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Healthy eating for children

(BY DIETITIAN, JULIETTE KELLOW BSc RD)
It’s vitally important that children learn the habit of healthy eating when they are young. Good eating habits last a lifetime and diet is one of the most important steps towards a lifetime of good health.


Eating well makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight, increases your child’s chance of doing well at school, and improves concentration and behaviour. Learning good table manners also helps improve social skills, too.

Follow these 10 steps to encourage a healthy diet for your child:
  1. Work fruit and vegetable into the daily routine, aiming for at least five portions a day.
  2. Make it easy for your child to choose healthy snacks by keeping fruit and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include yogurt, rice cakes and carrot sticks, or wholegrain biscuits and a small portion of cheese.
  3. Serve regular portions of lean meats and other good sources of protein, such as eggs and nuts.
  4. Choose wholegrain breads and cereals so that your child gets more fibre.
  5. Limit fat intake by avoiding deep-fried foods and choosing healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, roasting and steaming.
  6. Cut down on fast food, such as chips and sweets. But don't completely ban their favourite snacks from your home. Instead, make them occasional foods, so that your child doesn't feel deprived.
  7. Make sure your child eats only a moderate amount of foods containing sugar.
  8. Cut the amount of salt you use and watch for hidden salt content in food – some processed meals and breakfast cereals are high in salt so double check labels.
  9. Encourage your child to choose water or diluted fruit juice instead of fizzy drinks.
Don’t let your child skip breakfast. Around 10 per cent of children don’t eat breakfast, meaning their diets contain less calcium, iron, fibre and vitamins. Skipping breakfast becomes more common as children get older, so instil good habits early.
How your children eat can be as important as what they eat. There are several strategies that can help your child learn good eating habits:
  • Have regular family meals.
  • Serve a variety of healthy foods and snacks.
  • Be a role model by eating a good diet yourself.
Remember though, that low fat diets are not appropriate for infants and young children under two years of age. A diet lower in fat, especially saturated fat, is ok for older teenagers.Avoid battles over food.

Whilst it’s best to encourage healthy eating among the whole family, some children may be reluctant to change their eating habits. Here are some tips to get children eating healthily without them even realising…
  • Add more veggies to favourite dishes – for example, add finely sliced mushrooms to Bolognese, finely chopped red pepper to tomato sauces and steamed leeks to mashed potato
 
  • Serve big portions of veggies they like – sweetcorn, carrots and peas are often popular.
 
  • Mix together grated carrot and Red Leicester cheese and use to fill sandwiches and jacket potatoes – the colours blend so well they may not notice the carrot.
 
  • Buy lower-fat versions of sausages, burgers and oven chips and grill or oven bake them rather than frying. Alternatively, make your own homemade burgers and swap chips for homemade potato wedges – simply cut potatoes in their skins into wedges, brush with a little olive oil and bake in the oven until they are soft in the middle and crispy on the outside.
 
  • Buy lower-fat versions of crisps and biscuits and opt for the smallest bags available.
 
  • Add barley, beans or lentils to soups, stews and other meaty dishes – children won’t notice baked beans in a cottage pie or lentils in a stew.
 
  • Buy sugar-free squashes and fizzy drinks – if the kids complain, pour them into empty bottles of the standard variety when they’re not looking.
 
  • If children won’t eat wholemeal or granary bread, try high-fibre white bread for sandwiches and toast.
 
  • If you can’t get your kids to give up sugary cereals, mix them with lower sugar varieties such as a handful each of Frosties and Cornflakes, or Rice Krispies and Coco Pops
 
  • Use whole-wheat pasta in pasta bakes – when mixed with sauce it’s impossible to tell it’s not white

For children who are resistant to brown rice or wholemeal pasta, cook half of each and then mix together.

Nutrition guidelines recommended for adults are inappropriate for most children under the age of five. This is because young children only have small tummies and so need plenty of calories and nutrients in a small amount of food to ensure they grow properly.

While low-fat diets are recommended for older children and adults, under-fives need diets that contain good amounts of fat.

This fat should come from foods that contain plenty of other nutrients like meat, oily fish and full-fat milk (semi-skimmed milk is unsuitable for children under the age of two, and skimmed unsuitable for under-fives), rather than from high-fat foods that contain few vitamins and minerals like cakes, biscuits and chocolate.

Meanwhile, young children shouldn’t eat too many fibre-rich foods, either, as these may fill them up so much they can’t eat enough to provide them with adequate calories and nutrients.

However, as kids approach school age, they should gradually move towards a diet that’s lower in fat and higher in fibre. And by the age of five, their diet should be low in fat, sugar and salt and high in fibre with five fruit and veg a day – just like adults.

Fortunately, whatever their age, children can easily get a balanced diet – and lower their risk of becoming overweight or obese – by eating a variety of foods from four main food groups:
  • Bread, other cereals and potatoes – these starchy foods, which also include pasta and rice, provide energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals
 
  • Fruit and vegetables – these provide fibre, vitamins and minerals and are a source of antioxidants.
 
  • Milk and dairy foods – these provide calcium for healthy bones and teeth, protein for growth, plus vitamins and minerals.
 
  • Meat, fish and alternatives – these foods, which include eggs and pulses, provide protein and vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Pulses also contain fibre.
In contrast, foods from a fifth food group that includes fatty and sugary foods like biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, chocolate, sweets, crisps and pastries, that add little nutritional value, should be limited.
Children's Vitamin and Mineral Intake

Choosing foods from each of the four main food groups will help to ensure that kids receive all the vitamins and minerals they need for good nutrition and health.

Worryingly, figures from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of Young People reveals that many children have inadequate intakes of many nutrients, including vitamin A, riboflavin (vitamin B2), zinc, potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron, particularly once they reach the teenage years and have more control over what they eat.

In contrast, the survey showed these poor intakes of vitamins and minerals were combined with too much salt, sugar and saturated fat.

It’s particularly important that children and teenagers eat a diet that’s packed with vitamins and minerals. In fact, older children often have higher requirements for nutrients than even adults in order to support growth – for example, 15 to 18 year old boys need more thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus and iron that adult men! Similarly, 15 to 18 year old girls need more niacin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium than adult women.

Calorie Intake for Children

Although obesity is a major problem, children and teenagers still need enough calories to grow and develop into healthy adults. This chart gives a rough guideline to the daily calorie needs of boys and girls at different ages. Kids who are really active may need more; those who are inactive may need less.


AgeCalories per day
 BoysGirls
1–31,2301,165
4–61,7151,545
7–101,9701,740
11–142,2201,845
15–182,7552,110
Adults2,5501,940

Salt Intake for Children

It’s important to ensure that children don’t have too much salt. While adults should have no more than 6g of salt a day, children need even less as they have smaller bodies.

So don’t add salt to cooking or meals and check information on labels when you buy processed foods such as crisps, ready meals and sauces – even if they’re aimed at children. Opt for those with the least sodium – it’s the sodium in salt that’s linked to health problems like high blood pressure. Bacon, ham, sausages and cheese are also high in salt so limit these, too.

The maximum amounts of salt children should have at different ages are…
  • 1–3 years – 2g a day (0.8g sodium)
  • 4–6 years – 3g a day (1.2g sodium)
  • 7–10 years – 5g a day (2g sodium)
  • 11 years upward – 6g a day (2.5g sodium)
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