As a registered dietitian nutritionist, one of my favorite things about my job is empowering kids to become healthy eaters. I look at every meal and snack as an opportunity to provide little ones with valuable nutrients and teach them great habits for life.
So what do I tell parents about the best ways to nourish their children?
First, fruits and veggies should fill half of every plate, given their excellent nutrient profile of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. They are the stars, after all! As a bonus, fruits and vegetables don't have added sugar and most are negligible in fat and sodium. While each fruit and veggie is powerful on its own, eating a variety throughout the week is also important in order to collect different nutrients from various-colored produce.
Next, protein, to help kids grow, should compose a quarter of each meal. Aim for lean proteins like eggs, nuts, beans, fish, and chicken.
And don’t forget about whole grains for energy. I recommend that a quarter of each plate also include whole grains like a whole wheat tortilla, bread, pita, oats, quinoa, or barley. Children should also be getting calcium, mostly found in dairy products, to build bones. Lastly, growing kids need healthy fats that contain monounsaturated fats or omega-3s for heart and brain health benefits.
So what are the best foods that cover these categories? Here are my nine favorite foods to feed kids every day:
Strawberries are rich in vitamin C, an antioxidant, which helps repair damage, heal wounds, and protect gums. Vitamin C also helps absorb iron and is important for the formation of collagen, which creates a framework for the body.
To help kids consume more, use strawberries as toppings; in salads, sauces, and marinades; and in cold soups. Of course, they are also scrumptious on their own!
To encourage kids to enjoy cauliflower, try the various, beautiful colors of the plant, including white, purple, orange, and green. Cauliflower is also very versatile and can be roasted, mashed (use it instead of potatoes!), used as a pizza crust or "riced."
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a valuable source of beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for immunity, vision, and skin health.
The good news is kids tend to love sweet potatoes because they're naturally sweet. They are tasty mashed, in soups and stews, baked as chips, and in desserts.
Research shows that kids who eat a high-quality breakfast perform better at school. Eggs are a great example of a high-quality complete protein.
Eggs are also easy to prepare for breakfast as a scramble with veggies or hard-boiled and sliced over whole grain toast. Plus, they make a fun, quick, and effortless dinner, too.
Almonds contain monounsaturated fat (the healthy kind!). They are a good source of vitamin E, protein, and fiber. Studies show that consuming fiber can help prevent numerous diseases and childhood obesity, as well as promote GI health.
Almonds add crunch to salads, yogurt, and cooked veggies. Almond butter on sliced fruit is healthy and delicious, too. Add almond butter to oatmeal for additional protein.
If your child is allergic to tree nuts, try sunflower seeds and sunflower seed butter instead.
6. Garbanzo beans
Garbanzo beans — also known as chickpeas — are an important source of protein, fiber, and iron. They are naturally low in saturated fat and may contain some healthy fat.
Most kids enjoy bean dips like hummus. Garbanzo beans can also be added to salads, soups, and stews and roasted as a crunchy snack or side dish.
The monounsaturated fat in avocados has been shown to offer cardiovascular health benefits.
Another bonus? It works well as a fat replacement for baking and adds creaminess to dishes. Little ones tend to love avocados as a spread on sandwiches and in wraps (instead of mayo) and used as a dip or guacamole.
Oats are a whole grain that gives kids energy. They contain fiber to keep kids' tummies full longer and help regulate cholesterol and blood sugar levels. In fact, studies show that kids who consume oatmeal are less likely to become obese.
I recommend adding fruits, spices (cinnamon, anyone?), nuts, and seeds to oatmeal for added flavor, crunch, and nutrients.
9. Greek Yogurt
Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is a great source of calcium and protein. Calcium is important for healthy bones and might also help kids grow taller.
Use plain yogurt and for a healthy boost add fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, vanilla, mint, and dill. Yogurt is also a great substitute for fats in baked goods.
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