Confused about your child's nutritional needs? Here are 13 easy guidelines for a balanced diet

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  • Most parents know that nutrition is the cornerstone of their child’s development.
  • With all the noise around nutrition, it can be confusing to know what your child really needs to optimally support their growth.
  • But it doesn’t have to be complicated - below is a list of tips to guide you along the way.

It is estimated that by 2030, 27% of South African children will live with obesity, of which approximately 1.6 million will be between 5 and 9, and 3.1 million between 10 and 19 years old. This is the highest estimation of obesity in Africa.

Childhood obesity can have long-term psychological consequences for many children and prevent them from fully participating in certain physical activities. Moreover, it can damage their health and put them at risk of having breathing difficulties and developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidaemia and cardiovascular disease later in life, in addition to compromising their immunity.  

Childhood malnutrition, where children don’t get enough nutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals, from their diet also has detrimental effects on children’s developmental potential.

READ MORE | Top tips for feeding your child

With Child Health Month observed in August, it is fitting to pause and think about building a healthy future for our children. Childhood nutrition can be seen as the foundation for growth and cognitive development. Children need a balanced diet not only to grow up healthy and strong but also to support immunity and reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases in adulthood.

Experts in the field of nutrition have compiled paediatric food-based dietary guidelines based on the adult South African guidelines to guide caregivers in providing optimal nutrition to their children. 

Here are the 11 key guidelines for children aged 3 to 5 years and how you can implement them: 

1. Offer your child a variety of foods

A healthy diet contains sufficient water, energy, macronutrients and micronutrients to meet children’s requirements for optimal health. A variety of foods should be eaten to prevent nutrient deficiencies, and consequently malnutrition.

Tips: Offer your child meals made of different food combinations, textures and tastes to diversify their palate from a young age. Children who eat family meals tend to eat a wider variety of foods and become less picky eaters. Involving children in preparing healthy and balanced meals can help develop healthy eating habits. 

2. Make starchy foods part of most of their meals

Eating starches will give your child energy, help with fullness, and can improve their gut health. Having unrefined and unprocessed starches in the diet is important for preventing the development of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer later in life.

Tips: Start protecting your child from a young age by offering them a diet rich in whole grains and fibre-rich cereals. Grains or cereals include maize, rice, wheat, oats and sorghum. 

3. Include beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly into their meals

Legumes, such as dried beans, split peas, soya and lentils, are affordable and have protective effects in reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases and obesity. These foods are also great sources of fibre, plant proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Tip: Aim to make your children used to loving these foods from a young age by including them in meat dishes, salads, soups, or serving them on their own. Hummus and bean pastes are great spreads on bread and increase protein content. 

READ MORE | You are what you ate - as a child

4. Lean chicken, lean meat, fish and eggs can be eaten every day

Animal proteins provide a child’s body with essential nutrients required for growth and development. They are great sources of iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

Tip: It is recommended that toddlers 3-5 years old eat two portions of 30 to 60g (or a matchbox size) each day. If your child follows a plant-based diet, it is important to know that plant sources cannot provide vitamin B12. It is advised to have your child's vitamin B12 levels checked to see if they need supplementation. A vegetarian or vegan diet for children should ideally be developed alongside a dietitian to ensure their diet meets all daily nutrient requirements. 

5. Ensure you offer plenty of vegetables and fruit every day

Variety is important in order to benefit from the vitamins and minerals that different fruit and vegetables provide. Eating fruit and vegetables every day provides children’s bodies with essential nutrients for growth, development and building a healthy immune system.

Tip: About 3-5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day are recommended. One portion of vegetables for 3-year-olds is about 2-3 tablespoons, while 4-5-year-olds should ideally have 3-4 tablespoons of cooked vegetables as a portion. A portion of fruit for 3–5-year-olds is approximately ½-1 fresh fruit.

6. Give your child either milk or maas or plain, unsweetened yoghurt every day

Milk and dairy products are high in protein and contain calcium and phosphorus, which is important for bone health and reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis in adulthood. It supports the immune system and helps produce certain vitamins (such as vitamin D).

Tip: Aim to provide them with approximately ½ to ¾ of a cup 3-5 times a day. 

7. Provide your child with three small meals and two healthy snacks during the day

Small, frequent meals and snacks are important for the growth and development of children as they have high energy needs. Providing children with regular, healthy meals and snacks also lays the foundation for healthy eating habits when they are older.

Tip: Be patient with your child and encourage eating rather than force-feeding your child at mealtimes. Try making these occasions pleasant, and limit distractions such as watching the television while eating and involving them in family mealtimes.

8. Offer them lots of clean, safe water

Instead of cool drinks and juice, offer plenty of water and make it their beverage of choice. If you are uncertain about the water quality you are giving your child, boil and cool the water before giving it to your child. Diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of childhood death due to drinking unsafe water. Boiling water before drinking kills any bacteria, viruses or parasites that may be present.

Tip: The rough guide to water requirements for children is 100 ml per kg + 50ml for every kg over 10kg. This comes to about 1-3 cups of fluid per day. 

9. Use fats sparingly in the meals you cook and food you offer them

Fats are an important part of children’s diets as they are an essential macronutrient and form part of the cells in our body. When cooking, it is, however, better to use vegetable oils such as olive, canola or sunflower oil rather than animal fats such as butter or ghee. Animal fats can increase the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels in the body, increasing your child’s risk of disease later in life

Tip: Cut visible fat off meat and take the skin off chicken before you cook it, as these are less healthy fats. Healthy fats include peanut butter, nuts, fatty fish (sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel) and avocado. Also, opt for healthy cooking methods such as grilling, steaming, or baking rather than frying.

10. If you offer sugar and food and drinks with sugar, do so sparingly

A diet with a high intake of added sugar, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, increases children's risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes. Too much sugar in the diet can also cause tooth cavities.

Tip: Opt for healthier treats and dessert options such as oat cookies or fruit such as poached peaches, a plain yoghurt with berries, or a banana with peanut butter. 

READ MORE | Are the kids okay? How the pandemic spiked mental health issues in children, and how to help them

11. If you use salt and foods high in salt, use it sparingly

High salt intake is linked to the development of high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease later in life. Reducing salt in the foods you offer can also help them develop a palate for less salty food.

Tip: Ways to reduce salt include using fresh herbs or garlic, looking at food labels (<120mg sodium per 100g is recommended), rinsing canned food items (as they can be high in salt) and removing the salt shaker from the table. Examples of foods high in salt are crackers, chips, processed foods, and fast foods. 

12. Encourage daily activity

Movement is important for strong bones, energy and building healthy muscles. Children aged 3-5 years can participate in different activities throughout the day, such as playing games; running around; climbing a playground, playing in a sandpit or dancing.

Tip: Aim for at least three hours of movement per day for your toddler. 

13. Teach your child about hygiene before preparing or eating food 

Children are more susceptible to illness, so it is important that parents teach their children to practise good hygiene. Parents should also take care to wash their hands before preparing food for their toddlers and using clean utensils and equipment during preparation

Tip: Make a game out of washing hands before each meal. This way, your child can associate it with fun rather than seeing it as a chore. 

It starts with you

It is essential for parents to realise that childhood nutrition can provide and equip their children with healthy eating habits throughout their life. However, parents are often seen as role models, so following healthy dietary practices can encourage your child to eat healthily.

Following paediatric food-based dietary guidelines supports optimal health, growth and development in childhood.

Jenna Lovegrove, Jana Maree and Deena Shaulov are final year BSc Dietetics students at Stellenbosch University.

This article is intended for educational and entertainment purposes and cannot substitute a consultation with a healthcare professional.

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