Healthy Foods for Growing Children: Tips for Success

“You are what you eat” – it’s so true! When we gorge on cheeseburgers and soda, we often fall into a sluggish food coma afterwards. Conversely, a spinach and berry protein shake is sure to boost the pep in our step, thanks to its power-packed goodness which is rich in nutrients and antioxidants.

We know this as adults, but it’s important to teach these concepts to our children, too. How do we talk about these concepts with our children, and what are the best foods for our growing kiddos to eat?

How to Talk to Your Kids About Nutrition

You can begin these conversations earlier than you think! Of course, you’d explain things differently to your three-year-old than you would your teenager, but the goal remains the same: creating and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits.

As an example of how to scaffold your conversations to be age-appropriate, consider foods rich in lycopene, a.k.a. fruits and vegetables are naturally red in color.

Jennifer Anderson, registered dietician and founder of Kids Eat in Color®, suggests the following guide:

  • Age 0-4: “Red foods make your heart strong.”
  • Age 5-6: “Red foods have something in them called lycopene. It’s red and helps protect your heart and body for a long time.”
  • Age 7-12: “Lycopene is an antioxidant. Antioxidants help protect our heart, skin, and other parts of our bodies for a long time. It gives red foods their red color.”
  • Age 13+: “Lycopene is an antioxidant. Antioxidants help protect our bodies from free radicals and oxidative stress. It helps protect from cancer, heart disease, and more.”

“I want my kids – and all kids – to know that different foods do different things in their bodies,” Jennifer explains. “Let’s share this approach so kids get good information that will stay helpful throughout their lives.”

As for sugary foods, such as cupcakes, a similar approach can be taken. However, word choice is crucial.

“I was in a conversation with Alli, the psychologist on our team,” says Jennifer. “She brought up the point that if we say a food is bad, kids can often wonder if they are bad (when/if they eat it). Things get sticky when we start calling foods bad.”

Therefore, instead of just labeling cupcakes as “bad” or “unhealthy,” Jennifer recommends explaining to your child how while you do get a burst of energy from sugar, it also comes with a crash. For children aged 6-11, she recommends saying, “Cupcakes give us a big burst of energy, like swinging as high as you can on the swing set. But then the energy is gone, like falling out of the swing at the top. If you eat other foods with the cupcakes, it helps keep us on the swing.”

Cutting Through the Noise – How to Navigate Your Grocery Store

For children and adults alike, the best advice is to shop the perimeter of the store.

Seek out fresh fruits, vegetables, protein, whole grains, and dairy, rather than the shelf-stable items located in the middle, which tend to be loaded with added sugars, preservatives, and sodium. These items in the center aisles are often highly processed and don’t give you as much nourishment as their marketing team would have you believe.

Worse yet, these products are the ones most heavily impacting your children through tv and social media ads, making them even more appealing, and therefore harder to avoid overall. Broccoli knows he’s nutritious. We all know it. We don’t need advertising to prove it. So, beware of “veggie” snacks which really just have traces of veggie powder, rather than actual nutrients.

It’s true, pre-packaged foods are much more convenient and sometimes downright necessary for basic survival, because hey, sometimes the goal is just getting them fed right? No judgement. However, when possible, try your best to use these foods as a last resort rather than a daily staple.

Instead of stocking up on ready-made go-packs in cardboard boxes, make it a goal to meal prep your own versions of these meals. Not only will your child be better nourished as a result, but it will also cost you less in the long run!

Plus, if you prep these meals together, boom – now it’s a family bonding activity, too. Additionally, it can be a great way to practice fine motor skills.

What Foods Are Best for Kids?

“There’s very good evidence that diets established in childhood and adolescence persist through life; so how kids eat at home, at school and when they’re out with friends really makes a big difference for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, study co-author and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

Going beyond the aforementioned advice of providing whole, natural foods from the perimeter of the store, what foods should take precedence above others when it comes to nutrition and development?

Top 10 Foods for Your Child’s Development

Jasly Koo, Dietitian from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests the following for brain development and overall wellness:

  1. Salmon is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
  2. Eggs are a source of choline, which is important for brain and memory function.
  3. Lean meats are rich sources of zinc and iron, which aid in supplying oxygen to the brain.
  4. Dairy provides calcium, which plays a large role in bone health.
  5. Nuts & seeds have essential fatty acids, vitamins, and protein, all of which aid in brain function.
  6. Wholegrains are rich in carbohydrates and fiber, which maintain a constant supply of glucose for brain energy and function.
  7. Beans provide carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and B vitamins.
  8. Dark green veggies – especially broccoli, spinach, and kale – are rich in antioxidants, which protect your body and brain against oxidative stress and free radical damage.
  9. Berries, such as strawberries and blueberries, are also very rich in antioxidants (see above).
  10. Water, although not a “food,” nor does it have nutrients per se, is an essential part of daily life and is often underestimated and undervalued! When it comes to hydrating, always choose water instead of juice or any other “healthy” drink you come across.

Honorable Mentions – More Foods to Feed Your Kiddos

Yogurt is another great, healthful food to include in your child’s diet. It’s packed with probiotic cultures, protein, calcium, iodine, and vitamin B12. However, it’s imperative to check the label. Many yogurts targeted at kids are basically melted ice cream – full of sugar and not much else. It’s best to buy non-flavored yogurt – yes, the boring, somewhat tart kind – and flavor it yourself using fresh or frozen fruit. Look past the cutesy labels and find the healthiest option, likely marketed at adults, and make it kid-friendly at home, without compromising on nutrition. Greek yogurt is a great choice for both you and your kids.

Carrots get a lot of credit for being the best source of beta-carotene, but did you know sweet potatoes offer just as much, if not more of this nutrient? According to WebMD, beta-carotene is a vital nutrient for vision, plays a critical role in cell growth, and helps maintain healthy organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Holy guacamole, we can’t forget avocados! These delicious superfruits are packed with a laundry list of amazing nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants, and fiber, to name a few.

Conquer Snack Time!

Sometimes a not-so-healthy meal is unavoidable. That’s ok. Live a little! Try to balance things by regularly offering healthy snacks. Here are some easy recipes to help you level-up your snack game with power-packed nutrition:

If all else fails, just keep it simple and offer fresh fruits and veggies. It doesn’t have to be fancy!

Grow and Learn at Kiddi Kollege

Here at Kiddi Kollege, we take pride in offering balanced snacks and meals to our students each and every day. We accommodate children with food allergies, too! As a peanut-free establishment, we make sure to work with each family individually to facilitate optimal health for all our kiddos.

We have centers all throughout Johnson County, including Leawood, Lenexa, Olathe, and Overland Park. We’re proud of our extensive early childhood curriculum and would love to have you join us! Check out our recent Kindergarten Readiness results or schedule a tour today!