Nutrition: Healthy Eating for Kids

Nutrition: Healthy Eating for Kids Family Doctor Logo

What is nutrition?

Nutrition refers to everything that your child eats and drinks. Your child’s body uses nutrients from food to function properly and stay healthy. Nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. In the right amounts, nutrients give your child energy to grow, learn, and be active.

Calories are the amount of energy in the foods and drinks your child consumes. Children need a certain amount of calories to grow and develop. But if your child takes in more calories than his or her body needs, the extra calories will be stored as body fat.

Why is proper nutrition important?

Poor nutrition can cause health problems, overweight, and obesity. Some of the health problems associated with poor nutrition can be very serious, especially as your child grows into an adult. By teaching your child healthy eating habits, you can help prevent these health problems.

Also, it’s much easier to maintain a healthy weight than it is to lose weight. Children who maintain a healthy weight are more likely to stay at a healthy weight as adults.

Possible effects of overweight or obesity in children

Benefits of good nutrition for children

  • Healthy weight for height
  • Mental well-being
  • Ability to learn and concentrate
  • Strong bones and muscles
  • Good energy level
  • Ability to fight off sickness and disease
  • Faster wound healing
  • Easier recovery from illness or injury
  • Reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers, and bone diseases in the future

What can I do to help my child make healthy choices about food?

By teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits, you are giving your child important tools for a lifetime of healthy living. The following are some ways you can help.

Offer healthy food options at home. Be sure you have healthy, appealing food options available for your family. Provide a variety of choices so your child can try different things. Be persistent in your efforts to introduce healthy food options. Children are not always open to new things right away. Specific ways to support good nutrition include the following:

  • Offer several fruit and vegetable options every day. At the store, let your child choose fruits and vegetables that he or she enjoys eating or wants to try.
  • Get frozen and canned fruits and vegetables if you can’t find fresh fruits and vegetables. Look for fruits that are canned in their own juices or light syrup instead of heavy syrup.
  • Provide healthy sources of protein, such as fish, eggs, nuts, and lean meats like chicken and turkey.
  • Serve whole-grain breads and cereals.
  • Broil, grill, or steam foods instead of frying them.
  • Offer low-fat milk, cheese, and other dairy products.
  • Encourage your child to drink plenty of water or milk instead of sugar-added drinks such as fruit juice, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, regular-calorie soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, or sweetened iced tea.

Limit fast food, takeout, and junk food. Avoid fried snacks. Opt for baked chips, pretzels, or unbuttered popcorn instead. If you do eat out or get takeout, avoid fried foods and choose the healthiest options available. For example, choose fruit instead of French fries or grilled chicken instead of a hamburger.

Read food labels. The Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods and drinks lists useful information, such as the serving size, and the amount of calories and nutrients per serving. When reading labels, keep in mind that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If you’re reading a cereal label, it would be best for the first ingredient to be a grain, not added sugar (for example, fructose or high-fructose corn syrup).

Be a good role model for your child. Be sure that you are making healthy food choices and incorporating physical activity into your life. Get the whole family involved in eating a healthier diet. You can practice good eating habits by doing the following:

  • Make breakfast part of the morning routine. Breakfast is important to give your child the energy he or she needs to learn and be active.
  • Let your child determine how much to eat. Don’t push food or insist that your child “clean the plate.”
  • Eat meals and snacks together as a family. Eat at the table, not in front of the TV.
  • Encourage your child to eat slowly and to stop eating when he or she starts to feel full.
  • Avoid using treats or junk food as rewards or comfort. This may make your child value those foods more than nutritious options.

Is physical activity also important?

Proper nutrition and regular physical activity are the keys to maintaining a healthy weight and preventing health problems. Encourage your child to find physical activities he or she enjoys and get active. Aim for at least 1 hour of active play every day. Limit your child’s time using a TV, computer, cell phone, or game station to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day. Set a good example by limiting your own screen time, too.

Physical activity should be part of your whole family’s lifestyle. Take a walk, go for a bike ride, or do chores together. Plan active family outings.

Can I really make a difference?

Yes! As a parent or primary caregiver, you have a lot of influence on your child. He or she will follow your example, so it’s important for you to be a good role model when it comes to making healthy choices. Even small changes in your family’s eating habits and physical activity can have a big impact on your child’s health.