Children can get the nutrients they need if they eat a variety of foods every day from the five food groups, which include grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat and beans. Fats, oils, and sweets supply mainly calories but little or no vitamins and minerals and should be used sparingly. No one food contains every nutrient. Children need to eat a variety of foods within each group. A child who favors bananas, for example, should be encouraged to eat apples, oranges, and other fruits as well.
Variety is important, too, because nutrients need each other to do their work. For example, adding tomatoes, which are rich in vitamin C, to a salad helps you get more iron from the vegetables. Children need food for growth, energy, and general health. If children do not get the right nourishment during their early years, they might not ever make up for the growth they miss. They may get half or more of their daily food intake while in your care, so the food you serve is critical to their growth and health.
The body needs a variety of nutrients for good health. Some key nutrients include: protein, thiamin, carbohydrates, riboflavin, fat, calcium, vitamin A, niacin, vitamin C, and iron. Three of these key nutrients supply energy: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Normally, the body breaks down carbohydrates and fats for energy, but if these are used up, the body uses protein. Our bodies need energy constantly to do their work-pumping blood, repairing body tissues, walking, and running.
Carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: starches and sugars. Sugars come from fruits, table sugar, honey, syrups, and milk. Starches come from grains (wheat, rice, corn), dry beans and peas, and certain vegetables such as lima beans, green peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash. During digestion, all carbohydrates ‘both sugars and starches’ are broken down into glucose, the form of sugar circulating in the blood. Aside from supplying energy, carbohydrates also furnish fiber. This is the tough, ‘woody’ part of plants the body cannot digest. Fiber has been called ‘nature?s broom’ because it sweeps waste from the large intestine.
Protein. Building and repairing body tissue is the most important function of protein. The greatest need for protein is during periods when cells are growing rapidly, such as during infancy, childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy. Protein is made up of 22 amino acids. Eight of these amino acids must come from foods eaten each day and are called the essential amino acids. The rest are manufactured by the body. Many foods contain some amino acids. Foods that contain all eight, such as meat, milk, and eggs, are called complete or ‘high quality’ proteins. Proteins from plant foods are incomplete. One or more of the eight essential amino acids is always missing. However, these foods can be combined to also make the complete ‘high quality’ proteins and save you money, too. Here are some examples of foods you can combine to provide ‘high quality’ proteins:
Beans and Grains: beans and tortillas, pea soup and cornbread, beans and whole wheat biscuits;
Beans and Seeds: garbanzos and sesame seeds, soynuts and sunflower seeds;
Beans and Cheese or Eggs: pintos and cheese, tacos, beans and eggs;
Cheese, Eggs, and Dark Green Vegetables: broccoli and cheese, spinach souffl?;
Eggs, Cheese, Milk, and Grains: macaroni and cheese, oatmeal and milk, toast and eggs, rice pudding; and
Seeds and Dark Green Vegetables: sesame seeds and Swiss chard, sunflower seeds and broccoli.
Vitamins and Minerals. The body stores many nutrients to be used as needed. But the body does not store certain vitamins, such as vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and other B vitamins, as well as zinc. Therefore, children need to eat foods containing these vitamins every day, as well as foods with the mineral zinc. Vitamin A is very important for growing children. It is needed for building body cells, bone growth, healthy teeth, vision in dim light, and healthy mucous membranes in the digestive tract, nose, and mouth. Vitamin A-rich food should be served daily.
Children need calcium because their bones and teeth are forming. Children who don?t like milk should be encouraged to eat foods made with milk, such as creamed soup, as well as other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese. To increase the amount of calcium the body absorbs, make sure children get plenty of vitamin D. Serve milk fortified with vitamin D or foods rich in vitamin D, such as liver and eggs.
Iron. Some experts are beginning to think that many serious health problems, such as heart disease and cancer, are related to what we eat. Because we develop our eating habits in childhood, it makes sense to start children out right. The single most common nutritional problem in babies and preschoolers is a lack of iron. Sometimes it?s hard to pinpoint anemia without a lab test, but anemic children are often pale, listless, irritable, and have little energy or appetite.
You can help prevent anemia by feeding children iron-rich foods such as red meats, fish, poultry, leafy green vegetables like spinach and mustard greens, raisins and prunes, iron-enriched breads and cereals, dry beans and peas, and egg yolks. You can increase the iron the body absorbs from non-meat foods by eating food rich in vitamin C. For example, drinking orange juice helps the body absorb the iron in eggs. On the other hand, you can decrease iron absorption by drinking tea, coffee, or a soft drink containing caffeine during the meal or up to an hour afterward.
Fats and Sweets. Many Americans eat too many sweets and foods high in fat. Fats are naturally present in some foods, such as fatty meat, nuts, whole milk, and cheeses; we cannot avoid fats. However, we often add fats and oils in cooking, such as in fried foods, pastries, gravies, and salad dressings. Many recipes offer ideas for preparing delicious foods with less added fat.
The amount of energy a food supplies is measured in calories. Fat gives more than twice as much energy as the same amount of carbohydrate or protein. One gram of carbohydrate, for example, gives you four calories, but a gram of fat gives you nine. It is important to note, however, that infants and toddlers do need a certain amount of fat in their diets, and it is unwise to use such things as low-fat milk and other low-fat products prior to their second birthday. In fact, limiting the child?s fat intake can actually impair the child?s development.
Sugars and most sweets don?t offer much more than calories. They are often a favorite with young children who will want to fill up on sweets rather than nutritious foods. So, go easy on candy, pies, cakes, pastries, and most cookies. Look for cookie recipes that offer more than empty calories. For example, oatmeal cookies with wheat germ added have a sweet flavor and offer more beneficial nutrients and less empty calories than simple butter cookies.
Water. One important, and often ignored nutrient, is water. It accounts for more than half the body?s weight. Water serves as a lubricant in the body, helps remove waste, and regulates body temperature. Make sure the children in your care have access to plenty of water, particularly on those hot days when they play outside.