Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Many articles have been written about the dangers of trans-fats and their link to an increased risk of heart disease. Trans-fats are a variety of saturated fat that are created in food laboratories by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fat (which are usually liquid at room temperature). The addition of hydrogen to unsaturated fat makes it solid at room temperature (like margarine). This is how vegetable shortening, used extensively in many commercial cookies and cakes, is created. Because trans-fats appear to be a health risk, caregivers should make certain that children do not eat a steady diet containing them. Families should avoid commercially prepared fried foods, baked goods, and stick margarines, and any foods that have the words "partially hydrogenated" on their labels. Caregivers should focus on using polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils for cooking and baking at home.
Young children (just like adults) need plenty of water to stay hydrated. When they are babies, children get most of their hydration from breast milk or formula. As children grow older and move away from breast and bottle feedings, it's appropriate to provide them with a non-spill "sippy" cup (or regular cup when appropriate) filled with water or milk at meals and throughout the day to encourage them to drink.
Many caregivers turn to fruit juice as a beverage/hydration option, thinking that it's a healthy alternative to soda pop or other sweet drinks. However, that's a widespread misconception. Many fruit drinks aren't 100% juice and have lots of added sugar (usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup). Even 100% fruit drinks can fill up little bellies too much, which will prevent kids from eating other nutrient-filled foods that they need. Moreover, children who drink lots of juice (containing lots of sugar) may develop dental problems such as cavities and weakened permanent teeth (even when these teeth are still under the gum line!). Be cautious about purchasing "healthy" low calorie beverages as well. Many of these drinks contain artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame or Splenda, which may be harmful to young children. Though it lacks some of the appeal of sugary drinks, plain old pure water is always one of the best hydration options.
Parents should also monitor how much their children eat, and watch portion sizes. Young children's stomachs are relatively small, so they should consume smaller portions (about 2/3 the size of an adult serving). Particularly at restaurants, people routinely consume servings that are "supersized." Therefore, children should be taught to listen to their bodies, and eat only until they are full. Encouraging children to clean their plate when they have an oversized portion in front of them is not healthy. Caregivers can help by not placing too much food on a child's plate, or requesting that restaurants package half of large portions in "to go" containers. For more information on portion size and menu planning, consult your government dietary guidelines. In the United States, you can check with the Department of Agriculture's website at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/. In Australia, it would be Eat for Healthy website at https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/australian-dietary-guidelines-1-5. In Canada, it's the Health Canada website at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/child-enfant/index-eng.php.
Because young children do not eat as much as adults at one sitting, they frequently need to nibble on snacks between meals. Caregivers should treat snacks as nutritious mini-meals, rather than as an excuse to fill up on sugary and/or fatty items. As with all food choices, the least processed foods are generally the healthiest to serve. Cut up fruit or veggies will be healthier for children than a piece of candy or a pile of chips.
There are many menu options and ways to prepare healthful foods appropriate for children. Here is a sample menu for one day:
whole-grain toast with a thin layer of peanut butter (cut into small pieces)
a cup of low-fat milk
strawberries (also cut into small pieces)
a few whole-wheat crackers
a slice of cheese (try to avoid highly processed American cheese singles)
lightly steamed carrots
a cup of low-fat milk
sliced skinned peaches
ground turkey burgers on a whole-wheat bun
baked sweet potato slices
steamed broccoli chunks
smoothies made from nonfat yogurt and frozen berries