Why is a Healthy Diet Important for Child Development?
Each February at Kids’ Care Club, children learn about keeping our bodies healthy! Early childhood is the most rapid period of growth in human life – cognitively, behaviorally, and physically. The best way to support this development in your child is through creating health-conscious habits early on to ensure that your preschooler reaches optimal cognitive and physical development.
Proper nutrition is important for all of us, but it’s especially critical in early childhood development where fast growth alongside significant brain development is occurring. The best way to do this is through integrating diverse, whole foods often, modeling healthy eating patterns, and reinforcing a healthy diet.
Foods to Encourage
Eat your vegetables! We’ve all been told those three words at some point. With so many options to choose from in each food group, eating should never be forceful. Involve your child in the grocery shopping or meal making process to choose their preferences of the following nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Fresh Fruit: Any fresh fruit belongs to this category, even if it’s frozen, dried, or pureed. Fruit is abundant in so many nutrients – most notably vitamins A, C and E. Our favorites here at Kids’ Care Club are Apples and Oranges. Be wary of using any fruit juice for this food group – juice contains a ton of sugar and can increase risk of tooth decay and creates sweeter preferences for beverages.
- Fresh Vegetables: Like fruit, fresh vegetables come in many forms (raw, cooked, dehydrated, canned, whole, mashed) and subcategories (leafy greens, cruciferous, marrow, root, alliums). While vegetables can get a bad rep among young children, early exposure and modeling a balanced diet can deter picky eating habits. If you are able, opt for organic sources to cut down on possible pesticide exposure. The Dirty Dozen is a great resource to learn which produce has the highest amounts of pesticides and should be the highest priority for swapping out.
- Protein: Protein has many sources – meat, poultry, beans, peas, eggs, seafood, nuts, and more. Your child’s body needs this protein in order to stay healthy and support the building, maintaining, and repair of tissues taking place in their body.
- Dairy or Alternate Source of Calcium: Calcium is a necessary mineral for proper development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. Dairy is a great source of this mineral, and includes items such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Avoiding dairy? Leafy green vegetables (our personal favorite is spinach!), fish, and calcium-fortified dairy alternatives such as soy milk and tofu are great substitutes.
- Whole Grains: Whole grains and starchy foods are sources of complex carbohydrates and key vitamins and minerals that equip your child with adequate energy. Whole grains are differentiated from refined ones by using the entire grain kernel, which preserves the valuable nutritional benefits. Good options include whole grain pasta, whole grain bread, rice, potatoes, and whole grain cereals.
- Healthy Fats: Essential for vitamin absorption and energy, healthy fats consist of avocados, nuts and seeds, and various oils.
Foods to Avoid
Far too often, children are surrounded by foods that taste great, but with consequences. Kids’ Care Club recommends minimizing the calories that are from:
- Added Sugar: Added sugars are added as an ingredient. They make their way into our foods in many forms – granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, maple syrup – the list goes on. Common foods that contain high amounts of sugar, also known as “Sugar Bombs”, that frequently make their way into the diets of young children are flavored oatmeal, store-bought smoothies, juice and cereals. Next time you grocery shop, opt for cereals with minimally added sugars, diverse fruits, and homemade smoothies.
- Saturated/Trans Fats: When discussing unhealthy fats, Saturated and Trans fats are the main focus. While fat is essential in supplying energy and absorbing vitamins for our bodies to properly function, it comes in many forms. Saturated fats are commonly found in animal products, but also fried and prepackaged foods. These increase cholesterol in blood, raising risk for heart disease. They are commonly referred to as solid fats, and can be found in cheeses, meat, whole-fat milk, butter, ice cream, and palm/coconut oils. Trans fats, on the other hand, are liquid oils that turn into solid fats during food processing, also increasing cholesterol levels. Avoid these by avoiding foods with partially hydrogenated oils or shortening listed in ingredient labels. Instead, look for Omega-3 Fatty acids and Monounsaturated/Polyunsaturated fats, such as fish, nuts/seeds, avocados, and healthy oils.
- Sodium: The taste preference for salt is established through diet at an early age, and most young children have too much sodium in their diets. Common food types, such as fast food, frozen meals (frozen pizza!) and snacks (potato chips!) may taste good, but opting for healthier alternatives can lead to better lifelong habits. Model healthy eating for your little one and embrace a whole-foods approach to cooking healthy meals and exchanging salty snacks for a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Above all else, Kids’ Care Club recognizes the potential allergy and choking hazards for young children and doesn’t allow nuts or nut products, hot dogs, popcorn, hard pretzels, raw peas, nor raw carrots. All grapes and cherry tomatoes should be cut in half.
How to Implement Healthier Options
As your young child develops, they begin forming their own opinions on what tastes good to them and not. Early exposure to whole-food options in diverse food groups can help kickstart healthy preferences. And, forming these habits doesn’t have to be hard! Learn how to make grocery shopping fun, address picky eating habits, and five healthy preschool lunch ideas to kickstart your little one’s healthy eating habits at school and at home right away. As you begin forming healthier habits, remember to consider the caloric needs of your child based on their stage of development.
Importance of Exercise
Staying active helps your child build stronger muscles and bones, and lays a foundation for healthy habits for life! Exercise as a preschooler comes through both indoor and outdoor structured activities and free play. Not only do these activities put the high energy of preschoolers to good use, but also aid in countless benefits, such as:
- Development of strong bones
- Gross and fine motor skills
- Strength, endurance, and flexibility
- Decreased stress levels
- Improved social skills
- Balance and Coordination
Even better than health benefits is that staying active is fun! Make sure to consider which structured or unstructured activities will best serve your child according to their current stage of development.
Sleep is yet another crucial component to your child’s mental and physical development. It plays an important role in growth, especially in early infancy. As sleep needs change as your child gets older, it’s crucial to continue implementing a consistent bedtime routine to get the rest they need. Restful sleep can be promoted through a wide array of important sleep hygiene rules:
- Consistent Schedule: Your child will sleep better if they stick to the same bedtime and wake-up schedule – even on the weekends.
- Turn off tablets, television screens, phones, and any other bright lights an hour before bedtime. Make the habit of leaving these screens outside of the bedroom to ensure your bed is associated with sleep.
- Follow a Nighttime Routine: Have your child follow a consistent routine of putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, and reading a relaxing book to help get prepared for bedtime.
- Pick a Favorite Stuffed Animal or Blanket: Make sleep even more inviting by allowing your preschooler to have a favorite stuffed animal or blanket to accompany them through the night.
Here at KCC, we take a three-pronged approach to teaching and encouraging these healthy habits both at school and at home. We have curriculum units directly focused on health; we give children ongoing opportunities to discuss, practice, and reinforce their healthy habits; and we model good health practices.
Teachers plan discussions, demonstrations, and activities to teach children about healthy foods, exercise, taking care of our teeth, and how our bodies work. These ideas are reinforced throughout the days and weeks as they are incorporated into various math, science, language, and art activities. Some perennial child favorites include:
- Sorting foods into “good for my body” and “not so good for my body”
- Making collages with pictures of the healthful foods they enjoy
- Putting an egg in cola and seeing what happens to teeth with too much sugar
- Learning yoga
- A visit from a local pediatric dentist, teaching them all about caring for their teeth
Practice and Reinforce
Children’s daily routines at Kids’ Care Club include a variety of healthy habits. They wash their hands upon arrival in the morning, when coming in from the playground, and before and after eating. They are encouraged to eat their more nutritious lunch items before any desserts or “junk” foods. When they need help deciding which foods to start with, teachers give them meaningful tips such as, “Eating your sandwich will give you protein to build muscles and energy to play.” Teachers incorporate a variety of both indoor and outdoor movement activities into their daily curriculum throughout the year. These include high-energy activities like running and jumping, and relaxing activities like stretching and deep breathing. Children are encouraged to pay attention to how their body feels during and after the movements.
Our teachers know that children learn what they see, so they model healthy habits as much as the school setting allows. Although COVID-19 precautions preclude teachers eating with children and modeling enjoyment of healthful foods, they can talk to children about the ones they personally enjoy. In their conversations throughout the day, which can focus on a wide variety of topics based on children’s interest, teachers tell children about the hike they went on over the weekend, how happy they feel after dancing, or how good their body feels when they get enough sleep.
As a school collectively, we model healthy habits by encouraging parents to send in balanced, nutritious lunches for their children. For birthdays and other special occasions, we invite non-food treats, such as stickers or books. We encourage all parents to continue practicing, reinforcing, and modeling at home to solidify long lasting, healthy habits for life. Please reach out to your child’s teacher for any questions or at-home tips to continue lifelong habits that support your child’s development.