Colorful organic veggies, super fruits, whole grains, energy-packed nuts and seeds, calcium-rich dairy, and what’s all this talk about Meatless Mondays? When you take in all the must-haves for a healthy meal for your kids, it can easily become an overwhelming checklist to achieve every single meal of the week—especially if you have a picky eater! So how do you conquer kids and nutrition?

Luckily, it’s okay to take a holistic view of your child’s diet, knowing that some days you’ll check off every box and other days you will not. Just remember it’s the total sum of what your child eats throughout the day or week that counts, not straining to make every meal hit the mark. So first and foremost, give your child (and yourself) a break.

The more connected your child feels to the food she eats, the more likely she is to eat and enjoy it. Beyond simply planning a healthy meal, there’s still the challenge of ensuring your child will eat what you give them. So how do we educate our kids about what foods they really need to lead healthy, active lives? One major piece of the equation is making sure your child is involved in the food selection process. Make her your supermarket buddy or guest gardener, make trips to a local farmers market, or grow herbs together in your window. The more connected your child feels to the food she eats, the more likely she is to eat and enjoy it. 

As your child’s health advocate it’s important for you to familiarize yourself with the nutrients and foods that provide the essential nutrition. Prioritizing these areas will ensure you are fueling your child with the macro- and micronutrients she needs to grow and flourish.

You should look to include the following every day:

  • WHOLE GRAINS: Steel cut oats, brown rice, and whole grain breads and snacks typically contain healthy fiber for the school day. Kids between the ages of five and eight years old need at least 25 grams of fiber per day, and kids nine to ten years old need 31 grams. In the grocery store, look for packages that contain ingredient panels stating “whole grain,” not just multi-grain, to ensure that the grain is being consumed in its whole form.

    Variety is good but the source should always be whole. If you can, venture beyond whole wheat when selecting whole grains. You’ll be exposing your child to more variety and to the interesting flavors that heritage grains impart. Particularly of note are ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, and millet. They offer a good gluten-free alternative and provide other essential nutrients.

  • FRUITS AND VEGETABLES: Primary sources of many vitamins, minerals, and other natural substances that help support our immune systems, prevent diseases and keep our bodies functioning at their best. Eating a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables gives your child a wide range of valuable nutrients like fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C, as well as many nutrients you won’t find in multivitamin. The best way to get your kids to eat their vegetables is to start early, make them a habit, and make them fun.

    You can cut your veggies into fun shapes or let your child make food art on his or her own. Whenever possible, look for seasonal fruits and veggies at your farmers market. Who doesn’t love strawberries in the peak of the summer, or pumpkin on the Thanksgiving table? As always, we recommend looking for USDA certified organic produce to ensure you are limiting your child’s exposure to certain pesticides and chemicals.

  • HEALTHY PROTEINS: Wild fish, organic red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and vegetarian or vegan options such as quinoa and tofu are all good sources of protein. We recommend making it fun! Try making eggs sunny side down, as an “egg in a hole,” or choose a veggie burger—kids love anything in burger format and they will never guess that there are protein-rich beans inside.

  • CALCIUM: Essential for healthy bone development for life. Dairy is always a great source of calcium—organic yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk have it in abundance. Supplemented foods like orange juice or nut milk are fine, too. Another option is dark, leafy green vegetables.

  • VITAMIN D: A nutrient that kids (and adults) are often lacking since they spend most of their time indoors or use sunscreen to protect their skin from the sun while playing outside. Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and maximize bone growth and strength. In extreme cases, kids who get too little vitamin D can develop soft bones, a condition called rickets, or set themselves up for osteoporosis, which typically shows up later in life. Milk is one of the few dietary sources of vitamin D. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently increased its recommended daily intake of vitamin D from 200 IU to 600 IU for all infants, children and adolescents.

  • POTASSIUM: Important for children’s body growth. Potassium ensures normal heart and muscle function, maintains fluid balance, participates in energy production, and promotes strong bones. The first food that comes to mind when parents think potassium is usually bananas, but there are plenty of other foods that are high in potassium including tomatoes, raisins, prunes, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, plantains, coconut water, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.

So what about fats and sugars?

Children need healthy fat to grow, but be sure to choose natural, real fats over artificial options such as hydrogenated oils that aren’t found in nature. Pairing unhealthy fats with simple carbohydrates such as processed white flour and refined sugar can be a poor combination because the body processes the two types of nutrients differently. Kids should pair healthy fats such as organic butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or avocado with other healthy foods. Plus, pairing fats with fat-soluble vitamins A,D,K, and E, which are often found in veggies, is a great way to ensure the vitamins are properly absorbed and assimilated. Roasted veggies with a little extra virgin olive oil can do the trick!

Sugars are appropriate in very small amounts for kids. The American Heart Association as well as Dr. Greene recommend no more than 4 tsp a day of added sugar for a typical 4 to 8 year old child. By contrast, an average American child of that age gets 21 tsp of added sugar daily.

When you read the labels at the grocery store, you’ll find sugar almost everywhere, although in many different forms. Refined sugars control insulin levels, which help decide how much fat your child will store in their bodies for the rest of their lives. When selecting sweeteners, go for ones that tend to be less processed like maple syrup, raw honey, dried cane syrup, or date sugar. The amount of sugar is still the major issue, but the minerals found with the sugar in nature may be of some benefit.

Other essential nutrients for kids include iron, vitamins A, B, C, and omega-3’s. You may consider a daily multivitamin to make sure your child is getting enough of what they individually need. As always, check with your child’s pediatrician to determine his or her specific needsthey may vary.

Remember, if we help our children to cultivate healthy eating habits early on, they will almost always return to the flavors and foods that they learned to love at an early age. So start early if you can. If not, it’s never too late. Remember today is always the best day to start.