Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Children need a balanced and healthy diet to fuel the amazing rate of growth and development that occurs during early childhood. For better or for worse, after age 2, young children eat many of the same foods adults eat. As a result, it's important that caregivers provide children with a menu that includes a variety of nutrient-dense choices from all important food groups. Caregivers should also take care to minimize children's access to "junk foods" that are low in nutrient value and high in sugar, fat, and salt.
Adults and children over the age of two typically need to eat a daily diet that consists of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, calcium-rich dairy products, and some oils. Whole grains are important because they retain dietary fiber, and naturally occurring oil, vitamins and minerals that have been removed from more refined grains like white flour. For example, bread made with 100% whole wheat flour is more nutritionally sound than bread made with refined white flour because the latter has had the healthy bran fiber and natural wheat oil removed during the refining process. In general, whole-grain selections, such as bread, crackers or pasta made with 100% whole wheat, brown rice and oatmeal, will be significantly higher in fiber and important nutrients than white bread, white rice and other refined grain products.
Children can choose from a wide array of fruits and vegetables in the produce section of the grocery store or from a local farmer's market. Selecting fruits and vegetables based on their color makes for an easy rule of thumb; select fruits and vegetables with dark and vibrant colors because these colors indicate the presence of large amounts of vitamins and minerals. Dark green (e.g., spinach) and dark orange (e.g., carrots) vegetables are especially nutritionally valuable. Healthy preparation of veggies is also important. Raw or lightly-steamed vegetables will generally contain more nutrients than fried vegetables, because too much heat can destroy some nutrients. In addition, frying veggies in oil adds additional fat and calories to these foods.
Because young children are still learning to perfect the biting, chewing, and swallowing process, caregivers need to take care to serve fruits and vegetables that have been cut up into small pieces, to prevent choking. As well, slightly cooking or steaming vegetables softens them and reduces choking risk.
Selecting vegetables and fruits that are "in-season" is the best way to minimize cost and maximize nutrition. During the winter or "off-season" months, flash frozen fruits and vegetables (minimally processed and without added sugars or flavorings) can be another healthy option. Canned fruits and vegetables are convenient, but, again, tend to be more processed (and therefore less healthy) than fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Caregivers should take care to monitor children's intake of canned and other highly processed fruits and vegetables, as they are often high in salt and sugar, preservatives, and flavor enhancers (e.g., Monosodium glutamate, or MSG).
Protein menu selections can include lean meats (e.g., chicken, turkey, or fish) as well as chickpeas, beans, and nuts. As with fruit and vegetables, caregivers need to carefully prepare protein-rich foods by cutting items into small pieces so as to minimize choking risk. As another choking precaution, very young children should avoid eating whole nuts and eat nut butters instead. A thin layer of a low-fat nut butter on whole-grain toast is an excellent kid-friendly protein selection. Be careful, though... a child who swallows a large glob of peanut butter sandwich can still easily choke.
Young children should get two to three servings of milk products each day. Milk selections can include two percent or skim milk, non-fat or low-fat yogurt (try freezing portable yogurt tubes for a special treat), or cheese. Milk products are filled with calcium, which is especially important in the early childhood stage, as bones are rapidly growing.
Lastly, children benefit from a little healthy oil or fat every day. Some fats are healthier than others. Eaten in moderation, polyunsaturated fats (found in safflower, sunflower, sesame, corn, and soy oils; and nuts and seeds) and monounsaturated fats (found in olives, avocados; and olive, canola, and peanut oils) can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish such as mackerel and salmon, flaxseed, and walnuts) can help lower blood pressure, control inflammation, and protect against irregular heartbeat. These healthy fats can be contrasted with various forms of saturated fat (red meat, milk, butter and cheese) which tend to cause health problems.