A Balanced Diet 101

I’m know I’m not the only mom out there who stresses constantly about whether my child is getting in all the right nutrients. This is then further compounded by those times when my son will refuse to eat anything other than toast, yoghurt and bananas. At twenty months, my son decided to stop drinking milk altogether. I have tried just about everything to tempt him to enjoy some milk with a meal, simply to get in more calcium, but it appears that no amount of cocoa powder is going to convince him otherwise. He has become a master at shaking his head profusely, whilst repeatedly saying the most defiant (and the cutest) ‘No’.

I know every parent has a story like this to share, and the concern that comes along with it: is my child getting enough of all the good stuff? 

With global child obesity rates and learning disorders resulting from poor nutrition on the rise, never has there been a better time to become more aware of the nutrients consumed by our little ones.

The American Association of Paediatric’s recommends a whole balanced diet for children, to ensure that they are getting in as many nutrients as possible, and that parents limit or avoid the empty calories found in processed and refined foods (not an easy feat when you have two doting grannies with treats on hand for every occasion).

Parents also need to steer clear of over-feeding or forcing their children to finish meals, and to rather offer regular healthy meals that will, in turn, teach their child about self-control and to self-regulate. Most importantly, children should be getting in a healthy dose of protein, whole-grains, fats, fruits and vegetables.

So you’re probably thinking that this is not exactly new news at all, and yet life gets busy and we tend to compromise on nutrients for convenience (no wonder why the Chicken Nugget Nation is a real thing!).

According to the British Nutrition Foundation the magic number(s) is 5 5 3 2:  that means 5 starchy foods, 5 fruits and vegetables, 3 dairy foods and 2 protein foods daily. They have provided the below guidelines for a toddler that should in no way confuse parents, but show you more or less what your child should be getting into their tummy on a daily basis. I have selected popular food choices but this does not cover every option around. It is simply a guideline. If your child is older than 3, then you have a good starting point to build on (remember that children under one should be consuming milk as their primary source of nutrients).

Starchy foods: an essential source of energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Opt for wholegrain and fortified choices wherever possible, and serve starchy food with, at least, every main meal. Choose 5 servings per day, where one portion is equivalent to:

  • 1/2 – 1 slice bread
  • 3 – 5 Tbs cereal
  • 2 – 4 Tbs cooked rice, cous-cous, pasta
  • 1 – 2 rice cakes
  • 1 – 3 Tbs mashed potato
  • 1/4 – 1/2 baked/ boiled potato
  • 2-4 potato wedges

Fruits and vegetables: one of the best sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre around. The good news is that if your child is not a big fan of veggies but loves fruit, they are still getting in enough goodness! Offer your child a fruit/veggie serving with each meal and in between for snacks. Fresh, frozen, canned (no sugar or salt) and dried varieties all count however dried fruit should be reserved to one snack serving per day due to the high sugar content. Choose 5 servings per day, where one portion is equivalent to:

  • 1/4 – 1/2 medium apple/ orange/ mango/ pear
  • 1/4 – 1 medium banana
  • 3 – 8 rasberries/ strawberries/ grapes/ blueberries
  • 1 – 3 dried apricot halves/ figs/ dates
  • 1/2 – 2 Tbs dried raisins/ cranberries
  • 2 – 4 Tbs canned fruit
  • 1/2 – 2 Tbs cooked squash/ greens/ sweetcorn/ green beans/ peas/ leeks/ spinach/ broccoli/ cauliflower/ baby marrow/ roasted vegetables
  • 1 – 3 cherry tomatoes/ button mushrooms
  • 2 – 6 carrot sticks

Dairy: an essential source of calcium for healthy bones and teeth, and B vitamins for energy. Children under two should only receive full-fat dairy options, and those older than two can be switched to low-fat dairy provided that they are eating well. Choose 3 servings per day, where one portion is equivalent to:

  • 100ml milk (cow’s milk/formula/breast milk/ calcium fortified non-dairy milk)
  • 1 – 3 Tbs cheese sauce (cooked with veg/ in a recipe)
  • 1 cheese string/ cheese triangle
  • 2 – 3 Tbs grated cheese
  • 1 pot yoghurt (125ml)
  • 2 small yoghurt tubes
  • 1 pot soya yoghurt/ dessert (calcium fortified)
  • 5 – 6 Tbs dairy-based dessert

Protein: the essential building blocks of our bodies. Your little one should be getting in at least 2 fish servings every week, where one is oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel). Choose 2 servings per day (or 3 for vegetarian diets) where one portion is equivalent to:

  • 1/2 – 1 slice beef/ turkey/ pork
  • 1/4 – 1 small fillet hake/ small fillet salmon/ burger patty
  • 1 – 2 fish fingers
  • 1/2 – 1.5 Tbs tinned tuna/ salmon/ sardines
  • 1 – 2 Tbs peanut butter/ hummus
  • 2 – 3 Tbs dhal/ chickpeas/ lentils/ baked beans/ kidney beans/ scrambled egg
  • 3 – 4 Tbs minced meat (beef/ ostrich/ lamb/ chicken/ turkey)
  • 1/2 – 1 boiled egg/ poached egg/ fried egg

For the full British Nutrition Foundation leaflet, download it here.

It’s easy to see how – if you child is eating a number of empty calories throughout the day through processed and refined foods – your little one may not be getting in the required amounts of quality nutrients to sustain their growth and developmental needs.

Remember that these habits need to start in the home: if you are setting an example of eating unbalanced meals when on-the-go and seldom sitting down to enjoy a healthy meal as a family, then it cannot be a surprise when your child starts demonstrating the same bad eating habits.

Our little people are depending on us to create healthy associations for them from the onset – to ensure that they have a happy relationship with food throughout their lives. and it all starts right here.

*The above should never replace the advice from your nurse, paed or GP.

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