Overview of Child Nutrition Basics

Close up of a baby being spoon fed
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Proper nutrition in childhood can reinforce lifelong eating habits that contribute to your children's overall well-being and help them to grow up to their full potential and healthy life.

Unfortunately, some parents over-think what to do about their child's eating habits, which give way to practices like forcing kids to clean their plates. And some parents don't think about nutrition at all, letting their kids eat a lot of junk food and drink a lot of juice. So, it's important to find a balance.

In addition to contributing to the current childhood obesity epidemic, kids who don't have healthy diets as young children are likely to continue to make unhealthy choices as teens and adults.

Taking some time to understand the basics of child nutrition can help you avoid common mistakes, make healthy choices, learn about new things, like probiotics, and teach your kids healthy eating habits.

Feeding Your Baby

You would think that you would have the easiest time when you are still feeding your baby, but you do have a lot of decisions to make this first year. Of course, the big one is breastfeeding vs. giving your baby formula.

There are still a lot of decisions to make later on though, including:

  • When to start rice cereal.
  • Baby food next steps, including other types of baby cereal and baby foods, such as vegetables and fruits.
  • Feeding homemade baby food vs. store bought baby food.
  • When to give your baby water and juice.
  • Starting finger foods, such as Zwieback toast, Cheerios, and veggie puffs and then table foods.
  • Switching to whole milk.

Understanding the Toddler Diet

Feeding a toddler can be frustrating. You may go from having an infant who eats a large variety of vegetables and fruits and three big meals a day, to a toddler who is a much more picky eater and eats much less.

Surprisingly to many parents, that can be very normal—as long as their toddler is gaining weight and growing and developing normally, and isn't filling up on milk and juice. In fact, many toddlers simply eat one good meal each day, and then just pick at their other meals.

Your toddler's diet will likely be made up of about 16 to 24 ounces of milk (low-fat milk once your child is 2 years old) and 4 to 6 ounces of juice, and be eating two snacks and two to three meals.

Even though your toddler may be a picky eater now or even go on binges where he will only want to eat a certain food, you should continue to offer a variety of foods. This includes small amounts of fruits and vegetables, as he may eventually try them if he isn't pressured or forced into eating them.

Remember that this is a period in your child's development where he is not growing very fast and doesn't need a lot of calories. Also, most children do not eat a balanced diet each and every day, but over the course of a week or so, their diet will usually be well balanced.

Vitamins and Minerals

Parents often worry that their kids don't get enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from the foods they are eating. This often leads to them giving their kids vitamins and other supplements. Although this can be OK, it is usually a much better practice to try and provide these nutrients to your child through the foods he is eating, such as:

Healthy Diets

Proper child nutrition should usually include eating three meals a day and two nutritious snacks, limiting high- sugar and high-fat foods, eating fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products, including 3 servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt to meet your child's calcium needs.

These healthy practices can also prevent many medical problems, including becoming overweight, developing weak bones, and developing diabetes. It will also help ensure that your child physically grows to his full potential.

Nutrition Advice

The best nutrition advice to keep your child healthy includes encouraging him to:

  • Eat a variety of foods.
  • Balance the food he eats with physical activity.
  • Choose a diet with plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
  • Avoid foods with a lot of added sugar and foods high in salt.
  • Choose a diet that provides enough calcium and iron to meet his growing body's requirements.
  • Avoid a lot of fast food, caffeine, juice, and soda.

Fruits and Vegetables

Many parents have a very hard time getting their kids to eat vegetables on a regular basis. Most experts advise that you can often get kids to eat more veggies if you start early by offering your older infant and toddler a large variety of vegetables, set a good example by eating vegetables yourself, offering a lot of choices, and mixing vegetables into a food that your child already likes.

Getting kids to eat fruits is often a little easier, but are your kids eating enough fruits each day? Do you know how many servings of fruits your kids should be eating each day? The food pyramid is a good place to learn.

For example, a 3-year-old male who is fairly active should eat 1.5 cups of vegetables and 1.5 cups of fruits each day. If you consider that 1/2 of a large apple or 1 large banana is equal to a cup of fruit, then it shouldn't be too hard to get your kids enough fruit each day.

Nutrition Facts

Food labels provide nutrition facts and information about the foods that your family eats.

From the number of calories, fiber, and total fat grams, to the food's ingredients, the food label is your key to the nutrition information in the foods you provide to your family.

Learning to read food labels can help you find healthier foods and help you find foods with the right amount of:

  • Total Fat Grams
  • Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Vitamins and Minerals
  • Cholesterol, Sodium, and Protein

Reading the ingredients list is also helpful to avoid foods to which your child may have a food allergy.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Child Development: Toddlers (1-2 Years of Age). Updated February 22, 2021.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. Published December 2015.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). MyPlate: Healthy Eating for Preschoolers.