Child Nutrition for All Ages and Stages
Food is our fuel. Without it, we cannot survive for long, and the quality of the food we put in our bodies can have a significant effect on our health. If you put poor quality fuel into your car, the engine will break down sooner. Similarly, if you put poor quality food into your body, it will break sooner and have more problems along the way. These problems are the basis for most chronic or metabolic diseases people suffer from today: diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer, to name a few. Child nutrition forms the basis of lifelong consumption choices, so let’s begin at the beginning!
How and what we eat can vary based on which stage of life we’re in. A baby or young child will obviously have a very different diet from an older adult, but what we often overlook is that older adults and younger adults may vary in their dietary needs as well. By optimizing your food intake based on age and need, you maximize your chances of nutrient absorption, increase energy, and minimize chances of damage and disease.
The infant years: from milk to solids (0-2)
The test of time has proven to us that breastmilk is the best nutrition for a baby. The World Health Organization confirms that breastmilk should be used exclusively until the age of six months, with continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond. Of course, breastfeeding is not always possible, and every mother needs to make the best decision for their individual family’s needs.
What mothers consume during this time can have a significant effect on the quality and nutrition of their breastmilk. Maintaining a balanced diet with healthy proteins, fats, carbohydrates and sufficient calories is essential for producing high-quality breastmilk. Note that breastfeeding mothers need to consume more calories than usual: the average is roughly 500 more calories per day than their pre-pregnant dietary requirements. Also note that although we always encourage a diet high in fruits and vegetables, there are a few that may cause adverse reactions in babies. These include cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, etc.), alliums that contain high amounts of sulphur (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.), and even apples. If your baby is experiencing tummy discomfort or gas, try removing these foods for a few months (not forever!) for some relief. Colic is no one's friend!
Take care of tummies
The six-month mark is typically the recommended time to introduce solid foods. However, not all foods are equal when it comes to baby’s first food, so it’s important to choose wisely at this stage. We recommend starting with safe and (ideally) gut-supportive foods like bone broth, made from organic grass-fed or free-range animals, puréed organic vegetables, healthy oils, or small amounts of well-sourced meat and fish. By providing safe, easily digested options early in life, you prevent the baby from developing intestinal permeability (leaky gut), subsequent food intolerances, and atopic conditions like asthma, eczema, and allergies.
I also recommend a probiotic supplement and eventual introduction of probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi or yogurt, especially if your baby was born by Caesarian section. The most significant source of beneficial bacterial colonization in early life is from the mother's vaginal canal. If the baby does not pass through the vaginal canal, its microbiome will be formed from skin-to-skin contact, the surrounding environment and/or probiotic supplements. Breastfeeding mothers can also consume probiotic foods to encourage the transfer of beneficial bacteria, but should remain diligent with monitoring how the baby reacts to various food introductions. Cabbage, for instance, is a cruciferous vegetable and is used to make sauerkraut and kimchi, which could cause unwanted gas in baby.
Shaping the young child’s diet (2-12)
Toddlers and young children are able to consume almost everything adults consume (though not always willingly!), but it’s important to note that their digestive systems are not yet fully developed. As a result, many young children experience constipation or other forms of digestive imbalance. At this stage, as the microbiome continues to develop, it’s critical that young children get sufficient amounts of fibre (e.g. fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, etc.) and water to ensure optimal digestive function. Movement is also critical to encourage digestive function and motility, so make sure your kids keep active!
Another important factor at this stage is to minimize sugar, artificial chemical and processed food intake. The young child’s palate is very sensitive and exposure to such chemicals (yes, sugar is a chemical) can affect their palate for life. Encourage savoury tastes like natural herbs and spices, natural sweeteners like plant-based sugars (if necessary), and try to eliminate, as much as possible, artificial flavourings and additives like food colouring, MSG or artificial sweeteners. Starting this early can save you a lot of trouble later on!
Developing food appreciation
This stage is also the most important for engaging your children in food interest and preparation. One fantastic way to engage young children in food is through colour. We know that a colourful diet of varying fruits and vegetables is good for us, but children don’t. Engage them by encouraging colour-themed meals and certainly get them involved in preparing foods. That can include washing, peeling or cutting, depending on age. If children are engaged in food production early and often, they’re much less likely to resist foods that are good for them.
Going beyond this, it’s even more valuable if the children understand where their food comes from. Maintaining a vegetable garden or getting your meat and/or produce from local sources are both great options. Be aware that knowing about animal sourcing can sometimes lead to aversion in children, which works in a vegetarian family, but makes it challenging for a non-vegetarian family. Getting your kids into gardening may be a good first step!
One last tip for this stage is to begin practicing mindfulness and gratitude around food. Mindfulness has to do with being present at meal times, chewing adequately (approximately 20 chews per bite), and spending time with loved ones. It also means no screens - for the whole family! Gratitude is critical to instill at this age so young children are again made aware that their food is not materializing from thin air, but must travel a distance or come at a sacrifice for it to be on their plates. Many foods also come at great cost to the people who produce them.
These habits instill lifelong attitudes about food and help shape an appreciation for our food system and the quality of nutrients we should be eating. This makes it much easier to work with dietary restrictions, fad diets, and eating disorders, which may show up in the next stage.
Food and teens’ hormones (13-19)
The teen years can be a complicated time for both the teenager and the family. The digestive tract can now be considered fully developed, and considering what teenagers can put in their bodies, it may be temporarily made of steel!
As hormones fluctuate and emotions are erratic, the food choices teens make can have a significant impact on their overall health. This is a time when the foundations laid in early childhood will come into play since teens have more autonomy over what they eat. This often translates into more processed junk food, sweets, sodas and fast food, and can also be combined with the ‘exploration’ of vices like smoking, drinking, and recreational drugs. All of these components contribute to damage in the teen body and require adequate nutrients to help maintain balance.
I’m not saying all teens eat poorly and have questionable social habits, but some inevitably do, and it’s important to support their detoxification systems during this time. Educating teens about detoxification methods will also bring awareness to the importance of these practices later in life.
Encouraging dietary balance
Hormone balancing is also crucial and a balanced diet will go a long way to preventing common hormonal conditions like PMS, acne, mood swings, low energy, and headaches. One of the most important factors in balancing hormones is to minimize processed sugars and aim to maintain balanced blood sugar levels. A diet composed of high quantities of sugars and processed foods will often lead to teenage obesity, which further contributes to hormonal imbalance. Blood sugar regulation is the single most important dietary choice teens need to be aware about.
How do we regulate a teen’s blood sugar, optimize detoxification pathways, and balance hormones? By minimizing high-carb meals, maximizing vegetable and fibre intake, and ensuring the presence of a healthy protein and a healthy fat at every meal. It is the healthy fats that we see most often missing in this age group, so stock up on your nuts, seeds, and avocados! If these components are in place, your teen will have a much smoother transition into adulthood and it will set them up for what’s necessary later in life as well.
Eating like an adult (20+)
As we transition into adulthood, we typically shed the safety nets of our parents’ homes, school schedules, and substitute easy meal options. We become consumed with families, careers, social commitments, and more, all leading to stress and the all-too-often sacrifice of a good diet. It’s no wonder that so many people collapse into their 30s, burnt out and needing dietary support.
Adulthood is a critical time to find and maintain balance: in diet, in life, and in self. As a parent, you can set the example for your children that meals should not be consumed on the run, balanced nutrition is possible, and stress management comes first. And if you neglect to do these things for yourself, you’ll soon find yourself suffering more than you need to under the pressure that life as a parent sometimes hands down.
Focus on nutrients
Maintaining a well-balanced diet and adequate hydration is the absolute foundation of health at this stage. You’re no longer a teenager somehow able to subsist on junk food for days on end. You need good quality nutrients at every meal, and you’ll feel better when you get them. Most critical is to consume a healthy protein, fat and carbohydrate at every major meal, coupled with balanced snacks (as needed) in between. This especially means having a healthy protein for breakfast, which people so often skip in favour of a carbohydrate-rich meal. When you don’t have protein in the morning, you set yourself up for a day of irregular blood sugar, resulting in low energy, increased stress, weight gain, and irregular mood. Imagine…all these common issues can be solved (or at least mitigated) by having more protein at breakfast. Sometimes it really is that simple!
Of equal importance to consuming adequate nutrients at every meal is to ensure you consume enough fibre every day. This can be from plants, whole grains, nuts, seeds, or supplements. Without adequate fibre intake, you risk developing preventable colon issues in mid to late-adulthood.
Aside from a balanced diet, the mindfulness and chewing we teach our children also goes a long way for our digestion. At this age, we are setting ourselves up for chronic issues and disease later in life. If we digest calmly and well, we will have fewer digestive issues later. If we digest under stress and poorly, it’s much more likely we will have problems later.
In short: ensure you rest and digest around every major meal; ensure you get adequate amounts of healthy proteins, fats and carbohydrates; consume sufficient amounts of fibre; and drink 2-3L of water or herbal tea every day.
Digestive support for older adults (60+)
As we enter our older years, and our bodies slow down, our digestive needs start to change. We no longer break down our nutrients as efficiently, meaning we can benefit from some digestive support techniques.
Normal changes include decreased stomach acid, decreased enzyme production, and a subsequent decrease in appetite. Although these are all normal parts of aging, when this happens can vary significantly. In some parts of the world, people only begin to show signs of slowing metabolism in their 90s or later. How we treat ourselves in the earlier stages will determine when this stage begins. Regardless, this stage will come at some point and when it does, common ways of supporting digestion include supplementation with apple cider vinegar in water (to support stomach acid), digestive enzymes and bitter herbal tincture (to stimulate bile flow and to help with nutrient breakdown), and increasing vegetable intake (to maintain adequate fibre).
Eat like you’re in a Blue Zone
One common aspect of all Blue Zones – recognized areas around the world where people commonly live to 100 and beyond – is that they maintain a “plant-slant” to their diet. What this means is they don’t necessarily maintain a vegetarian diet, but rather one that is mostly vegetarian. From plants we get fibre, minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and enzymes. If a high quantity of vegetables is maintained into later years, the need for supplementation and support is typically delayed.
Further supportive techniques at this stage include reducing raw foods (if digestion has truly slowed), increasing soups and broths, and maintaining adequate hydration to prevent constipation. Regular low-level exercise is also still encouraged to keep bowel function active.
The overall message is consistent throughout the years: consume the major nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) at every major meal, minimize the bad stuff, maximize vegetables, consume plenty of water, and practice relaxation/mindfulness around meals. If you do this most of the time, you can certainly afford to “slack off” some of the time. The problems arise when less than optimal habits become the norm, at which point we are at greater risk of developing chronic disease.
Healthy food introduction and education at early stages will set up the foundation for a healthy adulthood. Maintaining a sustainable diet and lifestyle throughout adulthood will prevent illness and prolong life in later years. Supporting digestion in later years will encourage further longevity and minimize chronic disease.
The formula is easy. Implementing it may be more challenging, depending on your current dietary habits. If it seems overwhelming, focus on baby steps. Take enough of them, and they add up to a giant leap for the ongoing health of your family!