Providing a nutritionally balanced diet

Providing a nutritionally balanced diet for children aged 1-5 relies on regular meals, planned snacks and moderate amounts of dairy or non-dairy milk to provide sufficient calcium. It can be a challenging phase for various reasons.  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 is eaten however is over to them; they are in control.  Young children may have challenging behaviour when it comes to food, as they might for other activities eg. getting dressed or sleeping in their own bed, but for some families meals times can become stressful or 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.

Nutrient needs during the early years

nutrient needs in the early yearsNutrient needs during the early years, for selected nutrients, are 4-5 times greater than for adults. Sugar and salt should be discouraged, but full fat foods are good providers of calories in the early years. Toddlers have high needs for foods rich in iron for brain and muscle development. Good sources of calcium and a Vitamin D supplement are needed to support bone growth and bone mineralisation, providing at least 10ug Vitamin D as recommended by Public Health England until age 4.  All children above age 4 in the UK need a Vitamin D supplement for 6 months the year.  From school-age a nutritionally balanced diet is based around the Eat Well Plate, and balancing up their needs for the 3 main food groups, proteins, grains and fruits and vegetables.  Milk and dairy foods need to be balanced carefully, so as not to displace other healthy iron-rich foods. Gradually adding in whole-grains, pulses and nuts; encouraging fruits and vegetables – all great ways to get in additional nutrients. See how to help your kids get their 5-a-day.