Six Tips to Lower Sodium and Sugar in Toddlers' Diets

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a new study published in the journal Pediatrics finds that many commercial toddler meals and foods sold in the U.S. are high in sodium and sugar.

In the study, researchers looked at the amounts of sodium and sugar in 1,074 infant and toddler dinners, snacks, fruits, vegetables, dry cereals, juices and desserts. They found:

  • Out of 79 infant mixed grains and fruits, 41 contained at least one added sugar and 35 contained more than one third of their calories from sugar;
  • Seventy-two percent of toddler dinners were high in sodium (> 210 milligrams per meal);
  • On average, dry fruit-based snacks contained 60 grams of sugar and two thirds of their calories from total sugars –the most common added sugars included fruit juice concentrate, sugar, cane, syrup, and malt.

Cooking at home and preparing mainly fresh foods with little or no added sugar or sodium is a great way to help your infants and toddlers get started on a nutritious and balanced eating path. But it's unrealistic to assume that parents won't turn to foods and beverages that come in packages, cans, jars and containers at least some of the time—after all, they're convenient and can save parents precious time when preparing meals.

To help you seamlessly lower sodium and sugar in your infants' and toddlers' diets while boosting nutrients, here are six tips from two top registered dietitian nutritionists, Jill Castle, and Bridget Swinney.

Get 'em to the table. According to childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle, "One of the easiest ways to avoid too many packaged and processed foods is to get babies and young toddlers to the family table early on and to feed them more natural, wholesome, homemade foods." Castle says that by one year of age, most toddlers can eat what the family eats as long as their food is chopped up (to the size of small dice). Low sugar, low sodium options include tender meat or cooked fish, baked potato (mashed with milk or water to smooth it out) or soft cooked noodles, soft cooked vegetables, or fruit canned in natural juices.

Make it at home. Bridget Swinney, author of Baby Bites and Healthy Food for Healthy Kids, says there are so many quick and easy homemade baby foods you can make without added sugar or salt. Some of her favorites include mashed banana, mashed avocado, and mashed apple (peel the apple simmer or steam in microwave, then mash) as well as boiled, baked or roasted carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower or any other vegetable you can easily mash with your fork.

Learn limits for sodium: When purchasing packaged food items, Castle says it's important to know how to interpret the Nutrition Facts Panel to make sure sodium levels are low—especially since there is no standard for sodium Daily Values (DV) for children under four years. According to Castle, "Since the DV is based on a 2,000 calorie adult diet, infant and toddler foods that provide two or three percent or less DV per serving is a more appropriate (low) level of sodium for a toddler." She also says that some foods designed for infants and toddlers may not list the sodium content, while common "kid" foods like macaroni and cheese, will. Swinney also recommends no more than 300 milligrams per serving for a meal and 150 milligrams per serving for a snack. She also says that while there's no need to worry about sodium when serving fresh, homemade food, it's wise to watch how much you add.

Offer smart snacks. According to Swinney, "Fresh and unsweetened fruits and vegetables, yogurt and boiled eggs make the easiest and healthiest snacks for little ones." She also recommends adding your own soft fruit (pureed or chopped, depending on your child's age) to plain Greek yogurt. Swinney also says that although small fruit cups packed in their own juice are convenient, so is a banana, grapes cut in half, and mandarin orange sections. She also recommends steaming chopped vegetables ahead of time to have on hand to pair with items like hummus or a yogurt dip for easy toddler-friendly snacks.

Blend and serve. "There's no need to drag the food processor out when wanting to share your own dinner with baby. Simply take your portion out and season separately and then use an immersion blender or fork-mash to get to the right consistency for baby, right in the pan."

Don't forget iron and zinc: According to Castle, it's essential to help babies six months and older get good food sources of iron, a mineral that's critical for brain development and that babies six months and older need more of, and zinc, a mineral involved in many normal body functions and essential for normal growth. Castle suggests that parents slow cook lean beef or skinless, dark meat chicken or turkey (legs or thighs) with 1/2 to 3/4 cup of water or low sodium broth and puree in a blender, offering it as a stand-alone pureed entrée or using one tablespoon of pureed meat with jarred pureed fruit or veggies.

Click here to learn how to transition your baby from pureed to solid foods, and click here for new nutrition guidelines for 2- to 12-year-olds.

How do you limit sugar and sodium in your child's meals?

Image of children eating healthy food via shutterstock. 

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