Providing a nutritionally balanced diet

Providing a nutritionally balanced diet for children can be a challenge.  As a parent, you are in control of what to offer your young child to eat.  OK, that’s obvious. You provide a range of foods, offer a well balanced diet, providing a structure throughout the day, tirelessly of course!  How much of this is eaten however is over to them; they are in control.  Young children often have challenging behaviour when it comes to accepting a nutritionally balanced diet, and for many parents meals times become difficult, stressful or simply a battle of wills.  Young children learn about healthy eating by copying, initially at home and then in their peer groups at nursery or play.  Exposure to a wide range of foods in a relaxed way from an early age is helpful in shaping positive food choice throughout childhood.  So, showing your child, by your own actions, what good food and positive eating behaviour is, provides the best example for them.

Food refusal is common in the early years

Toddlers learn to accept a varied diet with familiar foods – in other words – when other family members or peers are eating the same foods. It may take many times of offering a new food before a toddler is willing to try it or eat it regularly.  Do encourage your young child to sit down with you, family or friends and offer foods on a fun plate, table or highchair tray, rewarding with praise or smiles for good behaviour. Forced or fussed-over meals sends the wrong message; attention may inadvertently be given for misbehaving with the end result being more fuss, less food. Because toddlers and young children have small stomachs, they do need food and drinks regularly every 2 hours.  So, there will always be an opportunity to eat something later, without the immediate need to provide something. See my top tips on managing food refusal.

Structure and nurture

Regular meals and planned snacks are needed to meet young children’s needs for rapid growth and development. Structuring these whilst maximising nutrients and managing food refusal is a challenge for all parents at times. Taking whatever time you can to plan and provide a meal/snack structure in the early years is, although hard work, worth the extra effort.  As a baseline, it helps ensure nutrition needs are provided for, develops good cues for hunger and satiety and supports developing a diverse diet.  In theory, this time is then available to reinforce good food choices and positive behaviour messages.  Nurturing an attitude towards healthy eating throughout childhood begins with early experience and is best thought of as a process rather than a number of individual acts.

Nutritional needs during the early years

There are differences in nutritional needs during those early years compared to those children who are established at primary school.  Needs for selected nutrients in early childhood are 4-5 times greater than for adults (per kg/body weight) and although sugar and salt are to be discouraged, low fat (and low calorie) foods are not suitable for these early years. Toddlers have high needs for iron-containing foods for brain and muscle development, Vitamin D to is needed to support bone mineralisation and should be taken as a daily supplement providing 10ug until the age of 4. From starting school around age 5, a nutritionally balanced diet is based around keeping fat, sugar and salt intake down and gradually increasing fibre from whole-grains, pulses and fresh foods. Encouraging fruits and vegetables is a great way to boost nutrients and fibre intake, and all children should aim for 5-a-day.