Forcing children to eat food doesn’t work. Neither does forbidding foods. When children think that a food is forbidden by their parents, the food often becomes more desirable.
It’s important for both children and adults to be sensible and enjoy all foods and beverages, but not to overdo it on any one type of food. Sweets and higher-fat snack foods in appropriate portions are OK in moderation.
The following is information about fat, sugar, and salt and dietary recommendations based on recommendations from the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Childhood is the best time to start heart healthy eating habits, but adult goals for cutting back on total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol aren’t meant generally for children younger than 2 years.* Fat is an essential nutrient that supplies the energy, or calories, they need for growth and active play and should not be severely restricted.
However, high fat intake—particularly a diet high in saturated fats—can cause health problems, including heart disease later in life. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperatures and are found in fatty meats (such as beef, pork, ham, veal, and lamb) and many dairy products (whole milk, cheese, and ice cream).
For that reason, after age 2 children should be served foods that are lower in fat and saturated fats. Healthier options include more low-fat, low-cholesterol foods like poultry, fish, and lean meat (broiled, baked, or roasted; not fried), soft margarine (instead of butter), low-fat dairy products, and low-saturated fat oils from vegetables, and limiting egg consumption.
As a general guideline, fats should make up less than 30% of the calories in your child’s diet, with no more than about one-third or fewer of those fat calories coming from saturated fat and the remainder from unsaturated (that is, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated) fats, which are liquid at room temperature and include vegetable oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and olive. Some parents find the information about various types of fat confusing. In general, oils and fats derived from animal origin are saturated. The simplest place to start is merely to reduce the amount of fatty foods of all types in your family’s diet.
*Whole milk is recommended for children 12 to 24 months of age. However, your child’s doctor may recommend reduced-fat (2%) milk if your child is obese or overweight or if there is a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. Check with your child’s doctor or dietitian before switching from whole to reduced-fat milk.
Table salt, or sodium chloride, may improve the taste of certain foods. However, researchers have found a relationship between dietary salt and high blood pressure in some individuals and population groups. High blood pressure afflicts about 25% of adult Americans and contributes to heart attacks and strokes.
The habit of using extra salt is an acquired one. Thus, as much as possible, serve your child foods low in salt. In the kitchen, minimize the amount of salt you add to food during its preparation, using herbs, spices, or lemon juice instead. Also, take the salt shaker off the dinner table, or at least limit its use by your family.
Processed foods often contain higher amounts of sodium. Check food labels for levels of sodium in processed cheese, instant puddings, canned vegetables, canned soups, hot dogs, cottage cheese, salad dressings, pickles, certain breakfast cereals, and potato chips and other snacks.
Caloric sweeteners range from simple sugars, like fructose and glucose, to common table sugar, molasses, honey, and high fructose corn syrup. Although the main use of sugar is as a sweetener, sugar has other uses. For example, sugar can be used as a preservative, can change the texture of foods, and can enhance flavors and add color.
Sugars in foods, whether natural or added, provide calories—the fuel that supplies energy necessary for daily activities. And if given the choice, many children would probably request sugary foods and beverages for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—research shows that humans are naturally drawn to sweet tastes. However, parents should keep in mind that calories from sugar can quickly add up and over time can lead to weight gain, and sugar also can play a role in the development of tooth decay.