When parents send their children off to school, many breathe a sigh of relief. They think gone are the daily hassles over meal times, what to eat for snacks, introducing new foods, and encouraging children to eat healthy food choices. If only that could be true! Children beginning their school years still have many nutritional needs to meet. Children entering school face new choices about eating. Decisions about what to eat from the school lunch menu, influences from friends at school, and opportunities to select their after-school snacks will affect nutritional habits that may last a lifetime.
School-aged children are still growing. Growth requirements combined with physical activity play a role in determining a child’s nutritional needs. Genetic background, gender, body size and shape are other factors. The nutrients needed by children are the same needed by adults, but the amounts vary.
Carbohydrates and fats provide energy for growing and physical activity. Their are times when children hit periods of rapid growth. At these times their appetites expand and they may appear to be constantly eating. When growth slows, appetites diminish and children will eat less food at meal times. They will require fewer snacks.
Protein builds, maintains and repairs body tissue. It is especially important for growth. In the United States, most children do not suffer from lack of dietary protein. It is important, to encourage children to eat two to three servings of meat, fish, poultry or other protein-rich food each day. Milk and other dairy products also are good protein sources for children.
There are a variety of vitamins and minerals which support growth and development during childhood. Calcium, obtained from milk and dairy products and from dark green, leafy vegetables, is usually sufficient nutritionally in the diets of young children. As children approach teen years, their dietary calcium intakes do not always keep up with recommended daily allowances. Calcium is particularly important in building strong bones and teeth. Bone density suffers when calcium needs are not met during childhood years. Osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease that affects older adults, begins in childhood if diets are not providing adequate calcium-rich foods.
Iron-deficiency anemia can be a problem for some children. Iron is an oxygen-carrying component of blood. Children need iron for expanding blood volume which is accompanied during periods of rapid growth. For girls, the beginning of menstruation in late childhood adds an extra demand for iron due to the regular loss of iron in menstrual blood. Meats, fish, poultry, and enriched breads and cereals are the best sources of dietary iron. A vitamin and mineral supplement may be necessary to meet the iron needs of menstruating female teens.
Most children eat diets that are adequate in Vitamins A and C. When children do not eat enough fruits and vegetables they run the risk of having low intakes of vitamins A and C. B Complex Vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and other B vitamins) come from a variety of foods, including grain products, meat and meat substitutes and dairy products. Generally, children do not have trouble getting adequate intakes of the B Complex vitamins.
When appetites slow down and children do not seem to be eating nutritiously, concerned parents consider using a vitamin-mineral supplement. Generally, children do not need vitamin-mineral supplements. If one is being used, select a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. Parents should provide a variety of foods and establish regular meal and snack times. In most cases, the nutrient needs will be adequately met. If parents feel there is a reason to be concerned about a child’s poor nutrient intake they should consult a physician or trained nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian.