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Round Out Your Child’s Plate

Help your kids thrive with these nutrition powerhouses.
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Protein: Essential to Growth

"Protein is part of every single body tissue," Rarback says. "That gives you an idea of how important it is to children who are, by their very nature, growing all the time."

Protein provides calories, but its amino acids are what the body really needs. Amino acids are the raw materials for building new cells and tissues and the compounds that direct bodily processes, including those involving enzymes and hormones.

Protein is found in animal and plant foods. But there is a difference. Animal foods, particularly eggs, supply the essential amino acids (EAA) that your child's body cannot make. No plant food supplies all of the amino acids, so vegans (those who eat no animal food products) must eat an array of protein-packed plant foods to get the EAA they need. Vegetarians who include dairy foods and eggs typically satisfy EAA needs as long as they eat enough.

Protein needs are highest on a pound-per-pound basis during infancy. They increase again just before adolescence as the body readies for another growth spurt. Here is a list of kids' daily protein needs based on age:

  • Kids 1 to 3 years old need about 13 grams.
  • 4- to 8-year-olds need 19 grams.
  • 9- to 13-year-olds need 34 grams.
  • The need for 14- to 18-year-olds depends on gender -- 46 grams for females and 52 grams for males.

Ayoob says, "Protein is not a problem for most kids, even those who don't eat meat or don't eat it consistently." For example, just 16 ounces of milk or yogurt or 2 ounces of meat, chicken, or seafood and an egg satisfy a 3-year-old's daily protein needs.

Fiber: Complex Yet Simple

Kids need fiber for good nutrition and healthy growth. But fiber is an oddity among carbohydrates. It's a complex carbohydrate minus the calories. Your child can't digest dietary fiber to get at the energy it provides. So what makes it so good?

"Kids need fiber for the same reasons adults do," Rarback says. "And like their elders, children get way less fiber than they need."

Rarback says studies show fiber wards off type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels in adults and, possibly, children. Fiber's confirmed benefits for kids include fending off constipation and promoting fullness. High-fiber foods, including whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, keep kids fuller longer, a boon in the battle of the bulge. And fiber-filled foods are rich in vitamins and minerals.

To figure fiber for kids, Rarback uses the method endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and you can too. Simply add five to your child's age to determine daily fiber needs in grams. So a 13-year-old needs about 18 grams a day.

Having a number in mind helps when you read food labels, but it's not necessary to track every gram of fiber your child eats. "Instead," Rarback says, "make whole grains, fruits, and vegetables available to your child every day. And consider adding legumes to your family's meals to get the fiber your child needs."  A simple way to get a start on the daily fiber needs is to offer your child a fiber-rich breakfast such as bran cereal or shredded wheat.

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