As a parent, grandparent, or caregiver one of your primary jobs is to do what you can to keep your kids healthy. What does this actually mean though and what is within your control?
As an Integrative Dietitian I believe wholeheartedly that it starts with what they are eating. And this begins right from the beginning. Starting your baby on breast milk lays the foundation for a strong immune system and healthy gut; the foundation of what keeps them healthy. Gradually transitioning them to organic, whole foods and keeping high sugar, processed foods to a minimum.
In today’s post I want to break down the steps you can take to maximize your child’s health. Using real food, a healthy lifestyle, and natural boosters.
Start With Diet
As with everything, it all starts with what we are nourishing our bodies with. When we give the body what it needs, it does a really good job (on it’s own) of keeping us healthy.
As I alluded to above, whenever possible the goal for all babies is to consume breast milk; ideally for the first year. Between 6-12 months we start to introduce solid foods. There are many different ways to approach this. Actually even for me, I ended up choosing 2 different paths for my girls based on their different needs. In general though this is what I recommend to new parents:
- Start with healthy fats: avocado & soft egg yolk, ideally from organic pastured eggs, are good first choices.
- Then add veggies: starchy, crunchy, leafy (all are great); puree with bone broth or water. I also recommend adding grass-fed butter and mixing it in before serving it to your baby. Not only is the extra fat good for a growing baby but it helps in the absorption of the fat-soluble nutrients in the veggies.
- Next comes protein: chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, wild fish; buy the highest quality you can afford and again puree with bone broth or water.
- Then some fruit: I usually recommend cooked and pureed fruit at first, except for mashed up banana, and then gradually letting them take a go at raw fruit.
- Finally bring in grains & legumes — as I learned with my 2nd daughter her little tummy was not ready to handle the fibers in grains and legumes until she was almost 12 months old. Although whole grains and legumes are incredibly healthy most of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients a growing baby needs comes from all the foods listed before, so there really isn’t any rush. I suggest using the whole grain (not processed or refined cereals), grind it into a flour yourself using a food processor or high-powered blender and then cook with bone broth or water. Again, you can stir in some grass-fed butter before serving.
Continue with the introduction of different foods after 12 months. Most food preferences are established by the age of 2. So the more variety, both in texture and flavor, you expose your children to, the more likely they are to accept a wide range of foods going forward.
Once your toddler is no longer drinking breast milk, I suggest replacing their fluid intake with plain water. If they’re eating a varied whole food diet you don’t have to replace with milk.
Assuming your child does not have a sensitivity to dairy you can include whole milk if you want but it’s not necessary. With both of my girls I waited to introduce dairy until after they were 12 months old. I started with plain goat-milk yogurt first to see how they did. Once I was certain they were digesting it well, we tried plain cow’s milk yogurt. Only after that did we try cheese and then whole milk.
If you see any change in their digestion or notice more congestion or skin rashes, remove the dairy. I really believe that too many children are consuming dairy when their bodies are not properly digesting it and unfortunately that lays the groundwork for ear infections, allergies, colds, and ultimately chronic inflammation.
School Age Kids
As kids get older talk to them about their health and how their food choices play a role in helping them grow, think, learn, and play. This will help build intrinisic motivation to choose healthy foods. I use two primary learning tools when talking to kids and parents about healthy eating.
Go/Grow/Glow: Every meal should include at least one food from each of the following three categories. To help kids be involved in what these foods are, sit down and make a list with them outlining all the foods that fit into each of these categories; starting with the ones you know they like and adding in new foods as they try them.
- Go Foods: these are the foods that give you energy; whole grains, starchy veggies
- Grow Foods: these include all your protein foods; poultry, meat, fish, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds
- Glow Foods: these are your produce; fruits, veggies
Eat A Rainbow: The second tool I use to encourage a colorful variety of foods each day is to eat a rainbow of colors. Again, you can sit down with your child and make a list of all the foods that fall into each color group. Make it a goal that every day they eat at least one food from each color. My girls really like this one and will often go through their rainbow to see what colors are left by the time we get to dinner.
There is a fabulous children’s book exactly about this topic called “I Can Eat A Rainbow” by Annabel Karmel. I’ve used it with my own kids, the families that I’ve worked with, and even at reading time at my kids preschool and kindergarten. It’s universally loved and a great motivator for children.
A Balanced Lifestyle
Of course we can’t only look at diet. Although incredibly important, the rest of the picture is equally important.
- Getting outside every day and getting some sunshine (natural vitamin D).
- Playing and being active for at least 1 hour every day; doesn’t have to be all at the same time.
- Keeping screen time (TV and/or electronics) to a minimum.
- Plus getting enough sleep each night.
All of these pieces play an important role in the overall picture of your child’s health.
There are times of course when the gut and/or immune system is going to need some extra support to keep everything humming optimally. Here are some of my favorite go-to boosters that I use with my own kids and often end up recommending to the families that I work with.
Probiotics can be an incredibly helpful adjunct for all of us, from infancy to old age. Whenever there is anything off digestively (constipation, loose stools, gas, bloating, etc) I turn to probiotics. Also if I’m noticing more allergies (sneezing or runny nose), skin rashes, or ear pain/infections, the probiotics get brought in.
Healthy fat is probably the #1 most important food for the developing brain and nervous system. Besides including lots of good fat in the diet I also started both of my girls on fish oil during infancy and still continue to use it today; albeit with some supplement holidays here and there. Fish Oil is also one of my go-to boosters for kids dealing with mood disorders, behavior challenges, or neurodevelopmental concerns.
During the summer months we try to get as much of this naturally-occurring vitamin as possible by spending lots of time outside. But during the winter months, even with time outside, it’s hard to get enough, so I add it in supplementally (400 IU/day). Vitamin D also works to keep the immune system going strong, which of course is even more important during cold and flu season.
This is another vitamin that we mostly get from the food we eat; berries, citrus, tomatoes, bell peppers, etc. I make a point to make sure the girls are getting at least several sources of vitamin C every day; especially during the winter. However when I see the start of a cold or flu brewing I’ll up the intake with supplemental C (500 mg/day).
This is another booster I like to use during the winter as both a cold and flu preventative and remedy. Elderberry is an excellent immune system booster and has been shown to reduce the duration of a cold or flu.
Last but not least I’m a big fan of homeopathics; especially for kids. I’ve been using them since my girls were babies and I find that they respond really well to them. I usually use pre-formulated remedies as opposed to individual ones. I always have the following on hand and use as needed:
- Cold & Flu
- Bumps & Bruises (as well as individual arnica tablets and arnica cream)
This is obviously only a sampling of the boosters you can add to your child’s regimen. These are the ones that I turn to first both with my own girls and the kids I work with.
I can’t talk about keeping your kids healthy without also mentioning the rising tide of childhood inflammatory conditions like Allergies (both food & environmental), Autism, ADHD, Depression, or Anxiety. Even learning difficulties and behavioral challenges can often have a connection to inflammation.
Although there are many possible causes to these conditions, as I’ve discussed in other posts on Inflammation, there is a lot we can do with diet and supplements to help ease the inflammation and therefore remedy much of the symptoms.
Take Home Message
Keeping your child healthy starts from the very beginning. Laying the foundation of a strong immune system with breast milk and a whole food, nutrient-dense diet. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle with lots of time for activity and play coupled with plenty of good sleep. Keeping their hydration mostly from water, herbal teas, or fresh veggie juices. And then pulling in boosters when needed. For those of you struggling with picky eaters or even just trying to get into a routine of family meal times read Feeding Your Family.