Finally, your little one is eating solid foods, liberating you both from the sloppiness of spoon-fed purée. Meals and snacks become an important time for your little sprout to experiment with the power of choice. We as parents and caregivers have the responsibility (yikes!) to help forge healthy habits regarding what, how, and when to eat– but this, like anything involving children, is harder than it sounds. In the interest of time or energy, we make compromises, succumbing to processed convenience foods with poor nutrient ratios, eating on the run. Often it isn’t until we are about to throw the empty box or wrapper into the appropriate waste bin that we read the ingredient label with some sense of disappointment that the feel-good branding and bright packaging has duped us into thinking we made a healthy choice. Who cares if it’s organic if all the calories come from refined grains, syrups, and various unpronounceable things?
The truth is, toddlers need essential fatty acids and proteins even more than we do. But your little pumpkinhead wants that sweet and colorfully labeled food-like substance encased in plastic, and you are too tired to argue. The result? Cravings for sweets, mood swings (known in our house as “the grumpies”), and sometimes, behavior issues that result in more “time outs” than Monday night football.
You know that feeling when you manage to eat really well for a few days in a row, and you stop craving sweets and caffeine? Think of your preschoolers as even more metabolically sensitive than you, when proportions of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, protein), minerals, and vitamins matter most. We’ll save you the preachy manifesto (I don’t have enough degrees after my name for that), but here, in brief, are a couple things you should know about child development and nutrition:
1. Fat is your friend.
As a percentage of calories, children need more fat than adults– between 25 and 35 percent. As a general rule of thumb, at least one-third of calories for 2-3 year olds should come from fats, preferably those found in seeds, nuts, and fish, as well as eggs, whole milk dairy, and meats from pasture-raised animals.
Why is fat your friend, as a parent? Studies point to “good mood foods” that include eggs, nuts, seeds, and other fats that nature packaged into perfect ratios with protein and micronutrients. Many parents of children with behavioral challenges report great improvements with higher fat diets with no added sugar. We have all witnessed or felt first-hand the meltdown sugar-crashes after the highs from cake, ice cream, or candies subsides. Snacks high in carbohydrates can also result in continued cravings for carbohydrates, meaning that your child’s important proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats could go largely untouched at mealtime.
2. Variety matters.
Research suggests that a diverse population of gut microbiota early in life might prevent allergy development in children. Humans are omnivores, adapted to the kind of foraging that prevents deficiencies in micronutrients. Phytonutrients and antioxidants differ depending on the color and variety of the fruit or vegetable, and all have unique beneficial roles in preventing illness. “Eating the Rainbow” is not hippie-dippy B.S., in other words.
3. It’s never too late to model good eating behavior.
Sadly, the average adult American consumes fewer than two servings of fruits or vegetables daily. It’s no wonder, then, that between 2007–2010, 60% of children aged 1–18 years did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Patterns fruit intake recommendations, and 93% did not meet vegetable recommendations. Eat well, make vegetables “the norm,” and be patient. Even if past experience makes you doubtful that little Jimmy will eat spinach or broccoli, continued exposure to these and even more exotic plant foods is a good idea. Put a variety of vegetables on your kids plate and invite them to try them even if you know its a moot point. And keep doing it. One day, they will surprise you. Check out the resources and the vegetable and fruit nutrient database available at Fruit & Veggies: More Matters web site, and consider purchasing Ruth Yaron’s Super Baby Food, which has some great toddler recipes and a lot of nutrition references.
Aubrey, A. (July 14, 2014). Food-Mood Connection: How You Eat Can Amp Up Or Tamp Down Stress. WBUR Boston/NPR News.
Baylor College of Medicine, USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center. (2014). Daily values and nutritional recommendations for children. Houston, TX.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2013
De Filippo, C., Cavalieri, D., Di Paola, M., Ramazzotti, M., Poullet, J. B., Massart, S., … & Lionetti, P. (2010). Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(33), 14691-14696.
Frensham, L. J., Bryan, J., & Parletta, N. (2012).Influences of micronutrient and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on cognition, learning, and behavior: methodological considerations and implications for children and adolescents in developed societies. Nutrition reviews, 70(10), 594-610.
Kuratko, C. N., Barrett, E. C., Nelson, E. B., & Salem, N. (2013). The relationship of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with learning and behavior in healthy children: A review. Nutrients, 5(7), 2777-2810.
National Cancer Institute. Usual dietary intakes: food intakes, US population, 2007–10. Available at http://appliedresearch.cancer.gov/diet/usualintakes/pop/2007-10/#findings
Ryan, A. S., Astwood, J. D., Gautier, S., Kuratko, C. N., Nelson, E. B., & Salem Jr, N. (2010). Effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on neurodevelopment in childhood: a review of human studies. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA), 82(4), 305-314.
Schuchardt, J. P., Huss, M., Stauss-Grabo, M., & Hahn, A. (2010). Significance of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for the development and behaviour of children. European journal of pediatrics, 169(2), 149-164.
Sjögren, Y. M., Jenmalm, M. C., Böttcher, M. F., Björkstén, B., & Sverremark‐Ekström, E. (2009). Altered early infant gut microbiota in children developing allergy up to 5 years of age. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 39(4), 518-526.
NOTE: Though I have years of experience and independent research in holistic nutrition, I am NOT a licensed medical practitioner, or dietician.