Child Nutrition Basics

Nutrition is one of the most powerful predictors of health, and the nutrition children receive in their first 5 years of life can affect their health, tastes, and eating habits well into adulthood. Odds are good that you’ll be preparing meals and making nutritional decisions for your charges, so it’s vital to know the basics of child nutrition if you’re a childcare provider.

Special Considerations for Babies

    Girl eating a healthy salad

Eating healthy foods is important for a child's growth!

Children under 6 months should never eat solid food and should obtain all of their nutrition from formula or breastmilk. All childhood health experts agree that breastmilk is the healthiest and safest milk for babies. If your employers are breastfeeding their children, find out where pumped breastmilk is stored and don’t give children formula unless otherwise directed to do so. At 6 months, you can begin introducing solid food, starting with pureed foods and gradually working up to foods that can be mashed with the child’s gums. Children should continue to breast feed or eat formula until at least their first birthday.

Foods to Feed

Children require all of the same nutrients as adults, including proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables. Vitamin D and calcium are especially important for young children. Milk, yogurt and cheese are good sources of this important nutrient. Children are notoriously picky eaters, and it can be especially difficult to get them to eat healthy foods. Some tricks to get them to eat good food include:

  • Allow them to use cookie cutters to cut bread and meat into fun shapes.
  • Add cheese or cinnamon to vegetables.
  • Give children sauces to dip healthy food into.
  • Most children need to try a new food 10 to 20 times to like it. Don’t force a child to eat a food she hates, but continue offering it to her.

Cleaning Your Plate

A generation ago, children were encouraged to clean their plates, but we now know this is an unhealthy practice that encourages overeating. Instead, establish a rule that children must try one bite of each food on their plates, but are not required to eat everything. If children don’t eat a full meal, avoid giving them sweets and junk food, as this encourages them to substitute unhealthy foods for healthy ones.

Foods to Avoid

Sweets and sugary drinks provide no nutritional value to children, and children who are not given these foods in early life do not crave them. Never give children soda, and encourage them to drink water or milk instead of sweetened juices. Avoid cookies and other sweets, especially if the parents do not give these foods to their children.

Modeling Healthy Eating

Children learn primarily by imitating their caregivers, so one of the best things you can do to encourage healthy eating is to eat healthy yourself. Allow your charges to watch you enjoying a variety of healthy foods, and avoid drinking soda or eating candy at work.

Special Considerations

Allergies are rapidly increasing among young children, so it’s important to get a list of any food allergies from your charge’s parents. Find out if the children are on special diets. Vegetarian diets, for example, can be very healthy for children, but you may need some help from the parents in choosing healthy protein and meat substitutes.

Obesity & Diets

Children should never be placed on calorie-restrictive diets and should never be told they need to lose weight. If your charges are overweight, encourage them instead to play outside and cut out fatty foods such as soda and candy. Offer delicious, healthy meals and encourage the child to value healthy rather than a specific weight or bodily appearance.

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