You want to make sure your toddler is eating well, but what does that mean exactly? And considering that most 3- to 5-year-olds seem to subsist mostly on Goldfish crackers and the occasional blueberry, how on earth do you make that happen?
"Variety is key to optimal nutrition status [for anyone], not to mention for this age group," says Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, a board-certified specialist in pediatric nutrition and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Getting your wee one to try new foods -- or even accept the fact that they're on his plate or (gasp!) touching his fork -- sets him up to be an adventurous eater in later years. And that should be the goal, seeing how adventurous adult eaters are also more conscientious about sticking to healthy eating habits.
With that in mind, here's your cheat sheet to the most important nutrients your growing kid needs -- and some suggestions on where you can find these crucial ingredients.
1. Iron. We depend on red blood cells to circulate oxygen through our bodies. Iron helps makes that happen. Surprisingly, "if toddlers are drinking their nutrition as they did when they were younger, they may become iron deficient," explains Lemond. "Unlike breast milk and formula, cow's milk has no iron." In other words, your kid should be taking in healthy stuff beyond milk to get enough iron.
Serve up: Beef, beans, lentils, dark greens, iron-fortified cereal, and (surprise!) crackers.
2. Vitamin D. This vitamin truly helps kids grow "big and strong," but most don't get the daily 400 IU doctors recommend. (Again, only relying on milk isn't enough.)
Serve up: Dairy products, fortified soy milk, eggs, butter, and mushrooms. (Plus, being exposed to 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight every day helps, says Lemond. So go outside and play together!)
3. Potassium. Potassium helps keep kids' muscles and nerves in good working condition. "It's also a key nutrient for hydration," Lemond says.
Serve up: Sweet potatoes, white beans, bananas, yogurt, and cantaloupe.
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4. Vitamin E. Think of this as the Superman of antioxidants. It helps protect their cells from free radicals, which threaten to mess up their cells. Vitamin E also boosts kids' immune systems, so they can scare away nasty germs.
Serve up: Fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, safflower oil, nuts, and peanut butter. (Although if you're concerned about a nut allergy, check with your pediatrician first.)
5. Omega-3 Fats. These essential fatty acids "are great for brain development and cognition," says Lemond.
Serve up: Fatty fish like salmon and tuna, nuts, and seeds. Fish can be a tough sell for some kids, so a subtler alternative is flaxseed oil. Add a teaspoon to a smoothie or add ground flaxseeds to your favorite muffin recipe.
6. Fiber. "Fiber helps with bowel movement regularity and the production of good bacteria in the gut," Lemond explains. That might not be super-exciting to your kids, but it should be to you!
Serve up: Whole grains, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, and beans.
Easy, right? Well, let's just pretend that your toddler or preschooler is a super-picky eater who is pretty convinced that "saltines" is a basic food group and any new food you try to serve her is most definitely poison. What then?
Be patient. And don't give up.
Keep offering a wide variety of foods and stick to a consistent schedule of meals -- with minimum grazing in between. And remember, Lemond says, "You should choose the food being served, not your child."
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