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What does healthy nutrition for kids look like?

What does healthy nutrition for kids look like? In this article we discuss how childhood shapes brain development, metabolism, and overall health. And how to give our children a great start.

Eating patterns built during childhood serve as a foundation for life. What we eat early on shapes brain development, metabolism, and overall health. It also sets the foundation for healthy or unhealthy habits as an adult.

You may only need to make a few small changes to improve your child’s nutritional profile and ensure a lifetime of healthy – and pleasurable – eating.

After all, nutrition affects all aspects of childhood growth, development, and health.

This includes:

  • maintaining a healthy weight;

  • avoiding health problems related to excess body fat;

  • gut health; and

  • brain development and behavior.

Just like grownups, kids depend on good digestion. But because they’re young and vulnerable, they’re often prone to catching viruses and bacterial infections. The result is sometimes diarrhea, which often signals an intestinal infection.

But not all diarrhea results from illness. A major preventable cause is fruit juice. Juice contains fructose and sorbitol, which contribute to diarrhea in high amounts.

If diarrhea is common, its opposite, constipation is more rare – providing kids eat enough whole plant foods. But regardless of diet, when a child needs to go and tries to “hold it,” this can cause problems.

Kids who struggle with constipation before the age of five tend to continue struggling with it after puberty.

Side note: If you are a student/researcher in pediatrics, there aren’t many high quality studies on childhood constipation, so feel free to organize some studies.

In the end, poor dietary quality is linked to gastrointestinal disorders.

And just as with adults, the bacterial balance in children’s guts can influence their immune function.

That’s why probiotics could help to improve gut health, resolve diarrhea after antibiotic use, and control inflammation. Even in children. Indeed, a host of child-friendly probiotics are now available.

Developing brains need quality nutrients. Poor nutrition (whether linked to excess body fat or not) also contributes to child mood and behavioral problems, such as depression and ADHD, even aggressiveness and violence.

This also includes caffeine. One study found that 8-12 year old children consumed an average of 109 mg of caffeine — the equivalent of a cup of coffee a day. Since one cola contains around 30-35 mg caffeine, that means the average kid drinks about 3 colas a day.

How can you help improve your kids’ nutrition?

Start with some simple basics.

  • Choose whole, minimally processed foods. Avoid processed foods that are specifically marketed to kids.

  • Incorporate vegetables and fruits into kids’ daily diet.

  • Supplement with vitamins and minerals if needed, but try to get nutrients from a varied, whole-foods diet first.

  • Help kids regulate their appetite and hunger cues with whole foods and mindful eating.

  • Take the lead. You’re the parent.

  • Adopt healthy habits yourself, so that kids have a role model for their own behavior.

Let’s explore these strategies a bit more.

Cut the sugar.

You’d be surprised at how much sugar is in many breakfast cereals. Learn to;

Read the labels

Whether it’s yogurt or fruit juice, granola bars or trail mix, whether it’s labeled “healthy” or has a leprechaun on the package, read the label.

Look for hidden sugars and other unwanted ingredients. You’ll be surprised at what you find ;-)

Get the right stuff

The good news is that kids who eat a varied diet of mostly whole foods will get enough healthy carbohydrates, lean protein, and good fats. Speaking of good fats…

Dietary fats

Dietary fats help kids absorb vitamins. They also help them feel full and satisfied after meals. And they’re necessary to manufacture hormones.

Kids need healthy dietary fats in the diet — without these fats, kids develop deficiencies, which can lead to growth, eye, body composition, blood lipid, and brain problems.

Dietary fat is even more critical for kids than it is for adults, since they use a higher percentage of fat relative to their calorie intake.

One type of dietary fat – omega-3 fat – is even useful for cognitive development and the prevention of many chronic diseases.

  • EPA/DHA (one type of omega-3 fat) can come from oily fish, but since we are not keen on eating fish, your Algae oil is actually a far better source of Omega 3. These usually come ini large capsules. Most kids are not going to use supplemental Omega 3, so we need to ensure they are getting it from other plant sources.

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another type of omega-3 fat, can come from nuts and seeds such as flax, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, or chia. So make raw nuts available as snacks, and try blending up ground flax or chia seed into kids’ cereal or smoothies.

And coconut is a great source of healthy saturated fats. Smash open a fresh coconut together — kids usually think this is hilarious. Or use coconut milk or unsweetened coconut flakes in dishes, and coconut flour in baking.

Small substitutions can add up

Simply switching to less processed, more whole-food versions of things can make a huge difference.

Look at your kids’ daily menu and see where you can make healthier substitutions for processed foods.

Incorporate fruits and vegetables

Adding fruits and vegetables is another great and simple way to start improving your kids’ nutrition.

Fruits and veggies come in their own handy packages, are easy to prepare, and full of important nutrients that growing bodies need.

Of course, not all children will love all fruits and veggies right away. Here are some tips to address common problems.

Problem: Kids don’t like the taste of vegetables.

Solution: Prepare vegetables differently. Try roasting, making into a soup, sneaking veggies into a shake with fruit, or serving them raw. And remember, it might require ten or more exposures before a child embraces a new food. So give it time. Keep trying new options. And keep looking for ways to incorporate veggies into meals.

Problem: Preparation seems inconvenient or difficult.

Solution: Keep prepared vegetables such as pre-washed baby veggies handy. Involve children in vegetable and fruit prep — even young children can do things like snap the ends off green beans, mash avocados, or tear up lettuce for salad. The more involved children are, the more likely they are to try new foods.

Problem: No access

Solution: Keep vegetables at home and at school. Rearrange the fridge to make prepared vegetables accessible and less healthy alternatives harder to reach.

Problem: Fruits and vegetables aren’t cool because they don’t have their own commercial.

Solution: Don’t rely on advertising to make food choices. Teach kids to be media-savvy. Help them understand that advertising is designed to sell stuff – not necessarily with their well-being in mind. And take them shopping with you. Let them explore the produce section and choose some things they’d like to try.

Problem: Peer pressure to eat non-nutritious foods

Solution: What happens around peers stays around peers. Focus on eating better at home.

Problem: Parents aren’t eating veggies.

Solution: Parents eat veggies. You knew we were going to say that, right?


Water and unsweetened teas are the best thirst-quenchers around. They promote good hydration. And when children get used to the flavor, will prefer these to sugary drinks.

Unfortunately, as things stand, more than 30% of the fructose young children consume comes from sugar-sweetened drinks.

Consider eliminating fruit juices in favor of whole fruit and trying some alternatives to cow’s milk. Then using primarily water and unsweetened tea for your children’s beverages.

Strategy #4: Help kids eat the right amount

Given the right conditions, kids tend to be intuitive eaters. Their body cues tell them how much they need.

Some days they’ll eat more, some days less. Their bodies will naturally regulate their intake over the long term. So trying to count calories for otherwise healthy kids is wasted effort.

Kids’ amazing abilities to self-regulate can be messed up by things like:

  • inappropriate portion sizing

  • processed foods

  • restricting foods

  • labeling some foods as “bad”

  • eating while rushed, distracted, or on the go

Strategies that DON’T work

As a parent, you’ll undoubtedly want to make sure your kids are happy and healthy. So you might:

  • offer them food as a reward when they’re upset;

  • have strict rules about “good” and “bad” foods;

  • push them to finish dinner;

  • try bribing them (“If you finish your spinach you’ll get ice cream”).

Unfortunately, the strategies above only make things worse. Plus, it’s a lot of work for you!

Try these strategies instead

So try these strategies instead. To ensure that kids keep eating intuitively and naturally for life:

  • Serve them a variety of unprocessed whole foods.

  • Serve appropriate portions.

  • Give them the illusion of choice and self-determination (e.g. “You can pick 1 vegetable you’d like to eat tonight”).

  • Let kids stop when they’re no longer hungry (instead of insisting that they clear their plate).

  • Avoid strict “eating rules” or references to children’s weight.

  • Don’t keep unhealthy choices in the house. Make healthy choices abundantly available. Don’t make this a big deal; just make poor choices simply and quietly… unavailable.

  • Involve kids in shopping, menu planning, and cooking.

  • Slow down.

  • Eat together as a family as often as possible; make meal time family time.

Strategy #5: Take the lead

Parents: It’s up to you to take the lead. You’re in charge here.

It’s your job to provide the food. But it’s the child’s choice whether to eat it. When kids are hungry, they’ll eat.

Set a good example of healthy eating yourself.

Ultimately, children pay more attention to what their parents do than what their parents say. So set a great example, and chances are, your children will follow where you lead.

But what about picky kids?

This is all very well, you might be saying. But my kid won’t eat vegetables, no matter what! How will he get enough nutrients?

No problem. Make sure he eats plenty of:

  • apricots

  • cantaloupe

  • mango

  • peaches and plums

  • beans

  • nuts

  • avocado

  • eggs

  • citrus

  • berries

How can they get enough calcium without dairy ?

Make sure they eat plenty of:

  • broccoli

  • green leafy veggies (sneak ’em into a fruit smoothie if you must)

  • beans/legumes

  • fish with bones

  • calcium-fortified non-dairy milks

How can they get enough protein without meat?

Make sure they eat plenty of:

  • beans

  • peas (kids often love steamed edamame in the pod)

  • nuts

  • Seeds

  • Tofu

  • Tempeh

  • Seitan

  • Soy curls

  • Pea protein Crumbles

  • Textured Vegetable Protein

  • Heck there’s even Vegan chicken nuggets and hamburgers that are an occasional option.

In other words, there’s a solution for just about every potential problem.

General guidelines

While it might seem easiest to focus on daily servings and numbers, it’s smarter to allow for flexibility. Step back and consider the big picture. A few days without 3-5 servings of vegetables is okay.

In general, aim for the following:

  • Vegetables – 3-5 servings/day (serving size = fist)

  • Fruit – 2-3 servings/day (serving size = fist)

  • Beans/legumes/meat substitutes – 2-3 servings/day (serving size = palm)

  • Whole grains – 2-3 servings/day (serving size = fist)

  • Nuts/seeds/olives/avocado/coconut – 2-3 servings/day (serving size = thumb).

Summary & recommendations

How much should kids eat? They should eat until they are no longer hungry.

What should kids eat? A mix of mostly whole, minimally processed foods.

What should kids drink? Mostly water and unsweetened teas.

How to ensure healthy bowel movements? Adequate fluid, physical activity, and whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds).

The #1 thing you can do to help your kids? Adopt healthy habits yourself. We often forget our habits are examples for our children. The more you positively focus on your health, the more likely your children will do so as well.

Eat, move, and live… better.

  • Coach Clarissa


  • PN 1, PN2 NCI1, NCI2 NCI Hormone Specialist Nutrition and Dietetics


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