As parents, it is our job to ensure that our children are receiving the best nutrition possible for their growing bodies and minds. Excellent nutrition is the foundation for good health and is critical for children to develop appropriately during their early, formative years.
Importance of childhood nutrition
Children who are inadequately nourished, i.e. not receiving a good balance of macronutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) as well as micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals), are at a higher risk of becoming physically or mentally ill. In fact, children with a nutritionally poor diet are more likely to develop autism, anxiety and depression as well as a reduced immune system.
I have therefore put together my list of top 5 foods to include in your child’s diet; there are, of course, plenty of other whole foods that we should be encouraging our children to eat but these are my favourites.
A neutral approach to nutritional literacy
But before I do go on, one thing I want to highlight is that whilst we do want to make sure our children are eating to enhance their health, we must not over restrict other, less nutritious foods. This approach can have a negative impact and often increases the desirability of ‘forbidden’ foods. It is, therefore, important to maintain a balanced, neutral approach so that children do not make negative food associations that can last a lifetime.
My top 5
Eggs are amazing! They are jam packed full of essential nutrients such as protein, healthy fats and Vitamin D. We are facing a worldwide Vitamin D deficiency so incorporating it whenever possible is crucial for our children’s growth and bone development. They are also a quality source of essential amino acids which are the building blocks requires to build and repair muscles and bones.
Eggs are also so cheap, versatile and easy to prepare. My boys love ‘eggy’ bread or a boiled egg and soldiers which means I can make them a quick, simple, nutritious meal or snack any time of the day.
Oats are a superb source of important vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants making them the most nutrient dense food you can eat. They also have a well-balanced nutritional profile; raw oats are 66% carbohydrates, 17% protein, 7% fat and 11% fibre and contain more protein and fat than most grains. They are furthermore an excellent source of slow release energy which will help keep children fuller for longer, enhance their mood and improve concentration.
My boys love porridge for breakfast but I also use oats to make cookies or grind them down to make a flour base for much of my baking.
Whilst salmon can take children some getting used to because of the strong taste, it is worth persevering (research shows it can take 10-15 attempts to get children to try new foods). This is because salmon is a superb source of Omega 3 which is important to infant cognitive development. It is also another important source of Vitamin D which aids the absorption of calcium.
I am lucky in that my boys now love salmon so eat it regularly but if you are introducing it for the first time, try offering it with some sweet potato mash or adding it to a fish pie or fish cakes.
Otherwise known as mini trees in my house, broccoli is a great source of vitamins A and C which will help to boost your little ones’ immune system. It also contains plenty of folate, minerals and anti-oxidants as well as being rich in fibre. The great thing about broccoli is that is available all year round but it also freezes extremely well. Frozen vegetables can in fact be just as, if not more, nutritious than fresh and are a god send for any busy parent.
My boys love their broccoli slightly crunchy so I like to stir fry or steam it to make sure I don’t lose too many of the nutrients which can occur when overcooked.
Beef is an excellent source of heme iron; this is the form of iron that is absorbed more readily by the body and it is not found in non-animal, plant based foods. Iron is important for children’s brain development yet a quarter of very young children are deficient in the UK.
The best sources of beef are those that are not processed and it is incredibly versatile. Things like spaghetti bolognaise, meatballs and lasagne are great ways to incorporate lean beef mince in to family meal times. My boys also love the occasional steak or beef stir fry which I make with beef strips.
Is sugar the bad guy?
It wouldn’t seem right to talk about children’s diets without mentioning sugar. I have already discussed how it is important not to restrict foods but does this also apply to things like cakes, cookies and sweets? You may be surprised to hear that yes, it absolutely does. Whilst the over consumption of sugar is certainly not advocated, in small quantities and within the context of an otherwise healthy, balanced diet, sugar need not be avoided. Our brains are programmed to want higher fat, sugary foods. They taste good and so we place a higher value on them. If, as parents, we then restrict them, their value enhances and our children will want them more. In fact, studies have shown that when adolescents experience food restrictions at home, they will seek out the foods not normally permitted outside of the home. This can, of course, lead to weight gain and negative associations.
If we instead offer our children a variety of foods, we can promote healthy food relationships that will prevent disordered and/or comfort eating in later life; both of which have been linked to a higher BMI. The key is to model variety and balance and not demonise any food. In our modern food environment, it is too easy to overeat sugar in the form of processed, highly palatable foods. But if we bring up our children to have a more balanced, healthy approach to their nutrition then they will be equipped to better navigate the temptations.
Does sugar really affect behaviour?
Many parents have been led to believe that sugar makes their children ‘hyperactive’ which is another reason they attempt to eradicate it from their diet. Interestingly, however, most research suggests that this isn’t the case. Many of us have preexisting beliefs about sugar so that when our children consume it, our perception of their behaviour changes.
A 1994 randomised control trial revealed that mothers who were told that their sons had been given a large amount of sugar were more controlling of their children and more likely to criticise their behaviour than those who were told that they had been given a placebo (in the form of aspartame). All boys in the experiment actually received aspartame.
Other studies have shown similar results when comparing the effect of sugar and a placebo on behaviour and cognition. Could it therefore be a combination of parent expectation and environment (along with media sensationalism) that has led us to think sugar = hyperactivity?
Think about when you let your children consume the most sugar – at parties or exciting events; occasions when they WILL be over stimulated and therefore harder to control. It is too easy to relate our kids acting wild to their consumption of sugar and this in turn can affect our perceptions of them ‘being hard work’. But the evidence does not appear to corroborate this.
Fundamentally, we have a duty as parents to make sure that the majority of what our children eat comes from whole, nutritious sources. But in order to raise nutritionally literate children, we must not forget how behaviour and parent modelling play key roles in maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. Our young adults need to experience eating all kinds of foods because they will inevitably come in to contact with them outside of the home environment. Lets not lose sight of how psychology and emotions play as much a part as physiology when it comes to optimal nutrition.