Parents want what’s best for their kids, but sometimes it can be hard to figure out what actually is best. This is especially true when it comes to food and nutrition. Celebrities, bloggers, and gorgeous Instagrammers weigh in with their ideas on what a balanced diet is —sometimes contradictory or lacking evidence — leading to confusion for parents who want to feed their children healthy food that they’ll actually enjoy.
For clarity and some science-based direction, parents of young children can lean on the findings and insights of rigorous new research on children’s early eating habits and nutrition.
New findings from Nestlé’s Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), released June 5, take a look at national eating habits for children under four. FITS also offers evidence-based insights into how parents can improve child nutrition. FITS is a survey of about 3,200 parents and caregivers to find what infants, toddlers and preschoolers eat and drink on a given day.
Here are four tips, supported by this study, to enhance your child’s nutrition:
1. Feed Iron-Rich Foods
For infants, I can’t stress enough that focusing on iron is critical. Infants need iron for their brains to develop and to support learning. By the time babies are about six months old, they need to get that iron from their food. This is especially important for breastfed babies. Yet, FITS found that nearly 20% of infants ages 6–12 months don’t consume the recommended amount of iron. In fact, our iron situation is getting worse — iron gaps have more than doubled since our FITS study in 2002. Feeding your little one iron-fortified infant cereals or baby food meats like beef can help them get the critical iron they need. Iron supplements are also available, if your pediatrician recommends them.
2. Eye on the Prize: Focus on Fruits and Veggies
Many toddlers and preschoolers don’t get enough potassium and fiber in their diet. Both vital nutrients found in many fruits and veggies, including sweet potatoes, bananas, broccoli, and apples. More than a quarter of 2- and 3-year-olds don’t eat a single vegetable serving on a given day, which contributes to this nutrient gap. If you have a picky eater who isn’t a fan of fruits and vegetables, be persistent and patient when introducing these new foods.
Experiment with texture, color, shape, and taste to see whether your child has a preference. And have some fun! These brightly colored, uniquely shaped foods are a tasty art project waiting to happen. Get them involved and next time you go shopping, let them pick one new fruit or veggie for the whole family to try.
3. Watch Out for Vitamin D
Vitamin D increases calcium absorption and helps your little one develop strong bones and teeth, but most children don’t consume enough of it. According to FITS, 3 out of 4 toddlers don’t get the recommended amount of vitamin D in their diet. I’m a believer in offering milk — a nutrient-rich beverage with vitamin D and 8 other essential nutrients — with each of your child’s meals. But FITS shows that on a given day 20% of toddlers aren’t drinking milk at all.
Try making “milk pops” for hot summer days by blending milk, yogurt, and fruit, and freezing in popsicle trays. The study also suggests that vitamin D supplements could help to get the recommended amount of vitamin D, but many young children are not receiving a supplement. Your pediatrician can help you determine whether supplements are right for your child.
4. Go for Good Fats
The study found many 2- and 3-year-olds get too much saturated fat, but not enough total fat. This means they may not be getting the right levels of essential fatty acids, which help to support growth and development. Offer your child foods high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, such as fish and avocados, while trying to limit foods high in saturated fat, including hot dogs and bacon.
Introducing new foods to your children, especially if they’re picky eaters, can be difficult and exhausting. Don’t lose hope! It will be worth the effort and time (and we have a few tips to make it easier). After all, research shows that diet patterns are often set by age two. Now is an amazing time to encourage kids to eat a healthy, balanced diet and set out on an adventurous food course for the rest of their lives.