This page deals with the content of what to eat. For more on how to convince your kids to eat healthy foods and establish healthy eating habits, see our other page here.
Understanding a child’s nutritional needs
What does a bird’s digestion have to do with our diet? Fun fact! The length of a particular bird’s intestine has to do with the diet its ancestors ate. Birds that eat very simply-digested foods have short intestines, those with more complicated, high-fiber diets have significantly longer intestines. We humans have quite long intestines. Why? Our ancestors ate huge amounts of fiber, and it takes a long time to tease apart all the nutrients we need from that bulk of fiber, so our intestines had to be quite long. The problem is, our diet has changed but our intestines have not.
The modern human diet - even for those of us who consider ourselves “healthy eaters” - has significantly less fiber than the original human diet. Much of this is because we have cultivated plants over the years to be less rough in texture so they can be tastier, sweeter, less bitter, easier to digest, etc. So I’m not just talking about processed foods like Wonder Bread - just take for example this photo of the original banana:
...wild vs. cultivated corn,
...or wild vs. cultivated blueberries,
You get the idea. Point is, even if you’re like me and you try to eat organic and avoid processed foods, etc., you’re still only getting a fraction of the fiber your body is expecting, now replaced with starch, and you haven’t even added in any processed flour, refined sugar or junk food yet! We’ll talk about those in a minute, but first let’s learn a little bit about why this even matters in the first place.
Fiber is technically bulk with no nutrient value, but there’s a lot you may not know about this humble molecule! Fiber does way more than just prevent constipation; it acts as a buffer for the food we eat. Without this buffer, the starches and sugars in our diet are absorbed more quickly than our body is expecting. Blood sugar rises faster, reaches a higher peak, and falls faster, too, leaving you hungry sooner and with greater urgency. This phenomenon is the root cause of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, to name a few. Emerging research is also finding connections to many inflammatory conditions, alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and more. Problem is, you don’t notice most of these conditions for years down the road, so there’s no indication anything is amiss—most of the kids remain thin, healthy and active. The one thing that families typically do notice, but don’t usually connect with lack of fiber, is how a child’s behavior can fluctuate when they get hungry. This is often dismissed as being normal for a hungry child, whereas in reality they may be crashing harder and faster than normal because they simply don’t have enough buffer.
What’s the deal with flour and sugar? Now that you see what a critical role fiber plays in many areas of wellness, it will make more sense why flour and sugar are particularly dangerous. Like other vegetables, grains have also been cultivated to taste better, just look at this wild vs. cultivated wheat:
But what makes them most dangerous is the processing. Because fiber is a buffer, it works best when it surrounds the starch or sugar. Unlike a yam, whose starch granules are individually wrapped and locked inside of millions of cell walls throughout the tuber, grains have a huge chunk of starch inside a large, fibrous outside. When you grind it into flour, even whole grain flour, you release all of that starch from the protection of the fiber to allow direct absorption into your blood stream. “White” flour is even worse because it discards the fiber completely, leaving pure starch, which is no healthier for you than pure sugar, even though it doesn’t taste as “sweet”. Many people don’t know this, but eating a white flour bagel is like scooping spoons of sugar into your mouth - it actually raises your blood sugar 5 times as much as an apple! Even though the apple has more sugar, it is locked within the fibrous buffer of the apple’s cells. Apple juice, on the other hand, raises your blood sugar about the same as a bagel, because its sugar is now free from the protective fiber. White flour and sugar are essentially the same thing: both are refined starches, the only difference is that one is sweet and one is savory.
Alright, what do we do about all this? The take home message is that whether you are vegan, gluten-free, a pastatarian, carnivore, herbivore or a locavore, eat more fiber. Way more. The reason I love this one simple rule is just that: its simple. It addresses 99% of nutrition issues important to kids’ health: foods that are naturally high in fiber are also naturally high in important vitamins and nutrients, like calcium, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Also, because fiber is bulk, it reduces intake of pretty much anything deemed unhealthy by any food blogger's personal vendetta. Check and check. Acting as a buffer, it reduces your children's risk of diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer, and stabilizes their mood. Last but not least, it prevents constipation to boot!
So how do you do it?
The best way is not with a fiber supplement, but by eating naturally higher fiber foods as the base of a healthy diet. Since kids aren’t usually chomping at the bit to get high-fiber veggies into their tummies, here are a few suggestions. Remember, your kids may not take to these options right away, so we'll talk about how to make that happen in Part 2. For now, let’s start with an idea of what some of these healthy options might look like.
Snacks are the most successful place to start. Prepare fresh/whole veggie and fruit snacks in advance so they are always at the ready for grab and go: “bumps on a log” with unsweetened almond/peanut butter, sliced carrots, or any variety of fresh veggie such as snap peas, radishes, red pepper, jicama, etc. Kids might like to dip them in humus, almond butter, etc. Add some grapes, apple slices, cut up cantaloupe, maybe a small piece of cheese and/or salami if your family does dairy or meat, and you’re in business - makes a great lunch or snack.
Replace refined grains (white bread/pasta/rice, etc.) with 100% whole grains, and select the highest fiber options available. I'm not so strict as to say kids can never eat refined grains, or any treat for that matter — I'm a foodie and I love to eat. The key when meal planning is an awareness that these foods are treats, that they aren't any more nourishing than dessert just because they taste savory.
Balance your plates. If you look at each meal as a pie chart, what percentage contains wholesome fibrous plants, and what percentage is white and starchy (like pasta, bread, bagels, pizza, rice, potatoes, milk/dairy, bananas, sugar)? In an ideal world, 60-90% should be fibrous plants. While that may be hard to achieve or even imagine, how close are you? How could you adjust your balance to get closer to that ideal? Even if you don't achieve that ratio, every step towards it is a step in the right direction. For example, instead of eliminating a sandwich or mac and cheese, give half a serving and supplement the rest with a veggie option — that's great progress!
Have healthy options readily available. It's hard to eat things that aren't available, so families often reach for less healthy options because they're easier. Cooking some lentils, squash, cauliflower, etc., in advance and keeping it in the fridge or freezer makes it much easier to grab in a pinch. Vegetable purées (i.e. sweet pea) are tasty and handy. Soups are easy to make, keep great, and are very flexible — you can make them from anything. Blended soups are great for kids who try to pick all the veggies out. Then, keep some bone-in skin-on canned salmon around to make a “tuna salad,” it's lower in mercury and higher in calcium than tuna. (Don’t worry, the bones dissolve when you whip it up, it’s like adding a powdered calcium supplement to your meal. Just make sure to squish them all so your kids don’t notice them.)
Replace high-starch, low-fiber ingredients with high-fiber plants. Examples include using roasted spaghetti squash in place of spaghetti (very easy and delicious), cauliflower instead of rice, or puréed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes (steam it with a little chopped garlic, add salt, pepper, and butter or cream, then blend it). A vegetable spiralizer can be a fun way to bring more veggies in, use one to turn zucchini into "pasta". If you're feeling more adventurous, try an eggplant-flax pizza crust (click photos above for links).
Get creative, try something different. We often assume kids won't like something before they even try it, and in doing so, basically train them not to like things that are different. Include less common foods like okra, kohlrabi, jicama, pomegranate, etc., and try to avoid getting stuck in bland or monotonous food ruts. Sure, there will be things your kids won't love, but that's OK, don't let that narrow the options you expose them to. If anything, at least things like broccoli won't seem so weird anymore!
Fresh, whole foods always trump processing. And I’m not just talking about Twinkies... Eating an actual orange is far better than drinking orange juice. Eating an apple is better than eating dried apple rings, which are better than eating applesauce which is better than eating fruit leather, which is better than apple juice. Why? With each step you are removing water, breaking down and/or removing fiber, concentrating sugar, etc., until you’re basically turning it into candy. Delicious, organic candy... :) Not to say you can’t consume these foods as yummy treats, of course, just be aware that they’re not the same as eating the food in its whole form with respect to nutrition value.
When you consume packaged foods, breads, pastas, etc. try to select the options that have the highest fiber-to-sugar and fiber-to-carb ratios. Look at the nutrition label: there should be at least as many grams of fiber as sugar per serving, and at least 15-25% of the total carbohydrate should be fiber (divide g of fiber by g of total carbohydrate). Also, again try cutting the serving size in half and making up the rest with something fresh and healthy.
Other nutrition tips to keep in mind
Dairy products: limit/consume in moderation, and favor cultured dairy such as yogurt, kefir, cheese. Try not to have dairy at every meal.
Meat: aim for pasture-raised rather than confined. Sedentary animals with unhealthy diets are no better for you than that lifestyle is for them. For more on consumption of meat as well as vegetarian diets, see my page here.
Fats and oils: increase Omega 3 (found in fish, pasture raised meats and eggs, flax) and monounsaturated oils like olive oil. Limit Omega 6 (Safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut and corn oils) and trans fats (processed foods). Saturated fats can be consumed in moderation.
I could go on forever about the content of a healthy diet, but much of this depends on your personal preferences and thus I’ll stick with those few basic tips and ideas, feel free to experiment and find what works best for your family. Please let me know if you need any other ideas or specifics, I'd be happy to share!
Now, what about how to get your kids to eat the healthy foods you’d like them to? That is the topic of this page!
- After birth (within 24 hours)
- Newborn visit (day 3-5 of age, home visits encouraged)
- 2 weeks
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 9 months
- 12 months
- 15 months
- 18 months
- 2 years
- Yearly thereafter