Accredited Practising Dietitian Dr Fiona Pelly answers some of the most commonly asked questions about children’s nutrition.
My children graze rather than eating three substantial meals a day. How do I know they’re getting enough to eat?
Younger children do graze and you may find they’ll insist on one particular food time and time again. Between 2–5 years of age, children will simply eat in response to their hunger and they’ll choose what they need at that point in time. It’s also an age when they are discovering and asserting their independence – which is often the case when it comes to food – making children appear to be fussy eaters.
The most important thing to do is continue offering a variety of healthy meal options throughout the day. Make each small meal count by including fruit and vegetables; opting for wholegrain varieties of breads, cereals, rice, noodles and pasta; and offering dairy products. By the time you add up what they have eaten during the course of the day, you may be surprised by their balanced diet. Remember, children will not let themselves go hungry and grazing will not hinder their growth or health if they are offered a wide variety of foods.
Is it okay to give my children juice and flavoured milk?
The best options are always water or plain milk. Water is essential for a wide range of bodily functions and milk is rich in calcium and a good source of protein, vitamin A, riboflavin and vitamin B12. An occasional drink of 100% fruit juice can provide valuable nutrients, but it’s best to be considered as a ‘sometimes’ food.
Flavoured or sugary drinks should be avoided since they can boost your child’s sugar levels and they can quickly fill up on drinks that provide energy, but no nutritional benefits. They also increase the risk of dental cavities.
I find it difficult to get my child to sit and eat breakfast – how important is it to persist in making them eat in the morning?
Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day since it gives your child the energy and nutrients they need to kick-start their day and get their brain functioning. Skipping breakfast can develop into a bad habit. The consequences become more obvious once children start pre-school and find it difficult to concentrate. Wholegrain cereal is an ideal way to start the day, but you can also try fruit salad and yoghurt sprinkled with muesli, wholemeal toast and vegemite with a glass of milk, a poached or boiled egg with toast fingers, baked beans sprinkled with grated cheese or mini pancakes with sliced banana and honey.
I have trouble getting my child to eat red meat – do you have any suggestions?
Red meat is an important source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, but some children don’t like the texture, and can find it difficult to chew. Try introducing red meat by using lean mince in spaghetti bolognese or very tender meat in stews – you can add plenty of vegies, too. White meats such as chicken, pork or fish are also good sources of protein, iron and zinc and can be a good stepping-stone to red meat.
However, if you are finding it difficult to include any kind of meat in your child’s diet, try other sources of protein and iron such as eggs, peanut butter, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, legumes (like baked beans) and green leafy vegetables. Be sure to include wholegrain varieties of bread, cereals, pasta, noodles, and baked treats. This is also important for families who follow a vegetarian diet.
How much calcium does my child need?
Calcium is an essential nutrient that’s vital for the development of healthy bones, particularly during the period of rapid growth in childhood.
Dairy is the richest source of calcium. The Nutrient Reference Values for Australia recommend an intake of between 500mg–800mg calcium, or around 2–3 serves of dairy, per day for young children. A serve of dairy could be 1 cup of milk, cheese in a sandwich or a tub of yoghurt.
If your child is lactose-intolerant, substitute these items with calcium-enriched soy products. Ensuring your child gets enough calcium will help them develop healthy bones, but will also help to prevent them from developing osteoporosis later in life.
How do I get my child to eat more at mealtimes?
Grazing is common, but the aim is to align his or her eating habits with your family’s meal times. To encourage them to eat more at meal times, avoid snacks or milk drinks an hour before, as they boost blood sugar levels and suppress appetite.
As parents, we also need to adjust our expectations. It is normal for the amount a child eats at different meal times to vary enormously. In these cases, consider what they have eaten over the course of the day. As a rule of thumb, around a third of an adult-size meal is a good meal size for a young child. Of course, this can vary. There will be times when your child needs more energy and nutrients, especially during growth spurts.
What’s your number one tip for ensuring children have a healthy diet?
Variety! It’s important to introduce your child to a variety of foods from a young age to ensure they are getting a wide range of nutrients. Eating a good variety of foods helps them form the foundation of a healthy balanced diet. Some young children will protest against eating anything new, but the key is to keep trying until it becomes familiar. Every time you cook the food, just add a little to their plate – I’m still adding mushrooms to my 10-year-old’s plate! If there is still resistance, have a break and try again in a few months when their tastes have developed and matured further. Persistence is the key, along with setting a good example yourself.