proteins. They help build muscles to keep them strong and healthy. Some protein can come from plants (for example, beans and lentils) but some should come from animals. This includes (but is not limited to) meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and milk.
Starchy carbohydrates also need to be part of your preschooler’s diet. They burn slowly and therefore release energy over a longer period of time than other foods. This is ideal for active toddlers who can’t afford to run out of fuel. Bread, cereal, wholegrain rice, couscous, and pasta are just some of the staple foods included in this category.
Fats are necessary, but not all fats are created equal. “Good” fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are found in fresh and tinned fish (such as salmon or mackerel), avocados, and olive oil, as well as other sources. Be wary of the not-so-good fats, namely saturated fats (contained in deep fried foods for example) and trans-fats, the most dangerous of which are almost always present in heavily processed foods such as packaged snacks and biscuits, and are best avoided altogether.
Children under two years of age should be given full-fat milk and dairy products. It helps provide extra calories and nutrients that growing children need. Older children require about thirty per cent of their calorie intake to come from fat, as adults do. This is the time to consider introducing reduced-fat dairy products to limit their intake of saturated fat.
Vitamins and minerals
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, a child who eats a balanced diet with a variety of food, including plenty of fruit and vegetables, is likely to get all he needs. The more varied and the more colourful the food, the better. Try to choose in-season produce rather than the more expensive out-of-season kinds, which have usually travelled and lost some of their goodness along the way. There are many different ways to serve fruit and vegetables. Try to serve them as raw sticks for snacks, puréed, finely grated and mixed into a favourite meal, and so on.
Young children usually enjoy milk and get enough calcium from drinking milk to meet their daily requirements. Other ways to achieve the recommended intake include offering cheese, yoghurt, creamy rice, custard, and other dairy products. If your child can not tolerate dairy foods, non dairy sources of calcium include the bones from fish such as tinned salmon and mackerel and soy bean products.
The nutrient most likely to be low in a toddler’s diet is iron. The best source of iron is meat as the iron is in a form that is easily absorbed. Other good sources of iron are pulses (such as kidney beans, chick peas, and lentils), wholegrain breads, and cereals that are iron-enriched. Serving meat minced or in casseroles will make it easier to chew for young children. Vitamin C will help your child to absorb iron from their meal and the vitamin C from the tomatoes will help your child to absorb more iron from his meat and vegetables. A casserole, pasta or bean dish that combines meat and tomatoes is a good idea.
Encouraging Healthy Eating
It is never too early to teach children good eating habits that will develop into lifelong patterns. Habits learnt during preschool years are likely to remain when children grow into adulthood. Therefore it is all the more important to use this time to encourage a healthy attitude towards food, as well as a taste for healthy food. Teaching your children that eating a balanced diet is part of a healthy lifestyle is a step in the right direction.
Setting a positive example
The greatest influence you have on your children is through your actions, not your words. Hence it is important to eat well yourself. Children watch what you are eating, so to be a good role model for them, try to give up some of the junk food you are used to having in your pantry such as packets of biscuits or bags of crisps. This could make a big difference for your children, and it is most likely to have a positive effect on you too!
To teach your child how to have a positive relationship with food, you need to have a healthy attitude yourself. Make sure that you are not fixated on junk food and that you do not place too much importance on food in general. This may help your child later on by stopping them from obsessing about food and from potentially developing an eating disorder.
Choosing healthier alternatives
To give traditional recipes a healthier twist, substitute natural yoghurt for cream, add some grated fruit and use good quality ingredients in smaller quantities. For example, rather than using baking chocolate, which often contains hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans-fats, use good quality dark chocolate.
Learn to compromise. If your children are adamant about sweetened yoghurt, a good compromise could be buying unsweetened natural yoghurt and mixing in a small amount of liquid honey or homemade jam yourself. This is healthier than opting for the ready-made fruit yoghurts with additives, colourings, flavourings, and preservatives.
Limit sweets, salty and fatty snacks, and soft drinks, so that your children do not develop an unhealthy taste for such food. Instead aim to give them a love for fruit and vegetables early on. One way to achieve this is by offering these foods often and by preparing and presenting them in the right way. It can take many attempts to get a toddler to try out a new food – especially if it doesn’t come out of a packet and isn’t drizzled in chocolate. It helps if they see you eating it.
Treating food as fuel
Don’t always insist on a clean plate as it may lead your children to ignore their own internal hunger cues. Keep in mind that young children are able to regulate their food intake according to their own needs – you want to keep it this way. Encouraging children to listen to their tummy is preferable when it comes to the long-term goal of helping them develop a healthy relationship with food.
It can be tempting to promise an ice-cream to get your toddler to eat his spinach, but in the long run this is just not the way to go. By using food as a bribe, you are simply teaching your children that some foods are more desirable than others, and encouraging them to keep on arguing at mealtimes in order to get treats. This may also lead to problems later on. Every parent knows it is impossible not to bribe at some point but only ever do so as a last resort – when you are just too desperate and too tired to use a more suitable tactic. Food is about nutrition, not power struggles!
© copyright Christelle Le Ru Fresh Start (CLR Books, 2008)
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