What to feed your kids

Getting the most out of their meals ...
Getting the most out of their meals ... Photo: Getty

Plating up a nutrient rich menu daily for your kids isn't as hard as you think. Dr Joanna McMillan takes us through a typical child's daily food intake and shows you how a few simple changes can make all the difference.

What do you think of the following sample day’s intake for a six-year-old boy?

  • Breakfast: Slice of white toast with butter & Vegemite
  • Morning tea: An apple and packet of rice based snacks
  • Lunch: Ham sandwich (2 slices white bread, butter & slice of ham) and a carton of fruit yoghurt
  • Afternoon tea: Slice of banana bread
  • Dinner: Cup of pasta in tomato-based sauce with a tbs grated parmesan cheese.
  • Dessert: 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream

I’ve purposely selected foods that are typical for this age group. I haven’t chosen junk foods, lollies, chocolate or other more obvious foods we know should be occasional. This is a diet typical of many of our kids and as a parent, dealing with fussy eaters and the demands of feeding their families, this is not such a bad day.

Yet a nutritional analysis of this day tells a different story.

The good news is that this child met his protein requirements, had plenty of B group vitamins including folate, had adequate zinc, magnesium and phosphorus.

The bad news is he failed to meet his requirements for energy, eating only 65% of his estimated needs, fell way short on vitamin C, taking in only 27% of his recommended daily intake (RDI), obtained only 64% of his calcium RDI, 42% of his iron RDI, 71% of his iodine RDI and just fell short on vitamin A. His fibre was only 67%, and vitamin E 49%, of what is considered adequate. The two minerals crucial in blood pressure control were completely out of whack with sodium levels 141% over the upper level of intake (and over 6 times what is considered adequate!) and potassium 56% of what is considered adequate. While overall fat provided 27% of his energy needs, 57% of that fat came from saturated fat and only a third from the far more healthy monounsaturated fats.

You can start to imagine how things might look for kids eating far worse diets than this. Our reliance on quick easy foods that kids tend to like, and packaged kids snacks over fresh foods, can make it look from the outside as if our kids are eating reasonably healthily, when in fact nutritionally it falls far short. It’s so easy to be misled by the packaging of children’s special foods. Take some of the packaged snacks aimed at children. The packet states ‘all natural and additive free’, so they are therefore marketed as healthy. Yet most are highly processed and provide little more than high GI carbohydrate. Processed fruit bars ‘made from 100% fruit’ are easier to keep in the pantry and throw into the lunchbox than cutting up a piece of fresh fruit, or risking it becoming a bashed mess at the bottom of a school bag.

So what does a day look like that does meet this child’s daily nutrient requirements?

  • Breakfast: Cup of porridge made with rolled oats (no salt), topped with 2 tb natural yoghurt, ½ a banana, 4 sliced strawberries, 6 crushed almonds & a drizzle of honey
  • Morning tea: An apple and a bag of air-popped corn
  • Lunch: Sandwich on wholegrain bread with avocado, poached chicken and grated carrot and a carton of fruit yoghurt
  • Afternoon tea (assuming home from school): Slice of wholegrain toast with peanut butter and a glass of milk
  • Dinner: Cup of pasta with generous portion of homemade bolognese with a few vegies grated and mixed through, topped with a tbs of grated parmesan.
  • Dessert: Homemade icy pop made with 1/2 banana and 1/2 cup frozen berries (or I put these through my Yonanas machine – makes pseudo ice cream from only frozen fruit)

This day ably meets all nutrient requirements (bar vitamin D and for this your child needs to be outdoors with the sun on unprotected skin for roughly 20 mins – or you can boost dietary intake with a supplement). His energy requirements are met, he has bags of protein, the predominant fat is monounsaturated, there is plenty of fibre to keep his gut healthy and very little processing involved with his foods.

There will undoubtedly be foods here that your child can’t or won’t eat, but this is just one example and I could have chosen many different options. What I hope is that it gives you some ideas about how to nutrient boost your child’s diet. A few simple changes or better choices make a massive difference to their intake overall. It needn’t always be perfect – who amongst us manages that? But if on most days we do pretty well, we can ensure our kids have the best chance of optimal growth and development.

My top nutrient boosting tips

  • Watch the packet snacks aimed at kids. They are often highly processed and offer not much more than refined starch.
  • Include a couple of pieces of fruit in their day to boost vitamin C, fibre and plant nutrients.
  • Red meat provides the most easily absorbed form of iron. Aim to include 3 or more times a week.
  • Give your kids fish. Oily fish like salmon are best to boost omega-3 fats, but all fish provides quality protein and has other benefits. Aim to include 2-3 times a week. (If you’re worried about mercury go to http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/mercuryinfish.cfm for guidance as to the types of fish that may be a problem. Most fish can safely be consumed 3 times a week).
  • Grate vegies into sauces, dice them and mix through meals or stir-fry them to be an integral part of the meal and not always the side dish.
  • Unless your child has allergies or intolerances to dairy, include 3 serves daily for calcium. If your child won’t drink plain milk, try making homemade chocolate milk with pure cocoa powder and a little honey, or blend into a smoothie with yoghurt and fruit. This is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in our kids. If you can’t have dairy, be sure to use an alternative such as soy or almond milk that is fortified with calcium.
  • While nuts are not allowed at primary schools, remember that in the absence of allergies they are terrific nutrient-dense foods to give at home. Eaten whole, crushed and sprinkled over cereal or yoghurt, or as a nut butter on toast, crackers or on celery sticks.
  • When you do have some time it’s well worthwhile making your own muffins, banana bread, muesli bars and cookies. You can then ensure you make healthier versions using quality ingredients. But you don’t need to be Martha Stewart. Most of us, me included, use a few packaged snacks for convenience. Just be judicious in the ones that you buy.