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Health Tips for Parents

2006 Issues

How can I make sure my child is eating right?

Growing children require a variety of healthy foods in order to get all of the vitamins and minerals they need to thrive.

Balanced Diet
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its food pyramid, which advises Americans about proper dietary habits. The new guidelines describe a healthy diet as one that:
• Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
• Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
• Stays low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars

Children who eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables get the nutrient-dense fuel they need to support healthy growth and development. A nutritious diet helps ensure a healthy heart and promotes a strong immune and digestive system. Parents who promote a healthy diet at home set children up for a lifetime of good health.

Yet, according to Patty Beckwith, a registered dietitian at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, most American children eat a caloriedense, not nutrient-dense, diet.

Health Starts at Home
Children will generally eat what is available at home. Therefore, control the variety of food available to children. Stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy snacks—such as yogurt, peanut butter, whole grain crackers and vegetables—makes it easy for children to choose healthy options.

According to Beckwith, parents should follow the USDA Food Guide Pyramid and plan each meal around a produce item, making fruits and vegetables the center of their menu planning. For example, think about how to prepare blueberries for breakfast. Or, she says, think along the lines, “Salad is always a part of our dinner, so what shall I prepare with it tonight?”

Pay Attention to Portions
The USDA recommends three to five servings of vegetables, plus two to four servings of fruit a day to ensure good health. This may sound like large portions of food for a small child, but pay attention to age-appropriate portion sizes. A healthy portion for a young school-aged child is one-quarter to one-half cup of fruits and vegetables, one to two ounces of lean meat or protein (about the size of a chicken drumstick), and one slice of bread.

Avoid filling up a child’s lunchbox or dinner plate with large portions of a single food item, such as a whole turkey sandwich. Instead, provide a variety of foods in small portions: half a sandwich, half an apple, sliced, and one ounce of cheese or protein to optimize nutrients and increase the chances that a child will finish the entire lunch.

Be a Role Model
The best way to make sure a child eats a nutritious diet is modeling. “Children mimic their parents,” says Beckwith. “If they don’t see you eating a healthy meal or snack, they won’t either.” Beckwith encourages parents to sit down with their child and eat one or more meals a day together.

Adding Vitamins
Parents who worry that their child may not be getting his or her daily recommended allowance of vitamins may choose to supplement their child’s diet with vitamins. Even if children eat a healthy diet, a multivitamin can act as a backup to provide the nutrients they may have missed during the day. Consult a pediatrician or nutritionist before giving a child a single item dosage (such as a vitamin C tablet or calcium).

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. UCLA Healthcare pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles. Additional information can be found on the UCLA Healthcare web site at www.healthcare.ucla.edu or by calling 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (1-800-825-2631).

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