When you build a house, the first thing you need is a strong foundation. You can use the best lumber, wiring and roofing in the world – but without a sturdy base, the house just won’t be stable.
Similarly, building a strong and healthy human starts in childhood (or even sooner). It’s crucial, first and foremost, that kids get enough to eat. In many countries, childhood malnutrition leads to lifelong harmful effects like stunted growth, behavioral issues and impeded mental development.
Although this kind of acute malnutrition is rare in the United States, childhood nutrition isn’t a subject to take lightly. Building that strong foundation is up to you – it’s never too early to make a huge positive impact on your child’s future health!
When planning meals for your kids (toddler-age and up), try to incorporate foods containing these important nutrients:
Calcium is needed for bone, tooth and even muscle development. It can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a disease characterized by weak and brittle bones, later in life.
High-calcium foods include:
- Dark, leafy greens (some, like spinach, may need to be cooked for best results)
- Dairy products like milk and cheese
- Seeds, beans and lentils
- Many (but not all) grain-based foods like bread, tortillas, and cereals are fortified with additional calcium
- Edamame, tofu and soy
Spinach and ricotta lasagna, tofu and veggie stir fry with sesame seeds and cheese and bean quesadillas are some kid-friendly high-calcium meals.
Iron helps the blood carry oxygen through the body. Too little iron for a long period of time can lead to anemia, a treatable but serious deficiency that can cause fatigue, headaches and irritability.
High-iron foods include:
- Dried fruits (like raisins, apricots and figs)
- Meat, fish and poultry
- Oatmeal and fortified cereals
Breakfast burritos with eggs, meat, and beans and oatmeal topped with chopped dried fruit are some kid-friendly meals high in iron.
Vitamin A has a wide range of benefits! It contains antioxidant properties that can help protect long-term health and aids in the development of your child’s vision and immune system.
Foods high in vitamin A include:
- Many orange fruits and vegetables including carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, cantaloupe, mangos, papaya and apricot. Ironically, oranges themselves do not make this list.
- Red bell peppers
Fruit salad, sliced veggies with hummus and tuna with a side of sweet potato fries are some kid-friendly snacks and meals rich in vitamin A.
There are actually eight different types of B vitamins, collectively called the B complex. That’s too many to cover in detail here – if you’re interested, Harvard’s School of Public Health has a great article series – but in general, B vitamins are needed for energy metabolism.
Foods high in B complex vitamins include:
- Whole grains like brown rice and barley
- Citrus fruits
- Meat, fish and poultry
- Beans and lentils
Burrito bowls and sliced oranges are some kid-friendly snacks and meals rich in B complex vitamins.
Vitamin C has a great reputation for supporting the immune system, but that’s not all it does. Vitamin C helps the body produce collagen, a necessary component for building healthy skin and bones.
High-C foods include:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, etc.)
Roasted veggie platters, pasta topped with a roasted-red-pepper-and-tomato sauce and fruit smoothies are some kid-friendly snacks and meals rich in vitamin C.
Most of the vitamin D your child needs comes naturally from exposure to sunlight, and what they get in their day-to-day lives is usually enough (unless you live somewhere like Alaska where there’s limited sunlight). Still, it doesn’t hurt to include this vitamin in your meal planning. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, so it’s great to pair vitamin D-rich foods with those from the calcium group. It also helps the immune system – talk about a team player!
Foods high in vitamin D include:
- Many varieties of fish, including tuna, salmon, sardines, and swordfish
- Eggs (specifically the yolk)
Homemade spinach and mushroom pizza or cheese and mushroom omelets are some kid-friendly meals rich in vitamin D.
Helping your kid learn to enjoy a wide variety of these foods can set them up for long-term nutritional success!
That said, picky eating and busy schedules are going to happen. The best-case scenario of your child voluntarily noshing on home-cooked, nutrient-dense meals won’t be every day, and that’s okay. Remember, the most important part of building a strong nutritional foundation is making sure your child has enough to eat. When chicken-nuggets days happen, it doesn’t mean your efforts at keeping your child healthy have failed. Just remember that every day is a fresh opportunity to make the most of your family’s meals.