"What is There to Eat?" & Other Childhood Nutrition Questions
by Catherine Morris | November 10, 2020, updated about 2 years ago
Whether raising the next Einstein or just trying to get your ten year old to listen, every parent wants to give their kids the best start in life, and there are a lot of ways to do that. One of those ways is to nourish those developing brains.
The link between food and thinking might not seem obvious, but it's very well-established. Just as with adults, what's on a child's plate can impact their cognitive abilities, their memory, their reasoning, their focus, and their moods—which is why it's important to keep brain health on the menu at every stage, from toddler to teen.
Health coach Christine Silva offers nutritional counselling through her RiseUP! Wellness practice and says—
“Nutrition is important because it impacts brain growth. If the brain is not growing and functioning well, the rest of the body will not grow or function well, because the brain is the control centre.”
Of course, you can't plan for everything—teenagers will find junk food, and toddlers will throw tantrums over the latest ‘icky’ thing—but there's still a lot that parents can do to ensure they're prioritizing the best foods, teaching good habits, and getting nutrients into even the pickiest of kids.
Babies & Toddlers
The first 1,000 days of a child's life are crucial. This is when the brain develops its structure and capacity. Memory, behaviour, mood, attention, cognitive ability—it's all being built from gestation through to the age of three.
Developing those connections and pathways is a complex process, and proper nutrition can have a profound impact. This is the optimal time to upgrade your little one's diet to make sure their neurons are feeding on the best fuel.
Developing brains need a good balance of macronutrients, with a particular emphasis on protein, healthy fats, zinc, iron, vitamin A and folate. For expectant mums, it's a good idea to get the latter into your diet as soon as possible, says Silva—
“Folic acid is number one for pregnant women. This is especially important in pregnancy for developing the baby's nervous system. It should be taken even before getting pregnant, but the second you know you're pregnant get that folic acid in. It is never too late.”
Once baby is born, breast milk will do the work. Studies show that breastfed babies tend to have higher IQs as adolescents, as well as larger and more-developed brains. Sometimes breastfeeding doesn't come naturally however, and that's okay. “Breast milk is ideal but not everyone can breastfeed. Do not put yourself down, the formulas today are far superior to what they used to be,” says Silva.
As babies wean and become toddlers with their own tastes and needs, Silva recommends a good balance of Omega 3s and 6s (either through fish or, if that's a hard sell, fortified eggs) for those healthy fats, lean meats such as chicken and beef for protein, dark leafy vegetables, and antioxidant-rich fruits like berries.
She also emphasizes the importance of fibre, given the strong link between gut health and the brain. Something she's experienced in her own household— “A lot of kids don't like fruit and vegetables so they're not getting the roughage they need. I'm a mum of special needs children and I can attest to the fact that if the gut is not flowing nicely, the [bad] behaviour goes up!”
School-age kids have it hard. All those hours in the classroom require intense focus, sustained concentration, a good memory, and clear thinking.
It's no wonder that many kids struggle with this kind of workload at a young age but sometimes the thing holding them back is their diet. Kids who regularly eat snack foods and drink sugary beverages perform worse on tests than those who don't eat as many processed foods.
As adults, we turn to coffee to get through the workday, but giving your tween an espresso isn't an ideal option. Instead, send them out the door with a good breakfast. Silva says choose low-sugar cereals and 3 percent milk to fill them up and give them a fibre-full energy boost.
This is also the time when kids fall prey to bad dietary influences. Junk food advertising, peer pressure at school, seeing other kids in your social bubble snacking on chips and chocolate. Silva says this is a good opportunity to try and turn that tide—“You want to do some early intervention now while you can catch it. Once they are older and stuck in their ways it is a little harder to change. It is easier to get that good stuff into them now, and build those good habits.”
She adds that communication is a big part of setting kids on the right path. Don't just ban junk food from the house, talk to your kids about why they might want to eat something, what the possible healthy replacements are, and how certain foods make them feel.
“Educate your kids,” says Silva. “Give them a little treat, there is no harm in that, just make sure they are not eating only those things and it will eventually sink in. Teach kids how to listen to their bodies so that when their tummy says 'I have had enough', they know to stop eating. Or that if they feel funny or they hear their tummy talking to them it means they need food.”
This is when mental health can become an issue. Teenagers are still figuring out their identity, and this can lead to disordered thinking around food, body image issues, obsessions over food fads, mood swings, and anxiety.
Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are commonly linked to vitamin D deficiency, and studies show supplementing can help. This super sunshine vitamin is best absorbed via sunlight, but dietary sources can also help keep your teenager's levels topped up. Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish, nuts, fortified dairy, and mushrooms.
If you suspect your teen has issues around food, therapy is always an option. It also helps to modify how you relate to food at home. Silva cautions that a heavy-handed approach can sometimes backfire, saying—
“I would not punish for bad eating, or not eating. That can bring up a lot of negative emotions around food.”
Picky Eaters and Parental Perfectionism
Kids are constantly testing boundaries, no matter their age, and food often degenerates into just another battleground. On Tuesdays they don't want to eat green things. By Friday they've decided fish is off the menu permanently. It's enough to make any parent reach for the boxed macaroni.
A good way to start reframing your child's relationship with food is to engage your kids in the process. Invite them into the kitchen, give them a task, or just let them see you work. Silva explains—
“It's such a good teaching opportunity so they can learn about food. Even with young kids—they can always stir something, or they might just want to sit and watch. They will learn by watching you.”
On the practical side, there are a few tips and tricks to get brain-boosting nutrients into your child's diet without them even noticing. Silva says she's had success blending vegetables into sauces or simply sneaking in some cauliflower to potato mash. She also recommends watering down fruit juices to cut the sugar, and putting healthy fruits and yoghurt into smoothies or milkshakes.
You can also make a game of it—encourage young children to 'eat the rainbow' by counting how many colours they see on their plate, or introducing them to some weirdly coloured varieties of well-known veggies (purple carrots, orange potatoes etc).
For parents who are short on time and can't always make a meal from scratch, Silva has some solid advice—
“It is always better to do home cooked meals but if you can't, try to keep the processed foods as low as possible. There are options at the grocery stores now. A lot of things come pre-prepared or already chopped. Look at labels. If there are words you can't pronounce, do not buy it. Look at the ingredients list and stay away from things like glucose-fructose , preservatives, and corn syrup.”
All families have their challenges. One day without a vegetable won't stunt your kid's mental development. The bottom line for all harried parents is—give yourself a break.
“Nothing is perfect in life so don't stress. If you don't get things 100 percent right with your kid's diet, they will still develop. Just do your best and know the basics of good nutrition and good health.”
If you'd like to connect with a dietitian, nutritionist or therapist, Which Doctor can help. Our network of practitioners offer online and in person sessions to help you develop an eating plan that works for both you and your little ones.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.