By: Nutrition Graduate Student, Cristal Medina and Pediatric Nutrition Therapist Cindy Baranoski MS, RDN, LDN
Most parents know it is important for children to eat a balanced diet. What exactly does a balanced diet mean? Generally, it means eating a variety of foods and getting enough of each food group. The five food groups are fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy. Although every food group is important, it seems as though protein foods and vegetables receive the most attention. You may be wondering why these two food groups are so important, how much of each is needed, and how to get your child to meet the recommendations. We will cover all this, but let’s start with how much food your child needs.
Protein is a key nutrient for everyone from growing babies to elite athletes. It is necessary to build, maintain, and repair tissue. We need protein to form healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and nails, as well as to make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals. Protein foods are also important sources of nutrients such as iron, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, selenium, choline, phosphorous, zinc, copper, vitamin D, and Vitamin E. These vitamins and minerals offer a myriad of benefits to a growing child.
A common misconception is that protein is only found in animal-based foods, like meat. However, protein can also come from plant-based foods, like beans (example: pinto, black, kidney beans) and soy products (example: tofu, tempeh, edamame). The protein food group includes meat, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds. Dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese will also provide your child with protein. Your child’s protein needs vary based on age, sex, and activity level. (Please see Table 1 above for recommended intake amounts.)
A serving from the protein food group, also referred to as an ounce-equivalent, is 1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish, 1 egg, ¼ cup cooked beans or peas, ¼ cup tofu, 1 ounce of tempeh, 1 falafel patty, 2 tablespoons of hummus, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds. Please see Table 2 for common protein food portions.
Table 2. Common Portions and Servings of Protein Foods*
|Protein Food||Common Portion and Servings|
|Meats||1 small steak = 3.5 to 4 servings
1 small hamburger = 2 to 3 servings
|Poultry||1 small chicken breast half = 3 servings
½ Cornish game hen = 4 servings
|Seafood||1 can of tuna, drained = 3 to 4 servings
1 salmon steak = 4 to 6 servings
|Eggs||3 egg whites = 2 servings
3 egg yolks = 1 ounce-equivalent
|Nuts and Seeds||1 ounce of nuts or seeds = 2 servings
2 tablespoons peanut butter = 2 servings
|Beans and Peas||½ cup cooked beans (example: pinto, black, or kidney) or peas = 2 servings
1 cup split pea soup = 2 servings
2 tablespoons of hummus = 1 serving
*Adapted from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods
A couple examples of convenient and kid-friendly protein foods are hamburger patties (examples: McDonald’s, White Castle [yes, fast food is okay]), fish sticks, chicken nuggets, Boca vegan burgers, and milk (examples: cow’s milk, Ripple milk, hemp milk). If your child prefers to drink rather than eat, try supplementing with a nutritious drink (examples: Kate Farms, Vega, Orgain, PediaSure). If your child does not eat solid foods, you can puree meat, poultry, seafood, and tofu, mash beans and peas, and provide foods like creamy nut butters, hummus, blended soups, and smooth yogurt. If your child relies on formula given through a feeding tube or drinking a supplement for most or all of his/her daily nutrition intake, s/he may be getting enough protein if s/he is consuming enough. Make sure to speak to a registered dietitian if you have any concerns about your child meeting his/her protein needs.
|QUICK RECIPE: Black Bean Quesadilla*
1. Using small-hole strainer, drain liquid from Pico de Gallo; discard liquid. Transfer leftover tomato mixture to medium bowl. Mix in black beans, cheese and cilantro until combined.
2. Divide black bean mixture evenly over half of each tortilla (about ½ cup each). Fold tortillas in half.
3. Heat large griddle or skillet over medium-high heat. Brush with oil. Place filled tortillas on griddle. Cook, carefully flipping once, until tortillas are golden brown and crisp and cheese filling melts, about 5 minutes. Cut quesadillas into wedges. Makes 8 servings.
Optional: For additional protein, add chicken or your favorite meat!
*Adapted from: https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/misc/GOYAcookbook-EN-HealthyTastyAffordableLatinCooking.pdf
Vegetables are full of nutrients including dietary fiber, potassium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, copper, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin B6, manganese, thiamin, niacin, and choline. These nutrients can help your child build healthy bones, heal cuts and wounds, protect against infection, support heart health, promote healthy aging, and maintain healthy eyes, skin, teeth and gums.
The vegetable food group is made up of vegetables and 100% vegetable juice. Vegetables come in a variety of forms to fit any diet. They can be raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned, dried/dehydrated, whole, sliced, mashed, pureed, or juiced. Please see Table 1 above for recommended intake amounts.
A serving, or cup-equivalent, from the vegetable group can be 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens. There are some great brands out there that sell kid-friendly, veggie-containing foods. Two examples of brands are Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods and Happy Family. Dr. Praeger’s line of foods includes a variety of “Puffs”, “Cakes”, and “Littles” (these are shaped liked stars, dinosaurs, and bears!) that are made with ingredients like broccoli, spinach, kale, and carrots. Happy Family sells everything from bars, to squeeze pouches, to puffs (some of these are also shaped like dinos!). These foods can have veggies like tomato, kale, spinach, and carrots. Their foods are appropriate for all ages, from infants to adults.
You can also try incorporating vegetables into other foods at home. Combine leafy green vegetables, celery, carrots, or beets with fruit to make a juice or smoothie. Store-bought, single serving vegetable juices and smoothies (example: Bolthouse Farms or Naked Juice) are also an option if you are on-the-go. You can also try blending pureed cooked cauliflower in mashed potatoes and mixing pureed cooked sweet potato or carrot into a cheese or pasta sauce. Blending cooked pumpkin, carrot, squash, or sweet potato into a tomato or vegetable soup can also increase your child’s vegetable intake. These ideas are also appropriate for children who do not eat solids.
If your child relies on a tube feeding formula or an oral supplement, s/he may be meeting all vitamin and mineral needs if s/he is consuming enough. If not, your child may benefit from a multivitamin. A registered dietitian can help you plan on the best way to get more nutrients into your child. If you are interested in adding blended vegetables to your child’s tube feeding regimen, a registered dietitian can also help you get started with blenderized tube feedings.
|QUICK RECIPE: Pineapple and Spinach Smoothie*
*Adapted from: http://www.dole.com/recipes/p/Pineapple-Pit-Stop-Smoothie
To learn more about nutrition therapy through Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley, please visit eastersealsdfvr.org/nutrition.