We're often reminded about the importance of a varied and balanced diet for both children and adults. But what does that actually mean? Here are some tips about the nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed as your child grows.
The plate model
Children who eat a varied diet based on lots of fruit and vegetables do not need dietary supplements.
But how much should your child eat from the different bands of the classic food pyramid? Follow the plate model. This is helpful for infants who have just started eating full meals of solids.
According to the plate model, 1/3 of the dinner plate should contain meat or fish – protein, 1/3 vegetables and 1/3 pasta, rice or potatoes – carbohydrates. Further reading: the little vegetarian.
Round off with a dessert of fruit or berries. Tips for tasty and healthy desserts .
Protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats
• Proteins build muscles. Because the body is unable to store protein, we need to eat it daily. Protein is present in milk and other dairy products, in meat, fish, eggs, peas and beans.
• Carbohydrates provide energy and are the body's 'fuel'. Pasta, rice, bread, potato, fruit, vegetables and cereal/porridge are good sources of carbohydrate.
• Fat is an important source of energy and also helps the body absorb vitamins. Children need more fat than adults because they are growing. The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for brain development.
In your child's first two years of life, it's a good idea to add a teaspoon of rapeseed or olive oil to homemade meals, two or three times a day. There is no need to add fat to ready-made baby food. Fatty fish like salmon also contains useful omega-3 fats.
Go easy on fibre to start with
An infant's stomach and intestines are more sensitive to fibre than an adult's. A lot of fibre may give baby runny bowel movements or diarrhoea. And without enough fluids, the fibre can cause constipation.
Fibre-rich foods are also more filling, and mean that your child might refuse to eat the other nutritious foods he needs. From around the age of eight months, you can try a wholegrain porridge or formula as a way of increasing your child's fibre intake. But if his digestive system reacts to the fibre, then it's better to stick with other foods for a while.
Three important minerals
Minerals are needed for nerve, muscle and other vital functions. A few key minerals:
• Zinc is present in milk, red meat, chicken, fish and bread. Zinc deficiency can disrupt your child's development and growth.
• Calcium is present in dairy products and green vegetables. Calcium is needed, together with vitamin D, for the child's growing skeleton and teeth. When a child is 12 months, its daily calcium requirement is met by around five decilitres of dairy product. A decilitre of milk provides as much calcium as one and a half slices of cheese. Industrially-made baby porridge and goodnight milks (formula with added cereal) are also rich in calcium.
• Iron is present in many foods such as red meat, liver and green vegetables. Although iron is available from many foods, babies who grow fast often fail to get enough. This is why iron-fortified porridge and formula are recommended for babies. Iron is more readily absorbed if taken with vitamin C, so it's a good idea to add foods high in this vitamin to baby's porridge, such as fruit purée.
Vitamins to be aware of
Vitamins are essential for children's growth and health. Children who eat a varied and balanced diet typically get enough vitamins and minerals, but with two exceptions: Vitamin D and vitamin K.
• Vitamin K plays a major role in blood clotting. Newborns in many countries are given vitamin K by injection, after which they don't need further supplements.
• You should give your baby vitamin D drops from its second week. You should continue to give this supplement until your child is two years old. If your child is dark skinned and gets less vitamin D through his or her skin, or is fully vegetarian, you will need to continue supplementation up to the age of five. Vitamin D is present in fatty fish and eggs and in dairy products and food fats fortified with vitamin D such as margarine, low-fat and semi-skimmed milk. Vitamin D together with calcium is important for regenerating the bones.
• Vitamin A is important for functions such as vision. This is present in butter, margarine, fish, liver, eggs and milk.
• Vitamin C/ascorbic acid. Vitamin C is present in fruit (citrus especially), berries, potatoes, green vegetables and root vegetables. Vitamin C plays an important role in regenerating cartilage and bone. It also aids uptake of dietary iron.