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Nutritional Health|09 February 2023

Top healthy foods to eat for growing kids: A parents’ guide

Consulting Medical Nutritionist with an experience of more than 14 years.

Ever tried feeding a child something other than chocolates or french fries? If you have, you’ll know what a herculean task it is. Yes, trying to come up with recipes to feed their small bodies may be difficult. Plus, your child might not consume anything just because it is served. But you can’t ignore the fact that children require various nutrients for optimum growth and development, including calcium for their bones, healthy fats for their brains, and all the vitamins and minerals that veggies provide.

According to nutrition experts, India has one of the highest malnutrition rates worldwide. Findings from “Changes in Child Undernutrition and Overweight in India from 2006 to 2021: An Ecological Analysis of 36 States.” study show that the prevalence of stunting, underweight, and wasting decreased over these 15 years by 12.3%, 10.3%, and 0.7%, respectively, while the prevalence of overweight rose by 1.9%. This results from a persistent lack of access to the diets needed for healthy growth.

What part do nutrients play in the development of a child?

While genetics has a prominent role in how tall you are, eating enough nutrients in your food is crucial for your child’s healthy growth and development. Typically, between the ages of two and twelve, children grow quickly. They must therefore be given appropriate food that helps them grow. They could become stunted, and in extreme situations, their ability to develop their motor and mental skills could be affected by inadequate nutrition. When a child reaches puberty, which typically occurs between the ages of 10 and 15 for boys and 8 to 13 for girls, there is a significant growth spurt.

While it is impossible to grow any taller once you have achieved your maximum height, there are certain types of food that help us to grow and maintain our height by preserving the strength and health of our bones, joints, and overall body. Protein, for instance, is crucial for proper development, immune function, and tissue repair. Other micronutrients like vitamins C & D, and calcium are involved in bone health; folate is helpful in cell development, potassium for stronger muscles and so on.


What are the top healthy foods to eat?

Are you unsure about what to serve your family for dinner? We’ll introduce you to some of the crucial nutrients kids require and the top healthy foods to eat daily in the section below (acknowledging that each child’s requirements vary depending on their age, weight, height, and other aspects).

Protein

A child’s body needs protein to form cells, digest food into energy, fight infection, and transport oxygen. Additionally, it is necessary for keeping healthy skin, muscles, and bones.
Foods that are good sources of protein:

  • Whole-milk dairy products
  • Dals & pulses
  • Sprouts
  • Soya

Carbohydrates

An essential source of energy is carbohydrates. They facilitate the body’s utilisation of protein and fat for tissue growth and repair in children. There are many different types of carbohydrates, including sugars, starches, and fibre. Since consuming large amounts of “bad” carbs like soda, candy, and processed meals is linked to a number of health issues, kids should eat more starch and fibre. We Indians consume Carbohydrates in multiple ways in our daily diet.

Carbohydrates are broadly classified as Simple Carbohydrates and Complex Carbohydrates (Healthy Carbohydrates)
Foods that contain Simple Carbohydrates:

  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Chapati/Roti 
  • Poha, Upma, Sabudana
  • Idli, Dosa & Uttappa

Foods that contain Complex Carbohydrates:

  • Whole wheat
  • Jawar, Bajra, Ragi, Millets
  • Oats

As our foods are usually carbohydrate rich in nature, we should choose them wisely as it is a very quick and essential source of energy.

Healthy Fats

Kids can easily retain fats in their bodies, making them a fantastic energy source and ensuring that other essential nutrients are appropriately utilised. Fats help in the absorption of vital nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. So make an effort to get most of your fats from sources like nuts and vegetable oils rich in poly and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Foods with high quantities of healthy fats:

  • Whole-milk dairy products
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts
  • Flax seeds

Calcium

Building a child’s strong bones and teeth requires calcium. It is also essential for nerve, muscle, and cardiac function and blood clotting.
Foods that contain calcium:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yoghurt
  • Paneer
  • Spinach

Iron

Iron is required for healthy blood formation that carries oxygen to all body cells. Plus, “growth and development, immune function, reproduction, and wound healing” depend on it. What’s more, a proper iron supply lowers the incidence of anaemia. So teenage girls who have begun menstruation may wish to monitor their iron intake more closely. 

It would be a good idea to give your child a laddoo each day which contains garden cress seeds. However, ensure that you do not mix it with any of the calcium sources as they hinder each other’s absorption. As a widely accepted practice, iron is NOT present in beetroot, spinach, or pomegranates. It is effective when combined with good sources of Vitamin C.

Fibre

In addition to helping children maintain regular bowel movements, fibre may lower their risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease later in life. It also helps in reducing “bad” cholesterol and regulating blood. All fruits and vegetables are rich sources of fibre.
Foods that contain high levels of fibre include:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Whole grains like jowar, bajra, oats

Vitamin A

In both children and adults, vitamin A has several uses. It encourages growth, helps the eyes adjust to bright and dim lighting, maintains healthy skin, fights infection, and more. A simple ground rule to follow is that all yellow and red-coloured fruits and vegetables are good sources of Vitamin A.
Foods with high levels of vitamin A:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Milk
  • Papaya, Mango

Vitamin C

Beyond preventing colds, vitamin C has other health benefits too. It keeps cells in the body together, fortifies blood vessel walls, treats wounds, and encourages the development of strong bones and teeth.
Foods with high levels of vitamin C:

  • Citrus fruits (such as oranges and sweet lime)
  • Orange juice
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Cauliflower 
  • Aamla (gooseberry)

Vitamin D

In addition to helping the body absorb calcium, vitamin D helps develop healthy bones and teeth. Furthermore, vitamin D is essential for “several bodily functions, including the control of blood pressure, hormone production and immune and nervous system function. 
Foods that contain Vitamin D include:

  • Yoghurt
  • Mushrooms

Potassium

Potassium controls the neurological system, heart rhythm, and muscular contraction, among other bodily processes. Lower levels of potassium can lead to muscle weakness and abnormal heart rate.
Foods that contain potassium include:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Orange juice
  • Spinach
  • Beans
  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Bananas

So, it all comes down to how you behave as a parent. How your child will eat is greatly influenced by how you approach your and your child’s meals. Giving children cake if they eat their brinjal is another way to put them under pressure. Dessert as a reward conveys the wrong message about what is worthwhile eating. Vegetables lose value in favour of sweets. 

Every parent knows kids need to consume a healthy, balanced diet. But occasionally, despite our best attempts, they repeatedly select the same few foods. Unfortunately, by doing this, they risk depriving their bodies of vital nutrients.

How to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits:

Inculcate the habit of having meals together as a family – Family meals are predictable for youngsters, and parents can catch up with their children. Kids will be more inclined to consume fruits, veggies, and whole grains and will be less likely to snack on junk food. Teenagers might not be interested in this idea, but research has shown that they still value parental guidance, so they use mealtime to catch up. You may also try to

  • Let kids invite a friend to lunch/dinner 
  • Involve your kid in meal planning and preparation
  • Stay away from lecturing and arguing at the dinner table

Stock up on healthy foods – Children, especially smaller ones, typically consume anything in the house. Hence it is vital to control the supply lines — the foods you serve for meals and have on hand for snacks. Try these tips:

  • Try incorporating combinations of items mentioned in the above list of top healthy foods to eat 
  • Include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables in your daily regimen.
  • By keeping fruits and vegetables available and ready to eat, you may make it simple for children to select healthy snacks.
  • Avoid fried foods and choose healthy cooking techniques like boiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming to reduce fat intake.
  • Reduce their intake of fast food and unhealthy snacks like chips and candy. But keep their favourite munchies around the house in moderation.
  • Motivate them to drink water and milk with Bournvita.

Don’t battle over food –  Parents with the best intentions may find themselves bartering with or bribing children to eat the nutritious food in front of them. Giving kids some control but simultaneously limiting the kind of foods available at home is a healthier approach. Children must determine their hunger level, what they will consume from the available options, and when they are satisfied. Follow these guidelines:

  • Set up a routine for your meals and snacks.
  • Kids shouldn’t be compelled to finish their meals. They learn to ignore feelings of fullness by doing this.
  • Never use food as a reward or incentive for children. Don’t offer dessert as a reward for eating the meal.
  • Don’t express your affection through food. Give youngsters a hug, some of your time, or encouragement when you want to demonstrate your love.

Involving active participation can help them become more capable of making wise selections about the meals they wish to eat on their own. Not that they’ll suddenly choose a salad to a side of fries, but the mealtime routines you help them establish now may inspire them to make healthier decisions throughout their lives.

The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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