There's no doubt that most kids get more than enough to eat (climbing rates of childhood obesity are proof of that). The problem is, a lot of the stuff they're eating every day -- like overprocessed and fast food -- is calorie dense but nutritionally skimpy. According to the latest research, young children are now falling short on five important nutrients. Find out which ones they need most, plus easy ways you can fit them in.
About one-third of kids ages 4 to 8 aren't getting enough calcium, according to the latest government statistics. Too much juice -- and too little milk -- may be partly to blame. Calcium is vital for developing bone mass, nearly all of which is built during childhood and adolescence. Being deficient can interfere with growth now and increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life -- especially for girls. It's crucial to get your child into the habit of eating calcium-rich foods now since older kids are notoriously lax (nine out of 10 teen girls don't get enough). Many high-calcium foods are also rich in vitamin D, which not only strengthens bones but may help prevent type 1 diabetes and other diseases.
* If your baby has a hard time transitioning from breast milk or formula to cow's milk at age 1, keep trying as he gets older. "Parents often give up too quickly when their children reject it," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, MD, author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup. Adding a small squirt of flavoring can help, but be sure to serve plenty of yogurt (even richer in calcium than milk!) and other calcium-fortified products in the meantime.
* Tofu made with calcium (check labels) is nearly flavorless, so it's easy to add to dishes like lasagna, quiche, stir-fries, and even smoothies, suggests Bridget Swinney, RD, author of Healthy Food for Healthy Kids.
* fortified foods like cereals
* soy milk
A whopping 80 percent of kids under the age of 8 -- including two-thirds of preschoolers -- are missing their daily vitamin E needs, according to studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A surprising culprit: fat-free and low-fat foods, which tend to be low in E, a vitamin that acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage. It's smart to serve low-fat products like milk and yogurt because they're lower in saturated fat, but going fat-free isn't best for things like salad dressing, which contains heart-healthy oils that are rich in vitamin E, says Parents advisor Connie Diekman, RD, director of university nutrition at Washington University, in St. Louis.
* Many cereals are fortified with vitamin E, but check the Nutrition Facts Panel to be sure. Keep in mind that cereals labeled "natural" won't have added vitamins and minerals.
* Some parents avoid peanut butter for fear of nut allergies, but the latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics say there's no evidence that holding off on peanut butter prevents allergies. (Just be sure to spread a thin layer so it doesn't become a choking hazard for younger children.) For kids who are allergic, try swapping in 2 tablespoons of sunflower-seed butter instead of PB. It will deliver about half their daily E needs.
* Choose reduced-fat salad dressing (or full-fat as long as you watch your portion sizes) made with oils like canola, corn, or olive. Or make your own dressing using these healthy oils. Sprinkle some sunflower seeds or toasted almond slivers on top of salads as well as steamed veggies.
* peanut butter
* sunflower seeds
* plant oils
* tomato sauce
* wheat germ
It's not even digested, but fiber is still important for children because it keeps them regular and fills them up. In addition, eating a fiber-rich diet may help protect them from a variety of chronic diseases later in life. Although the official recommendation is for kids to get 19 to 25 grams of fiber a day (nearly as much as an adult needs), a more realistic goal is to follow the "rule of five": Add five to your child's age in order to get her minimum daily grams. For example, a 4-year-old should get at least 9 grams of fiber a day -- that's the amount in two slices of whole-grain bread, a half cup of strawberries, and a half cup of brown rice.
* "Breakfast cereal is usually the number-one way for children to get a big dose of fiber," says Sarah Krieger, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Mix some in with your child's favorite cereal to smooth the transition -- and put some sliced fruit on top.
* It's ideal to have at least one high-fiber food at every meal and snack, says Swinney. One kid-friendly idea: whole-grain pita triangles with hummus (2 tablespoons of hummus has as much fiber as a half cup of brown rice).
* fruits (raspberries, blackberries, pears, oranges, and apples are some of the best)
* high-fiber cereal
* whole-grain bread and pasta
* ground flaxseed
* sweet potatoes
* green peas
Children are getting less than 60 percent of the recommended dose of potassium -- in part because many of them don't have enough fruit and vegetables in their diet. Potassium is a key player in maintaining healthy fluid balance and blood pressure and helping muscles to contract.
* Cook up some easy sweet-potato fries: Slice sweet potatoes into discs or sticks, toss with olive oil, and bake on a sheet until they're brown and crispy.
* Pistachios have the highest potassium content of all nuts. For kids ages 4 and up with no nut allergies, make trail mix by tossing some (unshelled) into a baggie with dried apricots.
* oranges and orange juice
* white and sweet potatoes
* dried apricots
* tomatoes, tomato sauce
* fish such as halibut and cod
A recent study found that up to 20 percent of kids ages 1 to 3 aren't getting enough iron. Low iron is especially common among overweight children, who may have a high-calorie but nutrient-poor diet. Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to cells throughout the body and plays a role in brain development -- and a chronic deficit can cause learning and behavior problems. Doctors aren't sure why, but having low iron levels also ups a child's risk of lead poisoning because it increases absorption of lead into the bloodstream.
* Babies' iron stores peter out after the first six months, so iron-rich foods are essential. Contrary to popular belief, there's no reason to save meat for last when you start your baby on solids, says Dr. Shu. You can give him pureed beef, turkey, and chicken soon after he tries his first real food. Look for jars of single-ingredient meats, or puree your own at home.
* Choose lean cuts of beef by looking for the words "loin" and "round" on the label. Eye round, bottom round, and top sirloin all have less than 5 grams of fat per serving (a chicken breast has 3 grams). Many kids shy away from meat because it can be tough to chew, so try cooking tiny meatballs in broth or tomato soup, says Swinney. When buying ground beef, pick one that's at least 92 percent lean.
* Iron from plant sources is not absorbed as well by the body as animal-based sources, but vitamin C can help. "Serve fortified cereal with fruit like fresh strawberries or mango to increase the iron absorption," says Krieger.
* tomato paste
* soy nuts
* whole wheat bread
* fortified cold and hot cereals (check labels)
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
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