Support learning, thinking and playing with these 5 tips to choosing the right food for kids
Feeding kids healthy foods isn’t always easy. New parents often have grand ideas of what they want their children to eat. But when it comes to finding healthy foods for kids that they’ll actually eat, it can be a completely different story. Parents with pre-teens and teens on the other hand, can be so busy they’re often eating on the run or even missing meals.
Nutrition can be very complex, but the good news is it doesn’t have to be. Keeping things simple and focusing on the fundamentals will go a long way to supporting your child’s capacity to learn and perform at school and play.
Unfortunately, processed foods and sugary drinks surround our kids at school and in TV ads, promoting the rising tide of childhood weight gain and poor health. Obesity rates in children have tripled over the past 30 years and today over 30% of kids are either overweight or obese1. (The situation is even worse in adults at a whopping 70%!)2. This coincides with a dramatic increase in sugar intake, as well as an alarming rise in prescriptions for depression and attention deficit disorder in children3.
Almost every high school cafeteria across the country serves pizza, fries and soda pop. Unfortunately, the food choices that are most easily available (and the cheapest) are processed foods – cereals, burgers, fries, sodas, sport drinks, candy, etc. – that are calorically very-dense, but nutrient poor. To support a healthy body and mind, we need to get our kids back on nutrient-dense whole foods.
5 Tips for Choosing the Right Food for Kids
The following are my top 5 tips to help provide your kids with the vitamins, minerals and nutrients they need to think, learn and thrive at school and play.
1. Protein at Every Meal (Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner)
Protein is an essential nutrient, meaning your body cannot make the amino acid building blocks internally and must get them from the diet. Protein helps build red blood cells for energy, immune cells to fight off colds and flu, muscle for overall health and has been shown to support positive mood and reduce behaviour problems4. Great options for breakfast include eggs, full-fat plain yogurt, steel-cut oats, nuts and seeds or a protein smoothie. Kids should aim for 20g of protein per meal or about 1-2x the size and thickness of the palm of their hand.
2. Increase Healthy Fats
Fats are essential for your child’s capacity to learn and thrive at school. If you grew up in the low-fat era of the 1980-90s, it can be difficult to shift gears, but the research here is very clear. Ensuring your child gets their dose of “smart fats” like egg yolks, full-fat dairy (i.e. milk or yogurt), butter or avocado at every meal helps to build a healthy brain and improve learning5. Try adding healthy saturated fats like coconut oil into smoothies or cook with extra virgin olive oil to get your kids their daily dose. At least 1-2 “thumb” sizes of fats per meal and don’t worry if you overshoot, kids typically thrive on high “smart” fat diets.
3. Choose Whole Food Carbohydrates
Kids need calories to meet the demands of busy days and constant play. The fats mentioned above provide a great source of calories as well as “whole food” carbohydrates like rice, sweet or white potatoes, root vegetables (i.e. beets, carrots, parsnips, etc), oats and whole-grain breads and pastas. (Gluten may aggravate mood and behavior in those you are susceptible to allergy6. If your child has a sensitivity to gluten, modify to gluten-free carbs.) Whole food carbs are also full of fiber to support healthy gut bacteria and keep your child regular. Typically 1-2 “cupped hands” per meal is a good place to start for kids and can be higher depending on their activity level. Do your best to limit processed carbs that come in packages and boxes.
4. Limit Sugar
Sugar is not inherently evil, however the levels of sugar added into our food today is quite staggering. The average adult consumes about 160 lb. of sugar per year, (compared to only 40 lb. two generations ago) and kids are following very closely in our foot steps. Sugar is highly palatable, which means our brains naturally crave it and we can eat more and more before we get full. Making things even more challenging, food companies market directly to kids to make their products even more desirable. Limit the amount of added sugar in your child’s diet by cutting back (or cutting out) soda pop, sports drinks, candy, chocolate bars, sugary cereals and sweetened snacks. Try alternatives like replacing regular chocolate bars with dark chocolate (70% or more), choose ice cream made with natural cream (higher in fat), snack on frozen berries or use frozen fruit to make popsicles at home.
5. Limit Processed Foods (i.e. vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, etc.)
It’s not just sugar that is strongly contributing to our nations declining health, it’s also all the processed foods, industrial seed oils, chemical sweeteners and artificial flavourings7. You can limit processed foods in your kids diet by shopping on the “outside” of the grocery store, where all the whole foods, fresh veggies and fruit, meat and dairy are located. If you can minimize the middle aisles of the grocery store (i.e. processed foods), you’ll decrease your intake of unhealthy processed foods that contribute to impaired learning, poor behavior and adverse health conditions in children.
Kids need the right balance of nutrients to thrive at school and play. Ensuring kids get enough protein, healthy fats and whole food carbs, along with limiting sugars and processed oils, sweeteners and GMOs is a fantastic foundation for health. To make things even simpler, follow this golden rule; if your grandparent could eat it, it’s probably a good choice (if not, do your best to avoid it!). Once you find the right balance, make the time to eat with your kids at least once a day, to make mealtime more than just the food on your plate.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
- Fryar CD, Carroll MD and Ogden, CL. Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960-1962 Through 2009-2010. National Center for Health Statistics E-Stat, 2012.
- Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 311(8):806-814, 2014.
- NIH. Retrived From – http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health/antidepressant-medications-for-children-and-adolescents-information-for-parents-and-caregivers.shtml
- Lui, J. & Raine, A. (2006). The effect of childhood malnutrition on externalizing behavior. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 18(5).
- Namara R, et al. (2010). Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: A placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: 91(4)
- Zelnik N, et al. Range of neurologic disorders in patients with celiac disease. Pediatrics. 2004 Jun;113(6):1672-6.
- Russo G. Dietary n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: from biochemistry to clinical implications in cardiovascular prevention. Biochem Pharmacol. 2009 Mar 15;77(6):937-46.