10 Facts You Must Know About Feeding Your Kids

You want your child to eat right, but could your food philosophy be harming their health?

child in hat eating chicken
Photo: SkElena/shutterstock.com

Myth 1: Kids need red meat to prevent anemia

Iron deficiency is a greater risk among very young children: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, reveal that 9 percent of toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 are deficient in iron. That figure drops to about 3 percent for kids 3 to 5 and 2 percent for 6- to 11-year-olds. Toddlers can certainly get plenty of iron from their diet without consuming red meat -- good news, because many are natural vegetarians and meat can be hard for young children to chew, says Kathleen Zelman, M.P.H., a registered dietitian and Atlanta-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Though red meat contains an easily absorbed form of iron, your toddler can meet his mineral needs by eating fortified cereals and breads, dried fruits such as raisins, spinach, molasses, beans, lentils, eggs, certain fish, and the dark meat of poultry.

Kids under 10 should get at least ten milligrams of iron daily -- an amount that is easily fulfilled with one cup of Cheerios (eight milligrams) and two small boxes of raisins (two milligrams). If you still think your child isn't getting enough, talk with your pediatrician about a multivitamin supplement with iron.

Myth 2: A child who skips veggies will miss key vitamins and minerals

Lots of kids shun vegetables and still do just fine. One reason may be that they have developed an affinity for sweet-tasting fruits, which can be a good nutritional substitute while kids slowly learn to appreciate (or at least tolerate) greens like broccoli and spinach. "Fruits are comparable in vitamin and fiber content," says Jo Ann Hattner, M.P.H., a registered dietitian and pediatric-nutrition specialist in Palo Alto, California. "Think in terms of five total servings a day, whether it's from fruit or veggies."

If your child won't touch carrots, for example, offer apricots and cantaloupe to make up for the vitamin A and carotenoids he'd miss. Strawberries or oranges can stand in for spinach to help meet folic acid needs. Bananas are a good alternative to potatoes as a source of potassium, and citrus fruits can substitute for broccoli to cover vitamin C requirements. "But even if your child doesn't routinely eat vegetables, it's important to continue to offer them," says Hattner. "Veggies are packed with not only important vitamins and minerals but also health-promoting phytochemicals. Eventually, he'll come to accept them."

Myth 3: Dairy products make a child's cold worse

It's just not true that dairy products increase mucus production or thicken nasal secretions. "The cold virus itself causes mucus production in the nose and the back of the throat," explains Kathleen J. Motil, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. "Dairy products simply coat the lining of the back of the throat, making it feel funny." You can continue to offer your child milk or other dairy products when she's sick with a cold. If she won't drink milk, don't worry. Simply give her other liquids -- water, juice, or chicken soup -- until she feels better. Even if she doesn't have much of an appetite, it's important that she get plenty to drink to ward off dehydration and keep mucus flowing through her nasal passages.

Myth 4: To prevent obesity, you should limit fat intake early on

Babies and toddlers need about 40 percent of their daily calories from fat because their brains and bodies are developing rapidly. "The growing brain has very special requirements for fatty acids and other components of fat," Dr. Motil explains.

That's why most experts recommend that kids under 2 drink whole milk rather than skim. Older children still need essential fatty acids in their diet for healthy skin, proper growth, the production of sex hormones, and vitamin absorption, but after the age of 2, getting 30 percent of their daily calories from fat is sufficient.

"Fat in foods also helps kids feel full, so if you restrict your child's fat intake too much, he is likely to overeat to compensate," says Loraine Stern, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It's better to teach your child how to integrate all types of food into a healthful diet."

Myth 5: Sugar makes kids hyperactive

"Studies have found no such effect on children," says Scott Sicherer, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. "In fact, lab animals that are fed high-sugar diets become less active." Where did this myth come from? It's possible that when a parent sees a child becoming energetic after consuming sweets like chocolate or soda, both of which contain caffeine, the stimulant may be the overlooked culprit behind a child's hyperactivity, Dr. Sicherer says.

Myth 6: You must be vigilant when starting foods to prevent allergies

Food allergies aren't nearly as common as people believe. "Almost one in three parents thinks her child has food allergies, but only 6 to 8 percent of kids really do," Dr. Sicherer says. "Food allergies occur when the immune system attacks the otherwise harmless food and causes a reaction such as hives, eczema, vomiting, diarrhea, or, in extreme cases, anaphylaxis." And though parents frequently blame such reactions on a long list of edibles, the reality is that milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as cashews and walnuts), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish account for 90 percent of all food allergies. If you suspect that your child has an allergy, discuss the likely offenders with your pediatrician, who can order tests or refer you to a specialist.

Myth 7: Milk is necessary for strong bones

Milk is one of the best sources of calcium, but if your child won't drink it, she can still get adequate amounts of the bone builder from other foods, Zelman says. These include yogurt, cheese, calcium-fortified soy milk, broccoli, tofu, dark, leafy greens, and calcium-fortified, 100 percent juice (such as orange). What matters most is that your child meet the recommended daily intake: 500 milligrams of calcium a day for kids ages 1 to 3; 800 milligrams for 4- to 8-year-olds; and 1,300 milligrams for kids 9 and older.

Myth 8: When your child is sick, it's best to feed a cold and starve a fever

You should never withhold food from a child, doctors say. Your child needs all the nutrients and fluids he can get to fight an infection. But if he isn't up to eating full meals, don't worry. "Sick kids should be allowed to eat what they feel like and to listen to their bodies," Dr. Stern says. "It's more important for them to get plenty of liquids -- preferably carbohydrate-containing fluids like Pedialyte for younger children and juices or flat soda for older kids -- to prevent dehydration. They'll make up calories pretty quickly once they're feeling better."

Myth 9: Juice is a healthy thirst quencher

Though 100 percent fruit juice is definitely more nutritious than soda, it shouldn't be the only drink your child reaches for when she's thirsty. "There have to be limits on a child's juice intake," Zelman says. "Otherwise, it will decrease her appetite for more nutritious foods and may displace milk as a beverage." What's more, because of the high sugar content of juice, drinking an excessive amount can harm teeth or cause stomach upset in babies. Nutritionists often recommend limiting a toddler's juice consumption to about 4 to 6 ounces a day; older kids should try not to drink more than about 12 ounces a day. "Offer juice as a treat, not a thirst quencher," Hattner advises. "Water is a better choice when your child is thirsty."

Myth 10: White bread has no nutrients

Bread made with whole-wheat flour is still the ideal choice, says Theresa Nicklas, Dr.P.H., a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Its high fiber content helps prevent constipation, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But that doesn't mean white bread is nutritionally bankrupt: It's often enriched with iron and such B vitamins as niacin, folic acid, thiamin, and riboflavin. So if your kids won't eat whole-wheat bread, it's fine to serve white. They can make up the fiber elsewhere -- with an extra serving of fruit, for example.

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