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The Nutrition of Toddlers and Preschool Children

It’s well known that children prefer sweet taste and prefer sweet foods. Too much sweetening can result in a lesser intake of other food components and this could have a negative effect on a child’s development.

Nutrition is an important factor that influences the growth and development of a child from birth up until adulthood. Nutrition is life’s “fuel” of all the metabolic processes in the organism. The needs for energy, nutrients and other substances are well known and defined for different stages of life, including the toddler and preschool age.

Nutritional needs of toddlers and preschool children

A toddler (a child between one and three years old) grows slowly in comparison to a newborn. However, there are changes in his physical development. The limbs lengthen, body fat amount decreases and more muscle tissue is produced. A child starts walking and thus the demand for a strong bone structure increases. These changes in growth and development effect nutritional needs. The energy requirement of a toddler is smaller then that of a newborn per weight (kg). Because of the increased muscle development, the need for protein increases; especially for those that are biologically valuable – animal proteins. The strength of bones is determined by sufficient mineralization, which needs the right amount of calcium and phosphorus. Also, the increased volume of blood requires a higher iron intake.

A healthy preschool child (between three to six years old) grows according to its genetic code, which he receives from his parents. The need for energy for a preschooler increases, but decreases per weight (kg). For example, the energy need of a five-year-old child (no matter his sex) is from 50% intended to ensure basal metabolism (maintaining the basic life processes of the organism during rest), 26% for movement and 12% to ensure an appropriate growth. The rest of the energy gets lost during metabolic processes related to the processing of food and its exclusion from the organism.

For proper growth and development, besides an adequate intake of energy, a preschooler also needs a good amount of quality proteins that are found in milk, meat, cheese and eggs. It`s necessary to saturate the need for calcium and iron, just as during the toddler age. There is also an increases need for vitamins, especially vitamins A and C that are found in fruits and vegetables.

Eating habits

A child is a passive recipient of food after he is born. It’s this way for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and even some of older school age.  Infant and partially toddler diet is at the forefront of scientific interest. The principles for nutrition at this age are well refined. Even though the selection of nutrition products for the smallest children is less varied, the recommended foods are rich in everything a child’s organism needs. With age, the specific recommendations decrease and a child’s diet is more and more determined by the dietary habits of the family. A child gradually and subconsciously accepts these habits and creates the basis of his own dietary habits for adulthood and for upbringing of his own children. The active approach in food selection of a child is at first influenced by whether or not the taste is pleasant of not, by the child’s mental state or by other factors. It’s well known, that a child prefers sweet taste and chooses foods that are sweet. Too much sweetening though can result in a lesser intake of other food components and this could have a negative effect on a child’s development. Already in infancy, for example during the transition from milk to non-milk diet, a child often refuses vegetable soup. Parents often react to this by sweetening the soup, by adding the familiar “milk taste” to it, or by doing breaks. Forcing food could lead to an opposite reaction in the mind of a child and a permanent refusal of that food from childhood until adulthood.

Preschoolers gradually form a relationship with different foods. Children at this age usually accept fruit well. However, they usually refuse vegetables with a sharp taste (onions, cabbage, etc.) and prefer frail and non-cooked vegetables. Children usually drink milk and like cooked or scrambled eggs because they can touch them. Meat has to be tender and easily cut and chewed. Children eat cereals in all forms – which make up the majority of their energy intake.

Preschoolers learn dietary habits from adults, from their family. The question is, if these habits are always ideal.

The diet of toddlers

The daily diet of a toddler consists of four to five meals. For breakfast, milk and a piece of bread or some pastry with butter, jam or honey is served. Snack is similar to breakfast; we can add a piece of fruit or cheese, Cottage cheese, yoghurt or other dairy product. Lunch should include meat – for children under 18 months of age it should be two tablespoons (about 25 g) and for children under 3 years of age three tablespoons (about 40g). Meat can be substituted with an egg – a half of one for children under 18 months and a whole one for older children. We can serve potatoes or mixed vegetables with potatoes as a side. After lunch, give your child some fruit, fruit desert or a dairy product. Give him water, mineral water or juice to drink. Dinner can consists of pasta, rice or potatoes that you can mix with vegetables or some other recipes. Again, it’s good to serve some milk or a dairy product.

Don’t ever give nuts to toddlers. Children at that age can’t chew that well yet and they can inhale the nuts.

The diet of preschoolers

A preschooler should have milk or a dairy product during every day meal. A child should drink half a liter of milk a day or eat four diary products a day. Milk and dairy products are rich on calcium, protein and vitamins. A rich source of proteins and also irons is meat, poultry, eggs or fish (which we serve boneless). A child between three or four years needs 40-50 grams of these diet components. A four to six year old needs about 60-80 grams. 50 grams of meat is nutritionally equivalent to one egg. Fruit and vegetables provide a child’s organism with vitamin, minerals and fiber. Fiber significantly influences the digestive processes and helps prevent some lifestyle diseases up until adulthood (constipation, rectum or colon cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity or others). In preschool or school age children, the daily intake of fiber should be 5-10 g. Dietary habits of a preschooler with enough fiber is also significant because they last up until later period of life. A child should have raw fruit or vegetables – or possibly cooked in some way if the child wants – at least twice a day. Cereals (bread, pasta or others) are a source of carbohydrates, B vitamins and also protein. Out of fats, it’s best to use oil, which is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, as well as fresh butter or even cream rich in vitamin A. We should sweeten foods in a child diet carefully, as a part of an individual portion.

Our child doesn’t eat well and enough! What should we do?

It’s an often-asked question that parents ask their pediatrician. A doctor has to evaluate if it’s not a symptom of some illness. Most of the times, none illness is found. All children aren’t the same and parents or grandparents have different expectations. A good way to tell if your child is getting enough nutrition is to watch his weight and height, or other changes in a certain time period. These data need to be compared with data of the rest of the population. If a child really isn’t getting enough nutrition, it will manifest itself in a delayed development and we should consult a doctor.

How to avoid problems with eating

  • Give your child a varied diet and give him a chance to pick out what he wants to eat – at least partially.
  • Don’t punish him if he doesn’t want to eat something, but don’t reward him if he eats something without any problems (“You can play outside if you finish your carrots”)
  • Don’t spend too much time preparing separate children’s food – it’s than that much worse for you if he doesn’t want to eat it.
  • If your child eats too slowly, don’t try to speed him up. It’s normal that kids take a little more time than adults.
  • Don’t force your child to eat more than he wants. If he is growing well, it’s obvious he’s eating enough.
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