When parents send their children off to school, many breathe a sigh of relief. They think gone are the daily hassles over meal times, what to eat for snacks, introducing new foods, and encouraging children to eat healthy food choices. If only that could be true! Children beginning their school years still have many nutritional needs to meet. Children entering school face new choices about eating. Decisions about what to eat from the school lunch menu, influences from friends at school, and opportunities to select their after-school snacks will affect nutritional habits that may last a lifetime.
School-aged children are still growing. Growth requirements combined with physical activity play a role in determining a child's nutritional needs. Genetic background, gender, body size and shape are other factors. The nutrients needed by children are the same needed by adults, but the amounts vary.
Carbohydrates and fats provide energy for growing and physical activity. Their are times when children hit periods of rapid growth. At these times their appetites expand and they may appear to be constantly eating. When growth slows, appetites diminish and children will eat less food at meal times. They will require fewer snacks.
Protein builds, maintains and repairs body tissue. It is especially important for growth. In the United States, most children do not suffer from lack of dietary protein. It is important, to encourage children to eat two to three servings of meat, fish, poultry or other protein-rich food each day. Milk and other dairy products also are good protein sources for children.
There are a variety of vitamins and minerals which support growth and development during childhood. Calcium, obtained from milk and dairy products and from dark green, leafy vegetables, is usually sufficient nutritionally in the diets of young children. As children approach teen years, their dietary calcium intakes do not always keep up with recommended daily allowances. Calcium is particularly important in building strong bones and teeth. Bone density suffers when calcium needs are not met during childhood years. Osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease that affects older adults, begins in childhood if diets are not providing adequate calcium-rich foods.
Iron-deficiency anemia can be a problem for some children. Iron is an oxygen-carrying component of blood. Children need iron for expanding blood volume which is accompanied during periods of rapid growth. For girls, the beginning of menstruation in late childhood adds an extra demand for iron due to the regular loss of iron in menstrual blood. Meats, fish, poultry, and enriched breads and cereals are the best sources of dietary iron. A vitamin and mineral supplement may be necessary to meet the iron needs of menstruating female teens.
Most children eat diets that are adequate in Vitamins A and C. When children do not eat enough fruits and vegetables they run the risk of having low intakes of vitamins A and C. B Complex Vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and other B vitamins) come from a variety of foods, including grain products, meat and meat substitutes and dairy products. Generally, children do not have trouble getting adequate intakes of the B Complex vitamins.
When appetites slow down and children do not seem to be eating nutritiously, concerned parents consider using a vitamin-mineral supplement. Generally, children do not need vitamin-mineral supplements. If one is being used, select a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. Parents should provide a variety of foods and establish regular meal and snack times. In most cases, the nutrient needs will be adequately met. If parents feel there is a reason to be concerned about a child's poor nutrient intake they should consult a physician or trained nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian.
The "Food Guide Pyramid" provides guidance in planning daily food intakes for children. Plan meals and snacks that provide the recommended number of servings each day.
|Food Guide Pyramid:|
|Fats, Oils & Sweets
|Milk, Yogurt, & Cheese Group
|Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs,
& Nuts Group
|Bread, Cereal, Rice, & Pasta Group
National surveys indicate that three out of four school-aged children get their own snacks. Snacks may contribute up to one-third of total daily caloric needs, and a significant proportion of nutrient needs. Poor snack choices result in too many high-energy, low-nutrient foods that can upset nutritional and caloric balances. Children who are physically active and growing need to refuel periodically throughout the day. Properly planned snacks can meet that need. Children tend to eat what is available. School-aged children from ages 6 to 11 rely on household food supplies for their snack choices. Parents and other caretakers can help children make nutritious snack choices by keeping foods on hand from the first five food groups shown in the "Food Guide Pyramid."
Below are some good suggestions for "snack attacks!"
- Baked potato chips or tortilla chips with salsa
- Pretzels (lightly salted or unsalted)
- Bagels with tomato sauce and lowfat cheese
- Flavored rice cakes (like caramel or apple cinnamon)
- Popcorn-air popped or lowfat microwave
- Veggies with lowfat or fat-free dip
- Lowfat cottage cheese topped with fruit or spread on whole-wheat crackers
- Ice milk, lowfat frozen or regular yogurt (add skim milk, orange or pineapple juice, and sliced bananas or strawberries to make a lowfat milk shake)
- Frozen fruit bars
- Vanilla wafers, gingersnaps, graham crackers, animal crackers, fig bars, raisins
- Angel food cake topped with strawberries or raspberries and lowfat whipped cream
- String cheese
Some of the above information has been provided with the kind permission of the NIDDK, National Institutes of Health. (www.niddk.nih.gov).
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Last Editorial Review: 8/13/2003