Proper nutrition is important for everyone to maintain good health, but children’s nutrition is especially vital due to the vast physical and mental development that occurs during the childhood years. Every human needs the same nutrients, regardless of age, but kids require different amounts of these as they age. Protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals provide the nourishment our bodies need, and obtaining these from healthy sources can help prevent disease and childhood obesity.
Breast milk or baby formula provide the majority of the necessary nutrients for proper children’s nutrition for the first year of life. Infant cereals and strained fruits and vegetables fortified with zinc and iron are appropriate for most babies to start eating by the time they are about six months old. Adequate amounts of zinc and iron are especially important for breastfed babies, as breast milk often does not provide as much iron and zinc as formula.
Toddlers typically benefit from a healthy selection of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Calcium, fiber, and fat are especially important nutrients for a growing toddler to protect against disease and nourish their growing brains and bodies. The Mayo Clinic recommends that these children consume between 30% and 40% of their daily calories in fat, from ages two to three.
Between the ages of four and eight, fiber, calcium, and protein continue to be extremely important to children’s nutrition. As kids start to reach school age, boys and girls begin to differ in their nutritional needs. Boys usually need more calories than girls do, but this may vary depending on the child’s medical history and activity level.
Preteens and teens should consume more calories as they age, and eat no more than 25% to 35% of their daily calories in fat. Some children may need even less fat if they have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Calcium becomes even more important during the preteen and early teen years because the majority of a person’s bone mass develops during these years.
While carbohydrates are important for proper children’s nutrition, whole grains are better sources of carbohydrates than sugars. Fresh fruits and vegetables make far healthier snacks than candy, chips, and other high-fat and high-sodium snacks. Children who are provided with healthy snacks and meals from a young age are more likely to develop better eating habits as they age.
There are many factors that may alter a child's individual nutritional needs. Parents should discuss their child’s nutritional needs with their pediatricians. There are also many books or other resources available to learn more about healthy diets for kids.