Children and Food
The nutritional needs of the human body change at different life stages. To be fit and healthy, it is important to take into account the extra demands placed on your body by these changes.
Babies from birth to six months of age
Infants usually increase their length by 50 per cent and their weight by 300 per cent between birth and one year of age. Breast milk generally supplies a baby with the required amounts of nutrients, fluids and energy up to six months of age. Where possible, breast milk is preferred to formula, as it contains many protective and immunological factors that benefit the baby’s development.
Breast milk or correctly prepared infant formula provides enough water for a healthy infant to replace any water losses. However, all infants need extra water when solid foods are introduced.
Babies - six to 12 months
Solids should be introduced around six months of age. Different societies have their own traditions about what food is more appropriate to begin with; culturally appropriate foods and preparation methods should be encouraged when these are nutritionally adequate.
As a baby is gradually weaned from the breast or bottle and new solids are introduced, there may be reduced body stores of iron and vitamins C and D. To maintain nutrient body stores:
- Give your baby foods that are rich in iron, for example iron enriched infant cereals. Iron enriched rice-based cereals are frequently recommended as the first food to be introduced, as there is the additional benefit of having a lower risk of an allergic reaction. Wheat cereals are not recommended as the first food due to their allergy risk.
- Fruits and vegetables should be introduced after the cereals. They are important for vitamin and mineral content and to introduce new textures, tastes and colours.
- Meat, poultry and fish are generally introduced last.
- Don’t add salt or sugar to your baby’s food.
- Avoid cow’s milk in the first 12 months.
- Introduce foods one at a time. Offer new foods once every four to five days to avoid confusion and to rule out food allergy and sensitivity.
- Feed babies during illness and feed up after illness. Give ample liquids if your baby has diarrhea.
- Feed frequently - up to four to six times a day.
- Occasional exposure of the skin to sunlight is usually enough to provide a baby’s vitamin D requirements.
Once a child is eating solids, offer a wide range of foods to ensure adequate nutrition. Young children are often picky with food but should be encouraged to eat from a wide variety of foods.
During childhood, children tend to vary their food intake (spontaneously) to coincide with their growth patterns. Children’s food needs vary widely, depending on their growth and their level of physical activity. Like energy needs, a child’s total protein, vitamin and mineral requirements increase with age. Ideally, children should be accumulating stores of nutrients in preparation for the rapid growth spurt experienced during adolescence.
Food-related problems for young children include becoming overweight, obesity, tooth decay and food sensitivities. Recommendations include:
Children entering their teenage years
- If a child is putting on too much body fat, limit energy-dense, nutrient-poor snack foods. Increasing physical activity will also help. You could also restrict the amount of television watching.
- Tooth decay can be prevented with regular brushing and visits to the dentist. Avoid sugary foods, especially if sticky or acidic.
- Ensure your child has enough fluids, especially milk and water.
- Be aware of foods most likely to cause allergic reactions, including peanuts, shellfish and cow’s milk.
The growth spurt as children move into adolescence needs plenty of kilojoules and nutrients. For girls, this generally occurs around 10 to 11 years of age, while for boys it occurs later, at around 12 to 13 years.
- Foods that are high in kilojoules can generally be eaten without causing excess weight, as long as the teenager is physically active.
- Takeaway and fast foods need to be balanced with nutrient-dense foods, such as wholegrain breads and cereals, fruits, legumes, nuts, vegetables, fish and lean meats.
- Dairy products should be included to boost calcium intake; this is especially important for growing bones.