How to give your children a balanced, healthful diet

Five-year-old Grace inspects her food carefully, and if I've tried to slip in any colorful vegetables, she won't have anything to do with it. Alec, 3, usually sits at the counter while I cook, popping cucumbers, carrots and kiwi into his mouth faster than I can get them on his plate. Lately, though, he's becoming more influenced by his older sister's picky eating habits. And for little Emma, who's 9 months old and just getting the hang of solid foods, every meal is an experiment.

I try to offer my children a variety of wholesome foods. But I fret. Is their diet balanced? Are they getting the right amount of calcium? And what are the long-term effects of all the preservatives, dyes and other chemicals in our daily diets?

I know I'm not alone in my struggle. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study reveals that only 35 percent of 2 to 3 year olds have what the USDA defines as a "good" diet. And another study reports only 16 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 6 have good diets (Pediatrics, 1997, vol. 100).

But, experts assure us that if you "provide healthy foods, reasonably structured times for meals and snacks and a nurturing atmosphere, you can trust your child to do the rest," says pediatrician Janice Woolley, M.D., whose book, Food for Tots (Mammoth Prints), was released this summer.

Control Issues
While you can't always control what your child will eat and when, you can control the portion size they are given. Here's a good rule of thumb: Portions for preschoolers equal about one tablespoon per year of age, or about one-fourth to one-half of an adult serving, says Woolley, who has practiced pediatrics on Mercer Island, Wash., for more than 20 years.

If you prefer to think of food portions in calorie terms, you may be surprised to learn that kids may actually need more calories than their parents, says Susan Gins, M.S., a certified nutritionist who operates a Seattle-based practice called Nourish. While these averages can range from plus or minus 10 percent, the general daily calorie requirement for children ages 1 to 3 is 1,300 calories; 4 to 6 year olds need 1,800 calories; and 7 to 10 year olds require 1,310 calories.

Children are the best judges of their appetites. "It's important not to press children to eat when they're ready to stop," says Woolley. Gins agrees: "Kids have small stomachs. You're much better off thinking in terms of three small meals and three snacks."

Keep in mind, too, that it's OK for children to skip an occasional meal. "Don't make meal times a battle," Woolley says. "Choosing to eat is your child's job. Your responsibility is to provide healthy food and to keep the atmosphere pleasant and relaxed. Trying to force a child to eat is a battle you can't win."

Juggling Fats, Carbs and Proteins
Although children may need more calories per pound of body weight than some adults, they need roughly the same percentages from each food group.

A balanced diet includes 70 to 80 percent wholesome, natural foods, says Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif., and author of several books, including The Staying Healthy Shopper's Guide (Celestial Arts).

Up until age 2, children need to eat 50 percent of their daily calories from fat to provide for proper brain development and growth, says Woolley. After age 2, however, their fat intake should decrease to around 30 percent of total daily calories. Gins specifies, "Limit the saturated fat and add the fats that help with nervous-system development. These include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) — the omega-3s and omega-6s, like in evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil, walnuts, salmon and tuna."

Kids' carbohydrate requirements increase gradually with age. After infancy, half of their daily calorie consumption should come from carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, such as grains and fruits, are the best sources of energy. But, Woolley notes that children need a lot of energy, and they have trouble eating enough complex carbohydrates to fulfill their tremendous energy requirement. Simple sugars fill the gap.

When it comes to protein, an infant needs 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. This gradually decreases to about a half a gram per pound by age 5, says Woolley. "Children who eat dairy products, meat and eggs usually have more than enough protein in their diets," she says. "If you're feeding your child a vegetarian diet, be sure to include high-protein foods such as legumes, soy and whole grains." If you're raising a vegetarian or plan to, you might also consult a nutritionist to make sure you're covering the basics.

Add Supplements, Subtract Additives
Most nutrition professionals agree that it's best for children to get their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals from the foods they eat, but we all know that meeting those daily goals can be hit or miss.

That's why it's a good idea to supplement kids' diets with an age-appropriate, high-quality multivitamin/multimineral. "I'm a big advocate of supplements," says Gins. "They give you a bottom line, and you know your kids are getting the necessary micronutrients. Even if you're eating organic, you're not sure your kids are getting enough. Why take a chance? You might as well just give them a one-a-day supplement."

Parents also need to limit the amount of preservatives and other chemicals their children ingest. "With these chemicals, the concern is really the general load [children are] getting and the persistent day-to-day exposure over time," says Haas.

The basic additives to minimize in your child's diet include: artificial colors, excess refined sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG), Aspartame, sodium nitrite, sulfites and sulfur dioxide, hydrogenated fats, artificial flavorings, excess salt and the preservatives BHT and BHA.

There are conflicting opinions, but some experts believe that the chemicals in food may be linked to behavior and the increase of children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"Packaged, manufactured foods enhance flavor, making things saltier, spicier or more sugary [than whole foods]," says Haas. "That's not really what foods taste like."

As parents, the best we can do is to encourage healthy eating habits for our children by stocking the pantry with wholesome snacks, offering nutritious meals and setting a good example.

Julie Stafford is a freelance health writer living in Niwot, Colo.