“More spinach please,” said no child ever.
In a perfect world, children would eat vegetables at every meal and fill up on fruit for dessert. In reality, they can be picky and may not get enough nutrition from what they eat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children only eat about half of the daily recommended servings of vegetables and don’t get enough fruits, whole grains, or dairy either. In other words, kids are missing out on the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Read on to find out more about feeding children healthy foods and when a vitamin or other type of dietary supplement can help.
Start with Food First
Just like adults, most kids can get all the nutrition they need from eating a variety of healthy foods. Keep in mind, different nutrients come from different foods, including vegetables, fruit, dairy, lean proteins, and whole grains. Here are a few things to consider when planning meals and snacks for the week:
- Fill their dinner plate with colorful vegetables and fruits. These richly-hued superfoods are full of vitamins A and C, which support immunity, healthy eyes, and skin, and potassium, an electrolyte that supports hydration, muscles, and nerve function.
- Serve whole grains, like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice with each meal. The B vitamins in whole grains help kids turn food into energy and support their developing nervous system. Plus, the added fiber promotes healthy digestion.
- Include calcium rich foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified soy milk. Besides calcium, these foods are also a good source of vitamin D, which improves calcium absorption for healthy bones and teeth.
- Provide a variety of protein sources like chicken, seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Both animal and plant proteins provide essential vitamins and minerals, like iron, vitamin B12, and zinc, that support strong muscles, brain function, and immune health.
Fill in The Nutrition Gaps
For some children – like picky eaters, vegetarians, or those with special dietary needs – eating a variety of healthy food is easier said than done. If your child refuses certain types of food or doesn’t get enough of them, a vitamin or other type of supplement can help fill in nutrition gaps.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides a list of the recommended amounts of nutrients that children need every day. You can check the Nutrition Facts label on the foods your child regularly eats to find out what nutrients they are not getting enough of or may be missing altogether. Below are a few of the most common nutrients kids tend to not get enough of from the food they eat.
Calcium helps kids build strong bones and teeth and also supports muscle contractions, nerve function, and normal blood pressure.
- How much children need: Around 700 milligrams (mg) a day for 1- to 3-year-olds, or 1,300 milligrams (mg) a day for children over the age of 4.
- Good food sources: Milk, cheese, yogurt, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, almonds, and calcium-fortified foods including soy milk, orange juice, and breakfast cereals.
For reference, a glass of milk has about 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium, or about 20% of the daily recommended amount for children over the age of 4.
Vitamin D helps children absorb more calcium from the foods they eat. Together, vitamin D and calcium help build strong bones. Vitamin D also supports a healthy immune system.
- How much children need: At least 15 micrograms (mcg) for 1- to 3-year-olds, or 20 micrograms (mcg) a day for children over the age of 4.
- Good food sources: Salmon, tuna, fish oils, eggs, and vitamin-D fortified foods including dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals.
For reference, a 3-ounce piece of salmon, which is about the same size as a deck of cards, provides 14 micrograms (mcg), or about 70% of the daily recommended amount for children over
This mineral helps build healthy red blood cells, which are needed to move oxygen from the lungs to other areas of the body.
- How much children need: Around 7 milligrams (mg) a day for 1-to 3-year-olds, 10 milligrams (mg) a day for 4- to 8-year-olds, and 8 milligrams (mg) a day for 9-13-year-olds.
- Good food sources: Meat, tuna, salmon, eggs, beans, spinach, broccoli, fortified cereals and other iron-enriched whole grains.
For reference, a 3-ounce piece of beef, about the same size as a deck of cards, provides 2 milligrams (mg), or about 25% of the daily recommended amount for 9-13-year-olds.
This essential vitamin supports energy production, immune function, normal growth, and brain development.
- How much children need: 0.9 micrograms (mcg) a day for 1-to 3-year-olds, and 2.4 micrograms (mcg) a day for children over the age of 4.
- Good sources: Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, and vitamin-B12 fortified foods including cereal, nutritional yeast, and nondairy milk.
For reference, a 4-ounce turkey patty, about the same size as a hockey puck, provides 1.1 micrograms (mcg), or about 45% of the daily recommended amount for children over the age of 4.
Some Children May Need to Take A Vitamin or Supplement
If your child follows a restrictive diet, cannot adequately absorb nutrients, or is a very picky eater, they may benefit from taking vitamins or other types of supplements.
Always speak with your child’s pediatrician before starting them on a vitamin or supplement. If their doctor gives the green light, keep these things in mind:
- Choose a supplement made specifically for your child’s age group. Since kids need smaller amounts of nutrients than adults, an age-appropriate supplement will help decrease the risk for toxicity. Also, be sure to follow the dosage recommendations on the label.
- Select recognizable supplement brands that are sold by trusted retailers. Read the brand’s label or visit their website to learn about their commitment to quality. Avoid supplements that make health claims that sound too-good-to be true.
- Keep vitamins out of sight and reach of children and lock the child safety cap after each use.
- Make it clear to your child that vitamins are not candy, this is especially important for gummy vitamins. For more tips on teaching kids about medicine and vitamin safety, watch this educational video from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Keep the national poison control helpline number handy, or program it into your phone: 800.222.1222.
To learn more about healthy eating for kids, visit USDA’s MyPlate for Kids.