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How to Develop a Nutritious Diet Plan for Children of All Ages

Overhead view of a bowl of freshly chopped vegetables on a white table, with a small bowl of lime wedges and various whole vegetables scattered around.Image credit: Pexels

Childhood nutrition is essential to raising a healthy, happy, and well-balanced child. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the nutrition a child is exposed to in the early years of their life determines how they’ll develop later on.

The WHO warns that proper nutrition is the most crucial when your child is two years and older. This is when the negative effects of improper or insufficient nutrition can no longer be reversed. These negative effects may include illness, delayed mental development, or improper motor skills.

As a parent, it’s important to understand your child’s dietary needs, including the amount of calories they need for proper development. These needs change as your child gets older, so learning about nutrition options helps you stay on track.

General Childhood Nutrition Tips

While you want your child to eat the foods they like, nutrition, allergies, and other essential health issues should be taken into consideration. You should also think about your child’s activity level and health conditions when developing their diet.

If your child has any dietary restrictions, it’s important to account for their unique needs. For example, if your child has Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, it will be helpful to know how to make oat flour and rice flour at home.

Additionally, when figuring out a meal plan for your child, consider the following:

  • Providing enough important vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, vitamin A, iron, and iodine.
  • Avoiding trans fats and refined carbohydrates.
  • Serving enough protein so your child can build muscles and remain active.
  • Limiting sugary and processed foods and drinks, such as cookies and soda.
  • Restricting the number of calories your child eats each day to prevent obesity.

It’s also important to feed your child a variety of fruits and vegetables and make it a point to introduce healthy snacking and eating at an early age.

Infants

Depending on your situation, you may choose to feed your infant your own breast milk or formula. Your newborn baby may need to be breastfed every one to three hours but only every four hours or so after a few weeks. When your baby is about six months old, begin to follow their cues to determine when they’re hungry.

Begin to wean your baby off from formula or breastmilk when they’re 12 to 24 months old. However, it’s important to continue listening to your baby’s cues and providing milk when needed. If you wean your baby from breastmilk when they’re younger than 12 months, replace it with formula. If your baby is older than 12 months when you begin the weaning process, replace your breast milk with cow’s milk instead of formula.

At six months old, your baby may also begin eating complementary foods as you breastfeed or provide formula. Start with soft, mashed, or bite-sized foods, such as bananas, avocados, or soft cheeses. When your child is about 12 months old and has mastered chewing and swallowing, they may be able to eat most of the foods that you eat. It’s crucial to introduce healthy foods and set good eating habits at this age.

Toddlers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends feeding your toddler about five to six times per day. When my kids were little, we offered them three meals and three snacks a day. If they didn’t eat at a meal or snack time, they waited until the next, which always came quite quickly. Proper nutrition at this stage helps your child physically grow and develop.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, your toddler needs about 40 calories for every inch of height. A toddler between one and three years old experiences a slowdown in growth so their food intake may be noticeably smaller than when they were younger.

Each meal you serve your toddler should be about one-quarter of the size of your meal. The average meal for a toddler should include about one ounce of meat or a few tablespoons of beans for protein. It should also include a few tablespoons of vegetables and fruit and you may even add about a quarter of a slice of bread or other carbs.

To encourage healthy eating, keep fruits and vegetables washed, cut, and prepared for quick snacking. Try healthy alternatives to unhealthy items, such as chicken nuggets in the air fryer instead of a full-fat deep fryer. Eat dinner as a family so your toddler can see other family members eating salads, vegetables, and other healthy foods.

Young Children

In 2016, obesity affected about 13.7 million children who were two to 19 years old. Young obese children may develop health conditions if they remain overweight for years. Young children are still developing and growing, so providing adequate nutrition through a healthy diet is crucial for their health as an adult.

The calories and number of meals you should feed your child depend on their size, growth stage, gender, and activity level. For example, boys four to eight years old should consume about 1,200 to 2,000 calories per day while girls the same age should eat around 1,200 to 1,800 calories.

If you’re concerned about what’s in your child’s food, it may be helpful to make it yourself from scratch. There are plenty of recipes that mimic many popular children’s foods, including Dunkin Donuts-style gluten free donut holes and even homemade Jello-style gelatin.

If your child is a picky eater, encourage them to explore fruits, vegetables, and other healthy items by offering a variety. Hone in on your child’s favorites and begin to experiment to keep eating fun. For example, add bananas to your child’s pancakes so you can sneak in some added nutrition to this hearty breakfast.

Teenagers

Teenagers are growing and developing mentally so providing them with inadequate nutrition could affect their mental health. The number of calories a teenager needs also depends on gender, age, growth, and activity level. If your teenager is involved in after-school sports, they’ll need more calories than if they aren’t engaged in active hobbies.

When your child goes through puberty (around 10 years old for girls and around 12 years old for boys), they’ll experience a surge in growth. Their bodies may demand more calories during this time so it’s important to offer extra healthy meals and snacks as needed.

Your teenager’s diet should be well-balanced to include protein, fat, and carbohydrates but limited sugar and trans fats. Educate your teenager on the importance of healthy eating and how to make a plate that meets their dietary needs.

Before allowing your teenager to choose their own foods, instill good eating habits by teaching them to cook healthy meals, such as zucchini lasagna. Making pizza dough and having it on hand can provide an easy option for your teenager to cook themselves a filling meal.

A healthy diet is important for your child at any age because it provides the nutrients they need to grow and develop properly. By teaching your child how to fuel their body properly at a young age, you’re setting them up for a healthy lifestyle.

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