When it comes to infants and toddlers, there’s lots of health and nutrition information available. Whether you’re the parent or grandparent of a newborn or 3-year-old, books, magazines and the Internet have answers to every conceivable diet and feeding question.
The same holds true for school-age children between 5 and 12 years old. You can find charts, graphs and diet plans outlining how much of certain foods should be eaten and when; how much exercise is required to maintain a healthy weight; and there seems to be an entire genre of books devoted to “picky eaters.”
Now, consider the preschooler who really isn’t a toddler but hasn’t yet entered kindergarten. Search for diet and nutrition information for the 4-year-old, and what you find isn’t the most helpful or clear.
Recently, this point was made by several of my clients who are mothers and fathers of preschoolers. January marks the time to register little tykes for kindergarten, and with that milestone comes questions about what to feed a preschooler that can enhance his focus and concentration; what snacks are best to fuel a growing body; and what type of lunches will appeal to a young child, yet be nutritious and travel well.
Simply put, a healthy 4-year old requires between 1,200 and 1,400 calories daily to sustain an active lifestyle, and those calories should come from three meals and two healthy snacks.
Make sure each meal includes fruit; vegetables (frozen or canned are fine); whole grains; lean meats, including chicken and turkey; and low fat (1 percent) dairy products.
When it comes to portable, appealing lunches, there’s more to life than ham and cheese! Finger sandwiches with tasty, colorful fillings are always a hit. Try refried beans and mashed avocado; grated carrots and cream cheese; almond butter and honey; cream cheese and strawberry preserves or honey; shredded Cheddar cheese and mashed avocado; mashed banana and cream cheese; and Nutella and bananas. Use different breads such as English muffins, ciabatta, tortillas, Italian bread, French bread and raisin-cinnamon bread for variety.
Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids — a healthy fat found in fish such as tuna and salmon — play a vital role in the developing brain, so brown-bagging a tuna fish sandwich for lunch is really a smart idea. Additionally, flaxseed and walnuts are rich in healthy fats that can boost brain function, so sprinkling ground flaxseed on oatmeal (kids can’t even taste it) or giving them mini-walnut muffins to munch on are good options.
Healthy snacks are essential to keep a child’s focus trained on school. Pack individual containers of unsweetened apple sauce; peanut, soy or almond butter spread between squares of whole grain graham crackers; Greek yogurt with banana; granola bars (preferably hard, not chocolate or candy-coated; small boxes of raisins or baggies filled with apricots or dates, and cubed, low-fat cheese with a serving of crackers.
Kindergartners are impressionable. The eating habits they establish now will last a lifetime, so let’s get them off to a healthy start.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.TinaRuggiero.com.