In contemporary society with easy and ample access to the internet, misinformation about health, wellness, illness and nutrition is common and confusing.
Healthy eating is important for everyone, but most important for children and adolescents. Normal growth and development depend upon the healthy eating habits that are established at an early age, and proper nutrition for children and adolescents prevents a wide range of serious and chronic conditions that emerge and extend across the lifespan.
By age 2, a healthy eating plan should be followed, while avoiding common nutritional myths.
The 5 components of a healthy eating plan are simple and straightforward, and include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, a variety of protein foods and oils.
In addition to creating healthy meals consisting of fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy, limiting calories from solid fats, and reducing sodium and added sugars will produce benefits from healthy eating.
It is the well-rounded diet based on these guidelines that will ensure delivery of sufficient essential vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately, few children and fewer adolescents subscribe to these guidelines, but parents and caregivers are the best resource for helping children achieve these benefits. Teens often require supplements for diets that are insufficient in calcium, iron, vitamin D and zinc. When aware of these shortcomings, parents and caregivers can include foods on the family menu that include these essential vitamins and minerals. Multi-vitamins will not substitute for the required nutrients, but they can supplement where there are diet deficiencies.
With a commitment to building healthy eating habits for a lifetime, parents and caregivers can partner with their K-12 school leaders and teachers to promote fun food eating, challenges, goals, and achievements. As educational institutions, many schools work closely with credentialed and expert school nurses to create learning activities that highlight nutrition and food habits as a component of the learning. Nutrition, pediatric and nursing research has reported the correlation between academic performance, nutrition, and student success. Schools are in a unique position to provide students with opportunities to learn about and practice healthy eating behaviors. Creative and innovative occasions for having children actively participate in food selection and preparation is a great way to teach a host of life skills while spending quality time and creating confidence.
Reading ingredients is a fundamental step in building a knowledgeable food consumer, and having children and teens prepare healthy lunches as an outcome of learning about ingredients is an excellent way to heighten their awareness of added sugar, sodium, and chemical fillers. By participating in the process, children and teens are fully engaged and invested in the selection of the appropriate foods for their meals and the choices they make for ingesting into their bodies.
Children, teens and parents alike should begin each day with a healthy breakfast. Doing so establishes a standard of healthy eating as each day begins and as a family/caregiver group. Doing so will improve cognition, memory, and mood.
And, beginning each day with a healthy breakfast establishes a routine for continuing to make healthy choices throughout the day.
As children and teens return to school, healthy lunches and snacks are important, and can become an extension of a healthy breakfast. Paying attention to the five categories of fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy that make up a balanced diet, lunches can become more than a high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich meal. A whole-grain bread with peanut or other nut butter and a banana is an excellent and simple lunch sandwich choice. Combined with a low-fat, no-added-sugar yogurt and whole veggies, it provides a nutritious and substantial lunch.
It is important to remember and to advertise that healthy food can also be tasty. The local Food Network television stations have taught the invaluable lesson that food and nutrition, preparation and cooking, are creative and challenging activities that children and teens are learning to enjoy.
Children and teens should have two to three snacks per day, and if convenient and processed foods are avoided for both meals and snacks, the children, teens, and adults too will be reducing added sugar, added sodium, and hidden fillers. This action alone is a strong start to improving the nutritional rich value of meals. Need some ideas?
- Dates, dried apples, oats, and cinnamon can be mixed and rolled into a healthy-tasting energy ball for a quick grab-and-go snack.
- Soy milk is a safe, nutritionally dense, protein-rich food that can be used as a dairy substitute.
- It’s important to know that there is no need to be afraid to eat carbohydrates or fats. In fact, high-fat foods such as avocados, olive oil, and walnuts will provide the needed fat for nourishing the brain and other vital organs, while these healthy fats also help children to feel satisfied.
The US Department of Agriculture’s “ChooseMyPlate.gov” campaign provides a simple visual resource to help parents and caregivers support the plan for healthy eating and nutrition.
When a healthy nutritional lifestyle is established and promoted throughout childhood and adolescence, the muscle memory of those behaviors remains with the individual through adulthood.