Knowing exactly what to feed your child, and making it something they will actually eat, can be a challenge for even the most attentive parents. There is so much information available telling you that your child should eat this, but definitely not that, and it is hard to keep up with what is considered appropriate. While healthy nutrition generally follows the same principles for children and adults, dietary needs do change slightly as your child grows.
Generally speaking, we should eat a balanced diet every day consisting of a wide variety of foods, this ensures the greatest consumption of nutrients. It may seem simple, but you probably still have a lot of questions, especially when it comes to exactly what to feed your child. How does age affect dietary recommendations? Can your feed your child too much of a particular food? What about protein in particular? There’s a lot of information out there to help answer those questions, some of which is conflicting, but before you can consider protein on its own, you have to look at your child’s diet as a whole.
The Five Food Groups
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published general guidelines to assist all Americans in eating nutritiously. Through their MyPlate campaign, the organization has stressed the importance of maintaining a balanced diet by eating all food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. The USDA has also released recommendations for how much of each food group an individual should consume each day. The goal in providing this information to the public is to help build healthy eating styles. Let’s quickly review the 5 food groups and the recommended daily intake of each, before we take a closer look at protein.
The fruit group consists of any whole fruit or 100% fruit juice which can be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be eaten whole, cut-up, or pureed. Depending on your child’s age and gender, the daily recommendation s one to two servings. Some examples of a single serving of fruit include:
- 1 small apple (2 ¼” diameter),
- 1 large banana (8”-9” long),
- 1 large orange (3 ⅛” diameter),
- Or 1 cup of any fruit that is whole or cut such as strawberries, watermelon, or grapes.
Fruits are important to your child’s overall health as they are a source of many essential nutrients that are under consumed such potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and folate..
Any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice will satisfy the daily requirement for this food group. Based on their nutrient content, vegetables are organized into 5 subgroups: dark-green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables. Depending on age and gender, children need to consume one to three servings of vegetables every day. The USDA also provides weekly intake recommendations for each subgroup of vegetable. A serving may include:
- 1 cup carrots,
- 1 large bell pepper (3” diameter, 3 ¾” long),
- 1 cup mashed pumpkin,
- Or 2 stalks celery (11” to 12” long)
Once again, vegetables can be consumed raw or cooked, whole or chopped in order to meet the daily guideline. The dietary fiber found in vegetables helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease. In addition vegetables are a great source of nutrients like potassium, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Grains are defined as any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal product. This group is divided into 2 subgroups: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel while refined grains have been milled. MIlling is a process that removes the bran and germ, can remove some of the nutritional benefits such as dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Children need to consume between one and four ounces of grains daily.
Despite what popular diet trends say, grains are an important source of many nutrients including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium).
All liquid milk products, like cow’s milk, and foods made from milk, such as yogurt or cheese, are considered part of the dairy food group. This does not include foods made from milk that have little to no calcium such as cream cheese, cream, or butter. Children are expected to consume two to three cups of dairy per day.
Dairy products are the primary source of calcium in American diets which is vital for bone health. The calcium found in dairy products helps increase and maintain bone mass. Vitamin D is also found in many dairy products and helps maintain proper levels of calcium and phosphorous, thereby also building and maintaining bones.
Finally there is protein. The protein group consists of meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds. Once again depending on the age and gender of your child, they should be consuming between two and six ounces of protein daily.
We’ll dig deeper into why protein is important to your child’s health and how they function as the building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones, and vitamins.
Why is Protein Important?
Protein is a macronutrient, or a food component required in relatively large amounts in order for the body to function properly. Protein serves as a significant source of energy as it contains four calories, the unit of measure of the energy in food, per gram. However, the protein in a child’s diet is also critical for several other functions.
Protein is a crucial building block in the body serving as a major component in muscles, organs and skin. It assists in proper wound healing and helps the body maintain fluid and acid-base balance. Plus, as children move through multiple phases of growth and development, protein aids their bodies in repairing cells and making new ones. All of these functions are incredibly important for a child’s constantly changing body. Without protein, your child’s development and height could be stunted.
So, how much protein do children actually need to consume? Turns out, it depends mostly on the age and weight of your child with recommendations being described as grams per pound of body weight. A healthy toddler between the ages of one and three years old needs minimum of 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That means a toddler weighing 25 pounds would need minimum of 13.75 grams of protein per day.
As a child ages, protein needs per pound decrease. Children between ages four and six need minimum 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, for example, a 5-year-old weighing 50 pounds requires minimum of 25 grams of protein. While children who are seven to fourteen years old only require minimum of 0.45 grams of protein per body weight. Meaning a 13-year-old weighing 100 pounds is in need minimum of 45 grams of protein daily.
In a balanced diet, for children ages 1-3, protein can make up 5-20% of total calories, and for children 4-18 years old, protein can account for 10-30% of total calories.
Types of Protein
Proteins are made up of building blocks known as amino acids. There are three types of amino acids: essential, nonessential and conditional. The essential group is made up of nine amino acids which your body cannot produce on its own and must be obtained through your diet. Nonessential amino acids are still necessary for your health, but your body has the ability to produce these on its own. While conditional proteins are those you usually only require from the diet if you’re ill or stressed.
Proteins can be further divided into two subtypes:: complete and incomplete. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids in addition to some of the nonessential amino acids. While incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
In total, there are 22 amino acids that the body needs in order to function at its best, but it is not really necessary to track them individually. In fact, eating a balanced diet is usually enough to help consume all the protein and amino acids the body needs.
It is important that your child is consuming a diet which provides all nine essential amino acids and you can achieve this in a number of ways. The easiest method is to choose animal protein as a primary protein source for at least one meal per day such as meat, eggs and dairy which are considered complete proteins, containing all nine essential amino acids. However, some plant foods are also considered complete proteins, such as hemp seeds, soy and quinoa.
Most plant proteins, however, are incomplete proteins. These include nuts, beans, rice and whole grains. While these proteins do not technically provide all nine essential amino acids, you can achieve the effect of a complete protein by eating two incomplete proteins together or over the course of a day. They must each contain complementary proteins to make up for the amino acids the other is missing. This method is called protein combining. Meals like peanut butter and whole grain bread or beans and rice are excellent examples of complementary foods that when combined create a complete protein.
As you can see, the amount of protein your child needs to consume is dependent on their age and whether or not the protein they are eating is complete or incomplete. There is no real need to count grams of protein or worry about measuring exact portions,, eating a balanced diet every day consisting of a variety of foods, including a quality source of protein at most meals should allow your child to meet their needs. In doing that you will ensure that they are getting all of the proper nutritional requirements every day, including protein.
If your child has trouble eating a balanced diet containing enough protein, there are protein supplements available. Healthy Height™ is a great tasting shake-mix that contains nutrition to help kids grow.
Healthy Height™ is not only rich in protein, it also contains vitamins and minerals that have been shown to help kids grow. Each serving provides 12g of protein to help your child meet their daily recommended value. Learn more about Healthy Height™ today!