Good nutrition is essential for brain development during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. However, some parents may not be aware that poor nutrition during this crucial time can have lasting effects on cognitive and social development from early childhood through adulthood.
As a pediatrician and a busy mom of two, I know firsthand that the struggle is real when it comes to making sure our kids are eating healthy and nutritious foods. When my kids were babies and toddlers, it was especially difficult to make sure they got the necessary vitamins and nutrients into their tummies, mostly because they were picky, inconsistent eaters. Of course, I am not alone in this problem.
A recent study, which examined nutrient intake and adequacy in diets of children ages one through six, found that although most had adequate intakes of essential vitamins and nutrients, there were several areas where there were significant nutritional inadequacies, specifically calcium, vitamin D, DHA and iron. In fact, it revealed that Black children are the most deficient in iron (11.7%). The study also found that most children do not consume enough potassium, fiber, or choline. This is cause for concern in babies, toddlers, and young children.
So, what can we, as parents, do to make sure our own children are getting the proper nutrients they need for brain development during the first few years of their lives?
First, instead of agonizing over the fact that your children absolutely must eat healthy foods every day, take baby steps. Focus on making sure they’re ingesting those vital nutrients every week. Make sure that when prepping meals for the week ahead, you’re being mindful of nutrients like iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA. It’s also important to note that a lot of these micronutrients overlap. For example, if your child is getting enough calcium and iron, it’s likely he or she is also getting a ton of other nutrients too, since most nutrient-dense foods contain more than one.
Unfortunately, not all kids will eat certain nutrient-rich foods like fatty fish or leafy greens. In this case, I say if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Just because they won’t eat it the first time you make it doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Involve your kids in the grocery shopping and let them help you pick out healthy foods. Visit the seafood section more often. Buy some frozen shrimp and fatty fish so you expose them to these different types of food. Then, let them help you prepare family meals. Kids tend to be more likely to eat foods they’ve helped prepare.
In the case of iron and calcium-packed leafy greens, you can certainly blend them into a smoothie, muffins, or sauce from time to time, but I would also recommend that parents let their children see the whole food in its natural state (in a salad for example) as well so they can taste and touch it. Even if they do not like it at first, they will eventually become more open to trying it again and maybe even accepting it since their palates evolve over time.
Other great nutrient packed foods include eggs (in all forms) and oranges, which are high in calcium and serve as a great substitute for kids who do not or cannot eat dairy. There are even some cereals that are fortified with iron.
For those families who cannot have specific foods in the house because a family member is allergic, talk to your pediatrician about what foods would be good, nutrient-rich substitutes.
The key takeaway here is patience and persistence. Exposing our children to a wide variety of colorful foods with different textures and nutrients, early and often, can work wonders for their development in the long run. And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re doing just fine.