Attempting to check off all of the nutrient boxes in your child’s diet can be overwhelming. Viewing your child’s nutrition from a strict viewpoint is something many new parents can relate to; you want to get things right, which is understandable. But, what if I told you that there was another way to nourish your child without the headache? The secret is including nutrient-dense foods in your child’s diet throughout the week. Including these types of foods on their plate is a surefire way to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need. Here are a few tips below that will help you nourish your child with nutrient-dense foods.
What are nutrient-dense foods?
You likely have nutrient-dense foods in your fridge or pantry at this very moment. So, what does the term nutrient-dense mean? According to the DGA Executive Summary, “All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium—are nutrient-dense foods” (1). To put it simply, does the food contribute to adequate nutrient intakes or have a positive effect on health? If so, you have nutrient-dense food on your plate!
Strategies to add these foods into your child’s diet
Knowing what nutrient-dense foods are vs. feeding your child these foods each present different challenges. No one ever said it would be easy feeding your child nutritious foods, but it is up to you as a parent to at least try. There are a couple of strategies you can try throughout the week to get nutrient-dense foods onto your child’s plate (and eventually into their mouths). Firstly, increase their exposure to the foods you want to introduce. The easiest way to accomplish this is to have them help in the food preparation process; have them help at the grocery store, and help with preparing the food by measuring, mixing, or chopping the food (depending on age) for a meal or snack. With exposure to new foods, you must be consistent for your child to become familiar with them. To achieve this familiarity, keep the new food on your weekly grocery list or even on every other week’s list.
Another strategy that may work, especially for picky eaters, is adding nutrient-dense foods to their already favorite dishes. If your child is a big pasta lover, why not serve it with a veggie-rich pasta sauce? If your child loves cookies, try adding in whole grain oats instead of flour and bananas for sweetness. This way, they will still be getting nutrient-dense foods without the fight. Lastly, focus on including whole foods with meals and snacks; you can do this by limiting processed foods or snacks on their plates and instead replace them with nutrient-rich options as often as you can. Remember, at the end of the day, it is your job as a parent to decide what food to offer and when, and it is your child’s job to determine if they will eat and how much. Do not stress if they only look, poke or play with a new food the first time you offer it. Working up to feeling comfortable with these foods may take time but do not give up; it will be worth it in the end.
Simple swaps for a nutrient-dense diet
Here are a few kid favorites with a healthy twist:
- Chicken tenders: Try making your own homemade version! Start with lean chicken breast and breadcrumbs and bake instead of frying. This homemade version can reduce both the amounts of sodium and saturated fats in store-bought versions.
- Pizza: Start with whole wheat dough, low-sodium marinara (or make your own with canned pureed tomatoes and Italian seasonings), and low-fat mozzarella, plus any additional toppings for a fun and nutritious mealtime.
- Mac and cheese: Use whole wheat or enriched pasta, add in butternut squash or pumpkin along with low-fat cheese and milk for a creamy nutrient-packed version of their favorite dish.
- Baked goods: Try making your own homemade baked muffins or bread for breakfast or snack time. For additional nutrition and added fiber, try baking with whole wheat flour and substituting any added sweeteners with fruit for natural sweetness. These simple baking swaps add to your child’s nutrition with each bite.
- Crackers: Choose crackers with “whole grain” as the first ingredient, crackers with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, and little to no added sugar. This change ensures your little one is getting the most nutrition out of snack time.
Boost your child’s nutrition with a small appetite
If you have a child who is especially picky or challenging when it comes to mealtimes, then try these additions that add extra nutrient-dense foods to your child’s plate while still tasting delicious!
Add toppings to dishes they already like: Add in nut/seed butter, shredded cheese, mashed avocado, or chia seeds to veggies, toast, fresh fruit, pasta, and more! These simple additions can add protein, healthy fats, and energy to your child’s meals.
- Offer a dip: Serve protein-packed hummus or Greek yogurt ranch as a veggie dip. Offering a dip with veggies can be a fun and yummy way to change up mealtimes while still adding a boost of nutrition to your child’s diet.
- Add in extra protein: Stir a nut/seed butter into Greek yogurt and offer it as a dip or parfait. This addition can help maximize your child’s protein intake while keeping their small appetite in mind.
- Use snacks to upgrade your child’s nutrition: Make a fun protein-packed snack a part of your daily routine. Energy bites fortified with vitamins and packed with protein are a delicious way to make snack time both nutritious and fun.
- Hingle, M., Kandiah, J., & Maggi, A. (2016, August 24). Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Selecting Nutrient-Dense Foods for Good Health. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267216307845