4 Steps to Better Nutrition for Kids

American kids tend to eat a lot but that doesn't mean they're eating well. Our simple plan will help you get your child on track.
By Hallie Levine




Of course you do your best to get the healthiest food possible into your kid’s stomach, but unless you hit the adventurous eater jackpot, there’s a good chance your child is missing out on at least a couple of key nutrients.

“Many children snack all day on foods like cookies and chips that leave them overfed and undernourished,” says Lynn Brann, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Syracuse University. Case in point: Only about 60 percent of kids ages 3 to 5 and 40 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 get the recommended dietary intake for calcium, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which makes them more susceptible to broken bones now and later in life.

But it doesn’t take much to turn the tide. By focusing on just four nutrients — calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and omega-3s — you can make a big impact on the quality of your child’s overall nutrition, says Kristi King, R.D., a dietician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. That’s because these powerhouses are essential for making sure kids reach their maximum growth and development potential.

Vitamin D

How much kids need:
400 international units (IU) a day for infants; 600 IU for kids over 1

Why it’s key:
Not only does vitamin D appear protective against cancer, heart disease, asthma, and allergies, it’s also crucial for bone health (along with calcium), says King, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When kids don’t get what they need, they can suffer brittle bones and an increased risk of fracture — even if they’re up to snuff on calcium intake.

Who’s missing out:
At least 20 percent of healthy-weight children are deficient in this superstar, according to a 2012 University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study, and other research suggests that up to 75 percent of all kids aren’t getting enough. “We’re seeing tons of kids with low vitamin D. In fact, it can be rare to see a child with adequate levels,” says King.

Why? “The main source of vitamin D is sun exposure, and kids aren’t outside as much as they used to be — plus, when they are, they wear sunscreen, which blocks skin’s exposure to the UV rays that stimulate your body to produce vitamin D,” explains Aliza Solomon, D.O., assistant professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. If you’re not sure if your kid’s at risk, ask for a blood test at her next checkup.

How to serve it up:
While it’s generally preferable to get your vitamins from food (the body absorbs and processes them better), vitamin D is an exception. It’s really hard to get enough from food alone, says Dr. Solomon.

Most multivitamins have the recommended amount, but if your child isn’t taking one, opt for vitamin D drops, which can easily be added onto food, suggests Tod Cooperman, M.D., founder of ConsumerLab.com, a supplement watchdog group. (Two the group recommends: Source Naturals Vitamin D-3 and Vitacost Baby-Ds.) None of this means you should ignore food sources, though, so here are some of the best bets (the more the better!):

  • 3 oz salmon (447 IU)
  • 1 cup fortified orange juice (137 IU)
  • 1 cup skim milk (115 IU)
  • 1 cup fortified yogurt (80 IU)


How much kids need:
1,000 milligrams (mg) a day for kids ages 4 to 8; 1,300 mg for kids 9 and older

Why it’s key:
Calcium is an absolute must-have to grow and build strong bones. If your little ones aren’t getting enough from their diet, their body will take it from their skeleton. “Bone is living tissue that’s being removed and replaced constantly,” says Dr. Brann. “I liken it to a bank account: During childhood much more bone is deposited than withdrawn, which helps kids’ skeletons grow and become strong.”

Who’s missing out:
Most kids, but the most vulnerable ones are those ages 9 to 13. The main reason? Children are no longer drinking milk the way they used to. “There are so many alternatives on the market now — juices, sports drinks, and sodas — and kids would much rather down those,” Dr. Brann explains.

How to serve it up:
If your kid drinks an 8-ounce glass of milk at every meal, she’ll be within shooting range of meeting her daily requirement; this simple step packs in 900 mg of calcium a day. Otherwise, try one of the following at each meal:

  • frozen mac-and-cheese (325 mg)
  • 1 cup fortified almond, rice, or soy milk (300 mg each)
  • 1 cup yogurt or fortified OJ (300 mg each)
  • 1 cup green, leafy veggies (250 mg)
  • low-fat mozzarella string cheese (200 mg)

If dairy’s off-limits and your child can’t stomach leafy greens, she’ll need a supplement. Look for one that contains calcium carbonate, like the chew Viactiv, which is the most easily absorbed, advises Marina Chaparro, R.D.N., a registered dietician at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, FL. If your kid needs more than one, have her take it twice a day with a meal.


How much kids need:
There’s no official recommendation, but experts suggest 1,000 mg a day.

Why they’re key:
Omega-3s appear to boost cognitive development in both infants and kids. The higher the levels in a child’s blood, the better her behavior, concentration, and learning tend to be, according to British researchers.

“Omega-3s are the building blocks of brain cells,” explains Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand. Other research suggests that omega-3s may be protective against ADHD, depression, and asthma.

Who’s missing out:
Nearly all kids. In fact, 91 percent of parents with kids 12 or younger admit that their children aren’t getting the two recommended servings of seafood a week, according to a survey by the fish company Sea Pak. “Fatty fish is the top source of omega-3s, but many kids just don’t like it,” says Jennifer Willoughby, R.D., a pediatric registered dietician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s in Ohio.

How to serve it up:
Aim for two servings of omega-3–rich foods a week, suggests Willoughby. There are three main types of omega-3s, all of which have benefits: DHA and EPA (mainly found in fish) and ALA (found in plant sources). One painless way to sneak in omega-3s: Stir a teaspoon of flaxseed oil into smoothies or cereal. “It adds a nutty taste that goes well with pretty much anything,” says Willoughby Other top sources:

  • 1 oz walnuts (2.5 g ALA)
  • 3.5 oz salmon (1.8 g DHA)
  • ½ cup edamame (500 mg ALA)
  • 2 omega-3 fortified eggs (200 to 300 mg DHA and ALA)

Should you consider a supplement? Probably not. “While research shows that eating fish regularly improves cognition in children, studies have been more mixed with supplements,” Dr. Solomon explains. The AAP stops short of recommending supplements, too.

If your kid really isn’t getting any omega-3s — say, he’s allergic to fish and nuts — then talk to your doctor about possibly taking a supplement. Or give him ¼ teaspoon of fish oil three times a week.


How much kids need:
3,800 mg from ages 3 to 8; 4,500 mg after age 9

Why it’s key:
It does double duty with sodium to control the body’s water balance, which helps regulate blood pressure. It also helps regulate all muscles, including the heart, and may be protective against osteoporosis later in life. Given that potassium plays a huge part in protecting against heart disease in adults, experts believe it’s just as beneficial for kids.

Mild potassium deficiency doesn’t present with symptoms, although your little one may be more prone to muscle cramps or have lower energy. However, those with a more significant deficiency could experience heart palpitations or constipation.

Who’s missing out:
Most kids are mildly deficient, averaging just over 2,000 mg of potassium a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The main reason? They’re skimping on potassium-rich fruits and veggies, getting only about half the servings they need. “We’re also living in a very carbconscious era, and I’ve found that many parents are even limiting starchy fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, potatoes, peas, and corn, which are excellent sources of potassium,” says King.

How to serve it up:
If you can get your child to down his five-a-day of fruits and veggies and three servings of dairy, he’ll be covered, says King. Still, some of the best sources are:

  • 1 cup cooked spinach (840 mg)
  • 1 medium baked potato (800 mg)
  • 1 cup yogurt (490 mg)
  • 1 medium banana (450 mg)
  • 1 cup cantaloupe (430 mg)
  • 1 cup milk (366 mg)

You can’t rely on a multi to make up the potassium difference. Most don’t contain it, and those that do have extremely low levels (less than 100 mg). Another good reason to push the produce!

3 Tips for Choosing a Multivitamin:

  • Look for one that provides the correct amount of nutrients according to the RDA — not Daily Value, which is an outdated standard implemented by the FDA back in 1968.
  • Opt for a chewable tablet. Vitamins in gummy versions are often sprayed on, which makes it harder to get a consistent amount.
  • Look for brands approved by Consumer Lab, such as Flintstone’s Plus Bone-Building Support, Nature’s Plus Animal Parade Gold, and USANA Usanimals. All three contain the claimed amount of nutrients and don’t exceed the upper limits of any vitamin or mineral.

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Photo Credit: James Worrell

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