It is important to start teaching children healthy eating habits very early in life. Research shows a link between eating habits of children and adult diseases like cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Both parents and caregivers can help put into place healthy eating habits. An important step toward giving our children a lifetime of healthy habits is for the adults around them to have a menu plan.
Large childcare programs may have their monthly menus planned by a registered dietitian. Staff in smaller or family childcare programs, however, often plan their own menus. Planning menus a week in advance not only saves time, money, and energy but also assures a better nutritional balance.
Menu planning is not complicated. Start planning the next week's menus the day the grocery advertisements come out, which helps you identify what foods are in season (less expensive) and food bargains. Plan a variety of main dishes throughout the week, such as a chicken dish on Monday, beef on Tuesday, salmon patties on Wednesday, cheese sandwiches on Thursday, and so on.
Keep in mind the Food Pyramid when planning menus. Variety is the key to good nutrition for children, and healthy eating does not necessarily mean specific "health foods" but rather modification of foods you already may be serving. For example, baking foods rather than frying, or steaming vegetables with herbs and spices instead of boiling with margarine and salt. Also, when planning the meals, follow the pattern of serving: a meat or meat alternative, a starchy vegetable (potato, pasta, rice, cereal), a grain/bread product, a green or yellow vegetable, a serving of fruit and milk.
The U.S. Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children recommends the following amounts in each food group:
Two servings of meat per day: 3 1/2 oz. per day for 2-3 year olds, 5 oz. per day for 4-5 year olds. The foods found in the meat group are any cooked, lean meat, poultry or fish. Other foods include eggs, cooked dried beans, peanut butter, soy burger patty, soy chicken nuggets, and tofu. Protein is found in abundance in the meat group and is required by the body to synthesize enzymes and hormones that regulate body processes and stimulate growth. Another way to lower the fat content is to use meat alternatives such as peanut butter, dried beans and peas, lentils, and soy products. A peanut butter sandwich and a glass of 2 percent milk will fulfill about half a child's daily protein, grain and dairy needs as well as provide other important nutrients. Remember to watch for food allergies, especially peanut allergies, when planning the menu.
Two servings from the milk group include yogurt, natural (hard) cheese, processed cheese, pudding, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. Milk and other dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, which is needed for strong bones, nerve and muscle function, and blood clotting.
When selecting foods, check the calcium content per serving. Milk is not the only source of calcium; a variety of foods are necessary to fulfill the calcium requirements for most children. A cup of milk contains about 295 mg. of calcium; however, a cup of calcium-fortified orange juice may contain up to 340 mg. An 8-ounce serving of yogurt contains more than 400 mg and 1/2 cup of pudding contains 270 mg.; however, 1/2 cup of ice cream contains only 85 mg. of calcium and 1/2 cup of cottage cheese contains 75 mg. A single ounce of Swiss cheese provides 270 mg. and cheddar cheese contains 205 mg. Some fruits and vegetables also are high in calcium; 1/2 cup of raw broccoli or a medium orange provide about 50 mg, while just three dried figs contain 80 mg. of calcium.
Six servings per day from the grain group are recommended. This includes bread, rice or pasta, cooked cereal, ready-to-eat cereal, English muffin or bagel, flour or corn tortilla, pancakes, pita bread, rolls, crackers, or graham crackers. These foods contain important vitamins and minerals needed for growth, such as zinc and B complex vitamins.
Three servings per day from the vegetable group are recommended, such as broccoli, green leafy vegetables, carrots, corn, vegetable soup or juice, potatoes, tomatoes, or tomato sauce. Vegetables like broccoli and potatoes are good sources of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which aids in healing, fighting off colds, and iron absorption in the body. These foods also contain fiber that may help to avoid elimination problems (constipation) and may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
Two servings per day from the fruit group are recommended. Fresh fruits are preferred over canned or juice. Watermelon, cantaloupe, oranges, orange juice, and strawberries also are good sources of vitamin C.
Menu planning is the first step to a healthy diet. Make menu planning a regular routine and it will serve you well. Below are some questions to ask to ensure that your menus are full of nutritious foods:
- Have you included a good source of vitamin C (such as oranges or broccoli), iron (such as dried fruits, enriched or whole grain breads, dried beans or turkey), and vitamin A (such as carrots, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes) in at least one meal or snack?
- Does each meal include foods with different textures, shapes, and colors?
- Are foods included that represent children's cultural, ethnic, and personal food preferences?
- Are new foods included along with some favorite foods?
- Are meals modified as necessary to meet children's special dietary needs (e.g lactose intolerance or food allergies)?
- Are whole grain breads, cereals and grain products incorporated frequently?
- Are recipes and menus adjusted to modify fat, salt, and sugar?
- Is nutrition information reviewed before products are purchased?
- Are all foods safe for young children? (For example, grapes are peeled and cut in half lengthwise and meat cut into small pieces to avoid chocking.)
Meals should encourage development of the child's sense of taste, acceptance and enjoyment of foods. This is where the caregivers can assist the child in developing healthy eating habits. Never use food as a reward or punishment. Be a positive role model, especially when new foods are introduced in the meals. Make the dining experience enjoyable. New foods are often rejected the first time they are served to children, so try discussing the new food prior to the meal time. Sing a song about that food. It may take up to 20 exposures to the new food before children prefer it.
Donna Stauber, PhD, CHES, President, Rebauts, Inc.
Pam David, RD, Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Tips for Using the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children is available online or through the Government Printing Office. Contact 202-512-1800 and asking for stock number 001-00004665-9. The price is $5.00. www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Care/Publications/kidspyramid.htm
Child Care Nutrition Resource System, Food and Nutrition Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2351; www.nal.usda.gov/childcare
Bright Futures, www.brightfutures.org/nutrition/pdf/index.html