As a busy mom of a 12, 10, and 8-year-old, my kids’ nutrition is often on my mind, but is not always something I end up devoting my actual time and energy to. I do the meal-planning and the grocery shopping and have the best of intentions. Grilled fish! Roasted veggies! Salads! Chicken tacos! Sweet potato fries in the air-fryer!
But inevitably, at least a couple nights a week, one kid has a game and another has a friend over and my husband or I get caught up in a work issue and now it’s 6:30. Everyone is hungry, no one has eaten, and boom. We order pizza or roll through the closest fast-food joint or DoorDash dinner from our phones. Instead of milk, they are likely to sip root beer on these nights. And instead of apple slices or broccoli, it’s more than likely fries.
And round and round we go.
Thankfully, Scary Mommy interviewed board-certified pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert about tips and tricks for getting kids to eat better. And the first thing she said? We’re all probably doing better than we think we are!
But she also emphasized that ensuring our kids get the best nutrition is essential, although not always easy, and it’s the most crucial the first few years of a child’s life.
I remember back when I had babies and toddlers, I also found it tough to get all the necessary vitamins and nutrients into their bellies. Not because we were running to and from baseball games and play dates back then, but because my kids were picky eaters. Or because I was afraid of giving them foods that I thought might be unsafe, be a choking hazard, be too spicy, or cause an allergic reaction. As a new mom, I didn’t understand that I actually could just put whatever I was eating on their plates, as long as it was cut up into smaller bites. Had I known that, I probably would have saved myself hours of work a day in meal-prep.
But the truth is, lots of kids aren’t getting the nutrients and micronutrients they need, particularly in those early years, and parents need to understand just how important this is.
We’re often told how valuable the first 1,000 days are in a child’s life. This, doctors say, is when a child has the most brain development. But what do kids need to feed that growing brain? Proper nutrition. In fact, these early years are so vital that poor nutrition during this period could have lasting effects through adulthood.
According to a press release from Reckitt, “A recent study evaluating micronutrient adequacy of diets consumed by young children (aged 1-6) in the United States found that although most children had adequate intakes of most vitamins and nutrients, there were several areas where significant nutritional inadequacies could be cause for concern, specifically calcium, vitamin D, iron and DHA.”
The press release goes on to say that the study, published in Nutrients, “used National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data to evaluate nutritional adequacy in 9848 children in the United States, aged 1–6 years, while also examining differences based on age, race/ethnicity, and family income.”
Basically, the big four areas of concern for developing babies, toddlers, and young children are in iron, vitamin D, DHA, and calcium. Additionally, the study found that very few children consumed an adequate amount of fiber, choline, and potassium.
And unfortunately, non-Hispanic Black children had by far the highest rate of inadequate nutrients, specifically with regards to iron and calcium.
So what can we, as busy, exhausted parents do? How can we ensure our kids are getting the nutrients and micronutrients they need for proper brain development during those crucial first 1,000 days?
Dr. Natasha Burgert, board-certified pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Overland Park, KS, offered some tips in an interview with Scary Mommy.
First of all, as a pediatrician who sees lots of frazzled, overwhelmed parents, Dr. Burgert says parents should cut themselves some slack and recognize that likely, their kids are getting lots of good nutrients already. Also, she says that rather than focusing on ensuring our kids eat healthy every day, we focus on making sure they get those nutrients every week. Doesn’t that sound less daunting?
Dr. Burgert says it would help if parents were more mindful of things like iron, calcium, DHA, and vitamin D in the week’s meal preparation. “When I talk to my patients, I speak about nutrition in a 7-10 block window, rather than a 24-hour cycle,” she tells Scary Mommy. “You can’t micromanage a toddler, so we want to think in larger time gaps of sprinkling healthy, nutrient-rich foods in.”
Also, Dr. Burgert reassures parents by explaining that a lot of these micronutrients overlap. For example, if you ensure your child gets enough iron and calcium, they’ll also get a whole host of other nutrients too, since most healthy foods contain more than one.
However, a point she wanted to emphasize to Scary Mommy readers is that many of the nutrient-rich foods that check several boxes aren’t the most “palatable” for kids. One example, Dr. Burgert says, is fatty fish. “The brain is fat. The nervous system is fat. So we’ve got to get those fatty fish proteins in there,” she explains.
So yes, Dr. Burgert highly recommends parents stop at the seafood section in the grocery store more often, throw some frozen shrimp in the cart, and expose our kids more to the essential fatty acids that fish provide, rather than assuming our kids won’t eat them, or trying once and then giving up.
Other foods like dairy and eggs also check several boxes.
Eggs, specifically, “in all forms,” she explains, are good for allergy prevention and also for getting lots of micronutrients in kids’ tummies. Fully cooked scrambled eggs make a great “first meal” for young babies just starting with real food, but all other types of eggs—either alone, or cooked into other foods—are great choices when meal-planning.
“The tricky one,” Dr. Burgert adds, “is those deep, leafy greens that give you iron and calcium.” But, as most parents know, it’s tough to get a toddler to eat a salad. Obviously, broccoli “trees” tend to be more kid-friendly, but we can also sneak leafy greens into pasta sauce, muffins, and other things our kids are eating.
However, Dr. Burgert says, “As a pediatrician, I really want kids to see the whole natural food too.” So yes, if you have time to prepare and can sneak those leafy greens into smoothies, do it, but also let your kid see a salad—over and over. “Even a small amount,” she explains, “so kids can experience, touch, and have that tactile experience, because this helps increase the likelihood that the child will accept this food over time, as they grow and their palates change.”
Also, many of the cereals parents may already be buying are “iron-fortified,” meaning they contain the necessary iron nutrients kids need. And, Dr. Burgert says that oranges are high in calcium, so if your child doesn’t eat dairy for some reason, oranges are another great way to get calcium into their growing bodies.
But again, Dr. Burgert says she knows parents of tiny humans are exhausted and so this doesn’t have to be hugely complicated or a ton of work. Simply adding eggs to the week’s meal plan checks a lot of boxes. Same with fatty fish. And red meat. And, we might already be doing these things, which is great news for everyone and we should give ourselves a pat on the back for that.
In addition, lots of families won’t have certain foods in their house due to allergies or preference. Some families don’t eat red meat, or there might be a shellfish or egg allergy in the family. And some kids have sensory processing issues and other difficulties that go beyond “pickiness”. If your family has a specific food restriction, Dr. Burgert encourages you to talk to your pediatrician about what foods to substitute (and how much)—for example, you have to eat a looooooot of kale to get the same amount of iron you’d get from a steak or burger. Or, you can talk to your doctor about whether or not your child might need vitamin supplements if their diet doesn’t include certain nutrient-rich foods.
Finally, Dr. Burgert says some other ways to pack your kids’ bellies with nutrients is to “get back to the basics.” She says things like making family meals and showing your kids that your family eats a variety of things are helpful tricks.
Even something as simple as taking your toddler to the grocery store or a farmer’s market and letting them see all the colors and variety, maybe even picking out something that looks interesting to them, is one way to improve their interest in foods and therefore, their overall nutrition.
Dr. Burgert also says sometimes “self-serving” helps young children be more willing to try a variety of foods. In fact, many preschools and daycares have adopted this model for meal times—putting communal dishes on the table and letting young children serve themselves what they’d like to try. This is beneficial as kids tend to be more likely to eat foods they’ve helped prepare and foods that they have served themselves.
And again, as parents of littles, we have to be patient. We have to expose our kids to a wide range of foods over and over. And we have to remember that palates change. One day they might like carrots, and the next, they don’t. That’s normal and doesn’t mean we give up on carrots.
Every child deserves proper nutrition, a healthy body, and all the nutrients and micronutrients they need to grow strong, healthy bodies. Talk to your doctor about your child’s diet, make some small changes if you need to, don’t be afraid to try new foods with your kids, and don’t give up! Raising toddlers is challenging in a myriad of ways, and mealtime can often be a big stress. But as long as you are exposing your child to a slew of colors, textures, and nutrients, you’re doing okay.