Healthy eating for a lifetime Healthy eating begins at birth and should continue throughout life. Parents are the first teachers. They are responsible for teaching the child a balanced nutrition. During the early years of life, children grow at different rates, so feeding recommendations vary depending on the age and developmental stage. Parents should provide nutritious, age-appropriate foods, schedule meal and snack times and serve foods that look appealing.
Healthy diets for stages of growth Importance of breast milk and appropriate age of introducing complementary food.
Birth to 1 year Breast milk is the optimal food for infant growth and development and should be the first food for all children. It requires no preparation, is easy to digest and helps protect against infections. All babies should be breastfed for the first 6 months. The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life for healthy infants, as breast milk is the best food for optimal growth and development. To produce enough breast milk, new mothers should eat a balanced nutritious diet. Recent studies have demonstrated that breastfeeding exclusively for at least 6 months reduces the risk of future respiratory allergic symptoms and eczema.
As breastfeeding continues after the sixth month, it is the time to introduce complementary foods. Any non-human milk or foods that are given to young infants during this period are defined as complementary foods. It is important to point out that dietary schedules for the progressive introduction of solids during the complementary feeding period in most countries originate from cultural factors and available foods.
"Exclusive or full breastfeeding for around 6 months is a desirable goal. In all infants, in consideration of their nutritional needs, developmental abilities, and reported associations between the timing of introduction of complementary feeding and later health, the introduction of complementary foods should not be before 17 weeks but should not be delayed beyond 26 weeks."
– The Committee of Nutrition from the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN)
"While solid food may be introduced from 4 to 6 months, it should be done slowly and in small amounts to allow for the identification of food allergies or sensitivities."
– American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
1 to 3 years Toddlers 1 to 3 years old go through a transition in food choices and eating habits. They begin to adopt adult food patterns. Since food preferences are established early life, help your child develop a taste for nutritious foods. To stimulate interest in a healthy diet, serve a variety of foods with appealing colours, different textures and new flavours. Toddlers have limited stomach capacity, so it is important to serve foods with high-nutrient density to support optimal growth. Limit juices, sweets and foods with 'empty' calories.
After the first year, children grow at a slower pace and appetite may diminish. They explore self-feeding, first with fingers and then, using utensils from the age of 15 to 18 months. Give your child many opportunities to practise these skills, but lend a hand when frustrations arise. As skills develop, step back and let your child take over. Make sure that you provide additional nutritious snacks at least once or twice a day along with three regular meals. They need a variety of foods from all the main food groups: rice and alternatives, fruit and vegetables, meat and alternatives and fats, oils, sugar and salt.
Milk is important to a toddler's diet because it provides calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones. Between ages one and two, children can drink whole milk that contains the dietary fats needed for normal growth and brain development. After age two, meals should be supplemented with milk and milk products to meet calcium need for growing bones and teeth.
Toddlers typically assert their independence, and the table is one place where they develop some sense of control. If eating battles arise, parents must respect the child's needs while still ensuring the right nutrients are consumed.
Remember: Parents decide what nutritious meals and snacks to offer and when to offer them. Children can control which of these nutritious foods to eat, how much to eat and whether to eat them at all.
A good pattern to follow is to offer three meals and two or three snacks each day. Children who 'graze' continually tend to have no appetite for scheduled meals. Drinking too much juice or milk between meals can have the same effect.
Tips for feeding toddlers
3 to 5 years From age 3 to 5 years, individuality develops. Children become less likely to throw tantrums and more willing to cooperate. Children of this age try to please their parents. Preschoolers want to do things themselves, but they are also willing to learn from their parents. This give-and-take creates opportunities for parents to teach kids about healthy food choices in new and exciting ways.
Preschool children are more sophisticated eaters and are more aware of their food preferences than younger children. They often enjoy eating as part of a group because they can participate in social activities. Give your child a choice of healthy foods at consistent mealtimes to ensure adequate nutrition. Milk and milk products should be included to meet the calcium need of the growing bones. Limit the intake of juices and sweetened beverages; instead give fruit and grains for snacks. Allow them to eat according to their appetite. Sweets should be given only in moderation as they have high calories but low nutrient value.
Parents should encourage their children to make good choices without hovering and make sure that nutritious foods and balanced diet is provided. A balanced diet gives children the necessary nutrients and energy to explore new things. Through eating right and being active, preschoolers can maintain a healthy weight and stay energised, as they get ready for the next big step in their young lives - school.
At a parent's request, a preschooler may be willing to try new foods especially if the parents are eating the same thing. There is nothing wrong in serving foods that your child likes, but be sure to serve a variety of foods to expand your child's palate. Do not fall into the trap of fixing a different meal specifically for your child. Before you know it you will be fixing two dinners every night. It may seem illogical but it is better to present a range of foods, even if your child sometimes refuses to eat something on the plate.
It is normal to want your child to eat at dinner, but it is important to know that skipping one meal will not harm a healthy child. When children refuse to eat a regular meal or snack and then return to the kitchen just as it is cleaned up asking for something to eat, tell them pleasantly that the next meal or snack will be forthcoming at the usual time. Children will not starve in that short time and will learn to observe a regular eating schedule.
This is a good time to teach children how to serve food to themselves and to use language skills such as 'please' and 'thank you' when asking for food. Preschoolers also enjoy helping in the kitchen and setting the table.
Tips for feeding preschool children
Primary school children As children get older, they have an increasing amount of freedom over food choice and often eat outside the home. Outside factors such as peer pressure and advertising also start to play their part helping children to form an opinion about certain foods.
Although growth is slower than in infancy or early childhood, school-aged children still have high nutritional needs, but fairly small appetites. Therefore, it is crucial that all meals and snacks are nutrient-rich. Falling activity levels and increasing levels of obesity or children who are very underweight become a concern at this stage. It is important to impart healthy eating behaviour and education during these crucial years of development since this will set a pattern for the future.
Encourage your child to be as active as possible. If your child is putting on too much weight, educate him about the ill-effects of obesity and encourage him to get involved in physical activities in some form (football, netball, walking the dog, cycling, swimming, etc).
Prepare meals and snacks based on the four main food groups, with limited fat and sugar as ingredients. Even if a child is overweight, he still needs a nutrient-packed diet to provide essential building blocks for growth and development. Just make sure you replace energy-dense & nutrient-poor snacks with more nutrient dense ones.
Most children in this age group eat one major meal at home and a packed lunch at school. Their packed school lunch should include a balanced diet containing a variety of food items such as a mixed sandwich, fresh fruit and a bottle of UHT milk. Always include a protein such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese or beans since these are moderate sources of calories. Try to avoid pies, pastries, sausages or burgers every day as these have high fat content. Choose at least one starchy food such as bread, potatoes, rice or pasta; one portion of vegetables (raw, cooked or as part of a salad) and a serving of fresh or dried fruit or juice. Milk and milk products should be an integral part of the child's diet to fulfill the calcium requirement. Other important nutrients for this age include iron, vitamin C and folate.
Snacks are an important part of a child's food intake for energy and nutrients. Children who regularly snack on chocolates and chips may not get all the nutrients needed for good health. Healthy snacks such as fresh fruits, low fat dairy products, fruit bread and rice cakes, among others should be given to the child. Other healthy snack options include cereal and milk; crunchy muesli and yoghurt; nuts, seeds or dried fruits; fruit smoothies and healthy crackers.
Tips for feeding primary school children