What you should feed your children every day is essentially the same as what you should be feeding yourself. There is no reason why children should eat different food to adults and the vast majority of foods marketed for children are processed and nutritionally inferior, often containing hidden salt and even sugar. There is nothing wrong with serving fish fingers occasionally, but they contain considerably less protein than a piece of fish and are generally eaten with chips, which provide few nutrients. Children enjoy many of the same foods as adults – pasta sauces with tomatoes, garlic and herbs, casseroles, chilli con carne without the spice, steaks and prawns are super nutritious and should be eaten by all the family.
Growing children need a regular supply of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy. I believe that poor behaviour can often be linked to hunger or under-nutrition, which can be a result of them not eating the right foods rather than just not eating enough.
A child’s diet should be comprised of the following:
- Fruit – 2 portions per day (1/2 banana and an apple or a few strawberries)
- Veggies – at least 3 portions per day (1 at lunch, 2 at dinner or as snacks)
- Calcium / dairy products – 2-3 per day
- Protein – 1 or 2 portions per day (an egg at lunch, meat, fish or legumes for dinner)
- Meat – red meat up to 4 times per week (or legumes if vegetarian)
- Fish – 2 portions per week
Iron is a really important mineral for growing children. It’s used by the body for energy production and to make cells which are essential for attention and learning. Iron deficiency can result in low energy levels and has negative effects on learning and behaviour. It is common in young children. Iron is found in the highest concentrations in red meat, but is also found in smaller amounts in other meat, seafood, legumes, bread and pasta, potatoes, and many vegetables.
Omega 3 fatty acids are also important for children. This type of fat is found in high concentrations in the brain and is critical for brain development and function. Research is in its early stages, but there is some evidence linking a deficiency of omega 3 fats to poor behaviour and even Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in some children. These fats are found predominately in oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, but also in walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds and oils made from them. Small amounts are present in green leafy vegetables and products made from grass-fed animals such as meat, organic butter and milk so increasing consumption of any of these will increase your overall intake.
Variety is another essential component of a healthy diet. Eating a variety of foods ensures you are most likely to consume all of the nutrients required for good health. This can be hard with children as they eat what they’re familiar with and often enjoy a more limited range of foods than adults. If your child is a fussy eater, the tendency is to give them what they will eat just so they eat something. Persevere in offering different foods, particularly when they are hungry. For example, a good time to increase your child’s daily vegetable intake is when you are chopping vegetables for dinner. Offer raw carrot or peppers or a few nuts and they may be more willing to accept.
Finally, try to monitor what your child is drinking each day. One glass of unsweetened fruit juice contributes to the 5 a day target, but much more than that contributes only unnecessary sugar and potential weight gain. Water should always be the first choice, with milk also a good option. Keep additional juices or soft drinks for a special treat.