What should you be feeding your child? And more importantly, how much of it? This is a question on the tip of many parent’s or nanny’s tongue. Having a fundamental understanding of what to feed your child and how much of it to feed them is important, and once you have that knowledge life may just be a little easier.
Food Groups and Portion Sizes The USDA has given us a great tool – MyPlate! MyPlate is a great resource to introduce the 5 food groups included in a well balanced diet (barring any allergies or medical concerns). The MyPlate image to the right is a great resource to see the distribution of food groups over a day, or on each plate.
- Fruits: Fuel up with fruits at snack time, or add them to a meal, such as breakfast. Fruits can be a great dessert too.
- Vegetables: Introduce a variety of colors to your child to optimize nutrient intake. Dark-green, red and orange vegetables all have different nutrients that will help keep your children healthy.
- Protein: Important in a growing child, mix up your protein! Beans, poultry, beef, fish and eggs are all great sources and you can sneak them into any meal or snack.
- Grains: Remember to emphasize whole grain intake (make half your grains whole grains). Don’t over do the grains though – think about it, a portion size of rice for adults is only ½ cup cooked and children need only ¼-½ our portion sizes. The portion per day for grains is about 3 ounces.
- Dairy: Milk helps to keep bones strong and is a great source of calcium. Unfortunately, not all children can drink milk. Some sources for lactose intolerant children to get their calcium is Soy milk, fortified orange juice, and even dark-leafy greens and broccoli.
Now that we know what to serve our children, how much should we be serving them? The average 1-3 year old child only consumes about 1,000 calories a day. They only need about ¼ to ½ the serving size of an adult. For example, If I eat a slice of bread, a one year old is only going to eat ¼ of that slice and a three year old can do ½. Judging portion sizes and knowing what a child needs is one of the most difficult parts of feeding. MyPlate gives some great suggestions on how to split up the different food groups throughout the day for 1-3 year olds (remember every one child is a little different and these are general guidelines):
Great! We know what to feed the kids – but now they won’t eat it when you want them to. When should you start to worry? Remember, children will eat when they are hungry. It is so important to help your child establish strong hunger cues when they are young. Forcing them to eat when they aren’t hungry can inhibit this. Force feeding can also cause negative associations to mealtimes for children. We need to look at the big picture. If you look at a week’s worth of your child’s food intake and it is balanced, then you’re doing okay. It’s when the week is not balancing out that it’s time to see your Pediatrician and Dietitian!
Lastly, make eating healthy foods fun! I was teaching a class to 8 year olds about vegetables. The whole lesson, I think the only word they said was, “ew.” The second we pulled out our zucchini dino dip with palm trees made of carrots and peppers, the kids ate it all up. Have fun with your kids in the kitchen, let them help you make fun snacks and join in on the snacking. Children are so impressionable that if they see you perceive something negatively, they likely will too. Every child is different and has different needs, which is why it is so hard to find general portion size information that will work exactly for your child. While following the chart above remember to read each individual child’s cues to tell you if they want more or less food. There are great resources (links below) to help you find more information and ideas. The most important part is to have fun and involve the child in all the steps of preparing a snack or meal; not just the eating!
Kristin Speikers graduated from Framingham State University with a BS in Food and Nutrition. She is a Registered Dietitian and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist. Currently she is transitioning from working as a Dining Services Assistant Manager at Boston College to working in the purchasing department. In her free time, Kristin enjoys reading and taking walks outside. Check out her blog: Dietitian’s Corner.