As kids grow and develop, their nutrition needs change. At each stage, different nutrients become important based growth and development. The infant’s needs are different than the toddler’s and the school-age kid.
So let’s go through each of the stages of growth and see how you can maximize your child’s nutrition at every age and stage.
Infants: Birth to 6 months
Everyone knows that infants need breast milk or formula the first few months of life. While breast milk is still the preferred nutrition source, formula is a good second choice.
Nutrition highlights: The AAP recommends 400IU of vitamin D daily for breastfed and partially breastfed infants the first few days of life. Nursing moms who don’t eat fish should consider fish oil supplements that contain at least 300mg of DHA because levels in breast milk are directly related to mother’s intake. Many formulas are fortified with DHA to enhance brain health. DHA plays a key role in brain development (see DHA for Kids: The Complete Guide for Parents)
Feeding Tip! Try not to overfeed or underfeed your baby. If baby is crying and feeding time was recent, try other ways of soothing before feeding. On the other hand, if nothing else will calm your baby, by all means, see if they need milk. Basically, let baby – not a schedule– guide you in how much milk he or she needs.
Infants: 6 to 12 months
At 6 months babies’ iron stores deplete and they need nutrition from additional sources. This is a time of rapid food transitions starting with watery-textured food, gradually increasing to puree, advancing to lumpy puree and finally moving up to soft, cut up finger foods. See 10 of the Best Finger Foods for Babies and Toddlers.
Nutrition highlights: After 6 months, babies will need more than half of the following nutrients from complementary foods: Iron (iron-fortified cereals, meat), vitamin D (supplements, formula), B6 (cereal, whole grains, enriched grains), niacin (cereal, egg yolks, turkey), zinc (some cereals, meat), vitamin E (vegetable oils, avocado, cereals) and phosphorus (cereal, fish, meat and eggs).
Feeding Tip! Most babies are accepting of a variety of tastes and textures so take advantage of it. Research shows that the more flavors introduced early in life, the more likely it is children will accept new foods later. Remember, this is a rapid transition time so when your child is doing well step up the texture to guide him or her to the next stage (without forcing of course!).
Toddlers: 1 to 3 years
Toddlers under two still need a high-fat diet (30-45%) including whole fat dairy products. After one, children are either drinking whole milk (2 cups per day) or breast milk (after two they can switch to low-fat dairy). If a toddler has progressed to finger foods, he or she can eat what the whole family eats, but watch for choking hazards. Gradually increase the consistency of food as they get older, cut up food into small pieces and always supervise at mealtime.
Nutrition highlights: Children under two are still at risk for iron deficiency so include a variety of iron sources with vitamin C-rich fruit or veggies (cantaloupe, tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, kiwi, and broccoli), green veggies, and meat. After turning one, the growth rate decreases. Somewhere between 18 months and two years of age, toddlers get skeptical of certain foods. Babies no longer drinking DHA-supplemented formula or breast milk can get the DHA by eating fish including salmon, light tuna and halibut. See Should Young Children Eat Fish?
Feeding Tip! Eating a variety of foods takes time and repeated exposure just like other learned behaviors (like reading and writing). Protect your child’s natural ability to self-regulate food by providing regular meals and snacks and letting them decide “how much” to eat. Instead of eating special food, toddlers greatly benefit from eating with the family.
Preschoolers: 3 to 5 years
Between two and five years of age are considered the picky-eating years. Part of this is due to slow growth and a growing fear of new food (neophobia) that thankfully decreases around 5-6 years of age. Be sure to continue to expose your little ones to a variety of foods without trying to get them to eat less or more. With a little know-how, it’s not difficult to meet their nutrition needs.
Nutrition highlights: Studies reveal that children at this stage start eating less nutritious foods. For instance, 27% do not eat veggies on most days and most consume one or more energy-dense snacks. About half of kids this age consume sugar-sweetened beverages that fill up their small tummy. It’s important to maintain balanced meals and snacks at home to reinforce the foundations of healthy eating.
Feeding Tip! Preschoolers want to be just like their parents so eat with them as often as possible. This is the perfect time to have your child help pick out food and prepare dinner – skills they will need later in life!
Once your child is in school full time they will be eating more meals outside the home. Much of the work you’ve put in will start to pay off. If you’ve made mealtimes pleasant and provided your child with a variety of foods – without being controlling – they are likely to be competent eaters outside of the home.
Nutrition highlights: The five nutrients school-aged children miss out on most include vitamin E (nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils), calcium (dairy/non-dairy alternatives), magnesium (nuts, whole grains, beans), potassium (dairy, fruits, veggies and whole grains), and fiber (beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables). After age 8, calcium needs increase to 1000mg, which can be challenging (e.g., 3 servings of dairy or non-dairy alternatives daily).
Feeding Tip! Adolescents who eat dinner with their family on a regular basis eat more nutritious diets than those who don’t. Serve fruits and vegetables with every meal and have the family eat together most nights.
Post updated 4/19
Want to learn more about what and how of feeding children at every age and stage? Check out Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School.