Q: How much fruits, vegetables, and protein do my kids really need each day?
A: There is a lot of information about good nutrition and what to avoid. It can be confusing, especially for parents who need to nurture their children’s growing bodies. Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning and preparing meals for your family.
Your kids should consume a variety of foods from the five major food groups. Each food group provides important nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. The old saying about having a balanced diet is very true. Here’s a quick and easy feeding guide for most kids over 1 year old:
— Vegetables: 3-5 servings per day. A serving can consist of 1 cup of raw leafy greens or 1/2 cup of other vegetables, raw or cooked. Serve a colorful variety of vegetables and eat plenty yourself. Your child is more likely to consume vegetables if you model good eating habits.
— Fruits: 2-4 servings per day. A serving can consist of 1/2 cup of sliced fruit or a medium-sized whole fruit, such as an apple, banana, or pear.
— Bread, cereal or pasta: 6-11 servings per day. Each serving should be equal to one slice of bread, 1/2 cup of rice or pasta, or 1 ounce of cereal.
— Protein foods: 2-3 2-3 ounce servings of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish per day. In addition to meat, there are also proteins. A serving in this group can also consist of 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, an egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for each ounce of lean meat.
Dairy Products: 2-3 servings per day of 1 cup of skim milk or yogurt, or 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese.
Your children need protein so that their bodies can grow and function properly. This includes building new tissues and producing antibodies that help fight infection. Without essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), children would be much more susceptible to serious illness. Protein-rich plants – such as beans and peas (legumes), grains, seeds and nuts – can be used as valuable sources of protein. Other protein-rich foods include meat, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. These animal products contain high-quality proteins and a full range of amino acids.
However, keep in mind that while red meat and shellfish are high in protein and an important source of iron, they can also be high in fat and cholesterol. So your kids should only consume them in moderate amounts. Choose lean cuts of meat and trim the fat before cooking. Also remove the skin from poultry before serving.
People cannot live without fats. Although they are often portrayed as bad, they are actually essential for some bodily functions. They are a concentrated source of energy and provide essential fatty acids necessary for a variety of body processes (metabolism, blood clotting and vitamin absorption).
However, a high fat intake — especially a diet high in saturated fats — can cause problems. Saturated fats are found in fatty meats (such as beef, pork, ham, veal and lamb) and many dairy products (whole milk, cheese and ice cream). They can contribute to plaque buildup in arteries and lead to heart disease later in life. A diet rich in saturated fats can also raise blood cholesterol levels, especially in people who have inherited a tendency to have high cholesterol levels.
Although they contain some saturated fats, dairy products are still important in a balanced diet because of the crucial calcium, phosphate and vitamin D they provide.
As a general guideline, fats should make up less than 30% of the calories in your child’s diet. No more than about 1/3 or less of those fat calories should come from saturated fat, with the rest coming from unsaturated (polyunsaturated or monounsaturated) fats. These healthier fats include safflower, sunflower, soy and olive oil.
It is also important to limit the amount of sugar in your children’s diet. Many children consume sugar in large amounts, usually at the expense of healthier foods.
Table salt, or sodium chloride, can improve the taste of certain foods, but researchers have found a link between dietary salt and high blood pressure in some people. The habit of using extra salt is a learned one. So serve your child low-salt foods and try using herbs, spices or lemon juice for flavor.
ABOUT THE WRITER
dr. Mark R. Corkins is chief of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He is also the chairman of the AAP Committee on Nutrition. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parenting website.
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