Nutrition - Child and Youth

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What makes a healthy meal or snack? Choose foods from at least two of the four food groups:

  • Vegetables and fruit - Raw or cooked vegetable and fruit pieces, unsweetened fruit or vegetable juices
  • Grain products - Whole grain breads, pitas, crackers, bagels, roti, muffins, cereals and other grains
  • Milk and alternatives - Dairy milk, soy milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese
  • Meat and alternatives - Legumes, tofu, nut butters, eggs, fish, poultry, lean meats

Children have small tummies and their nutrient needs are high. They need three meals and two to three healthy snacks spread throughout the day in order to meet their growth and development needs. Snacks should be offered at routine times every day. Having a snack at least two hours before a meal allows enough time for children to build up an appetite for the next meal.

Include children in preparing and choosing a variety of snack foods that you can enjoy together. Children learn by example, so model healthy snacking with them! There is no need to restrict nutritious foods because of their fat content. Follow the Canada’s Food Guide to plan healthy snacks.

You can trust your child to know how much he/she needs to eat. Studies have shown that when children eat the amount of food they need they will grow in a way that is right for them. When children are growing quickly, they may eat more. They may eat less when they are growing more slowly. It is okay if your child does not finish their meal.

Benefits of breakfast

Breakfast is an important first meal of the day because it:

  • Gives a child’s growing body and developing brain a chance to refuel after an overnight fast
  • Helps meet a child’s daily nutrient needs for energy, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals
  • Helps children remember things better, pay attention better, learn better and even perform better in school
  • Gives children more energy for active play and sports
  • May also keep children at a healthier weight

What should a healthy breakfast include?

Breakfasts that include foods from three of the four food groups are more likely to meet your child’s daily nutrient needs for energy, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Meeting these daily nutrient needs along with daily physical activity helps kids be healthy and stay healthy.

  • Whole grains: Whole grains provide needed energy, B vitamins and fiber. Learn about how to incorporate more whole grains into your diet. Whole grains include 100% whole wheat bread, large flake oatmeal, barley, brown rice and bulgur wheat. Choose whole grain breads and whole grain cereals and look for the word whole grain listed first or second on the ingredient list. This means the product is a good source of fibre, which helps your child feel comfortably full until the next meal or snack.
  • Protein: Protein helps children keep full until snack time and is a key component to build healthy bodies. Choose lean proteins like eggs prepared without a lot of added fat, scrambled tofu or even homemade baked beans. Assorted nut butters are also an excellent source of protein and can be spread on whole grain bread, or whole grain tortillas. Last night’s leftovers can be a fine source of protein and can add variety (such as meat sauce served on top of whole wheat spaghetti, or a toasted bean quesadilla). Don't forget to plan and prepare ahead - lack of time is often listed as the main reason for skipping breakfast - plan and even prepare ahead if you can even if it’s cracking eggs or cutting up the fruit ahead of time.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are important sources of vitamin like Vitamin A, C and folate, and minerals like iron, potassium and magnesium. They also contribute fiber and energy. Choose the fruit or vegetable over the juice when you can, but offer small amounts of 100% pure, unsweetened juice as the next best thing to the actual fruit or vegetable. Note the serving sizes: for 4-6 year olds no more than 125-175 mL (4-6 oz) juice per day, and for 7-11 year olds, no more than 250-375 mL (8-12 oz) juice per day. You can also add berries on top of cereal or banana slices on top of toast spread with nut butter and include vegetables when scrambling eggs, tofu or making an omelet.
  • Milk products and their alternatives: Milk products and fortified unsweetened soy beverages provide calcium and vitamin D which are needed for healthy bone growth. Check the nutrition fact table or ask a Registered Dietitian about vitamin D content of rice and almond beverages. Serve lower fat milk: skim, or 1% milk or fortified unsweetened soy beverage; or blend low fat yogurt with berries, bananas or other fruits to make a healthy fruit smoothie. 

What does a healthy breakfast meal look like?

The possibilities are endless but here are some ideas to get you going!

  • Whole grain cereal with milk and topped with banana slices
  • Whole wheat toast, scrambled egg and orange slices
  • Plain oatmeal topped with yogurt and berries
  • Whole grain toasted bagel spread with nut butter and apple wedges
  • Whole grain tortilla with beans and melted low fat cheese
  • Frozen (or fresh) mango and plain yogurt smoothie served with a homemade whole grain muffin
  • Scrambled tofu and veggies on a whole wheat English muffin 
  • Whole wheat pancakes topped with unsweetened applesauce and a glass of milk

Lunch and snack ideas

Instead of sandwiches:

  • Whole grain pancakes or waffles with fruit and yogurt
  • Build your own pizza with English muffin or pita, tomato sauce, toppings and grated cheese
  • Falafel or whole wheat pita with veggies
  • Pasta salad, milk, fruit
  • Hard cooked egg, whole grain crackers, red pepper strips
  • Soft taco with bean dip and veggies
  • Unsweetened dry cereal with milk
  • Homemade whole grain muffins:
    • Banana bran muffin and cheese
    • Oatmeal carrot muffin and cottage cheese
    • Cornmeal muffin with BBQ chicken or chili
    • Bran muffin with yogurt and veggie sticks

Dunk-a-lunch

Finger food and dunking are always fun! Try these combinations for a healthy choice:

  • Hummus, bean, or cottage cheese dip served with assorted veggies and pita bread cut into triangles
  • Fresh cut fruit and yogurt
  • French toast with yogurt or applesauce
  • Whole grain bread sticks with fresh tomato salsa and guacamole

Wrap or pita pocket combos

Moisten with plain yogurt mixed with salad dressing.

  • Hard cooked egg, chopped cucumber, onion
  • Chicken chunks, sliced seedless grapes
  • Turkey or marinated cooked tofu chunks, grated carrot, shredded lettuce
  • Salmon or tuna or cooked fish, red and green pepper slices
  • Ricotta cheese, fruit
  • Chopped ham, pineapple
  • Hummus and vegetables
  • Shredded cheese, sliced cucumber
  • Cheese, lettuce, tomato (wrapped separately)
  • Instead of a tortilla, try a “lettuce leaf” wrap with any of the above combinations

Dairy

  • Carrot, celery or bread stick wrapped in cheese
  • Cored apple filled with cheese chunks
  • Finely grated cheese rolled into small balls
  • Chilled milk or fortified soy drink
  • Milk-based pudding
  • Yogurt parfait: Layer plain yogurt, fruit and granola or a high fibre cereal

Anytime snack ideas

  • Cheese or cottage cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Fresh fruit and a glass of milk
  • Raw veggies with yogurt dip
  • Hard cooked egg and toast
  • Meat slices on a whole grain bread or bun
  • Unsweetened fruit or vegetable juice with a muffin

Look for recipes that contain milk or alternatives, whole grains, nut butters, grated, pureed or mashed fruit and vegetables. Remember that some snacks like cookies, ice cream, shakes and puddings are high in fat and sugar. Offer these only occasionally and be sure to brush teeth afterwards to avoid tooth decay.

Lunchbox tips

  • Keep it simple and easy to eat but healthy and appetizing.
  • Try to include foods from each of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide (Vegetables and Fruit, Grain Products, Milk and Alternatives and Meat and Alternatives).
  • Kids love to eat what they create. Let your child choose from a healthy list of choices to create his or her own lunch.
  • Speed-up the process by cutting extra veggies when you’re preparing dinner or by making extra at meals to use as ‘Re-Runs’ for lunches the following day.
  • On a cold day, a small thermos of soup, pasta, or other hot item can be satisfying. Freeze yogurt tubes and juice boxes. This will keep them cool until your child is ready to eat.
  • A child’s taste seems to change on a whim, try new things regularly and don’t be afraid to try them again and again. It can take many exposures to new foods before children learn to like them.

Pack a safe lunch

  • Use clean kitchen equipment to prepare lunches.
  • Refrigerate lunches that are prepared ahead of time.
  • Use an insulated bag with a freezer pack or chilled thermos to keep food cool.
  • Chill milk or freeze drinking water or juice in plastic containers to keep food cool.
  • Use a wide mouth thermos to keep hot food hot. Preheat the thermos with hot water before filling.
  • Wash all vegetables thoroughly, even those in packages labelled “prewashed”.
  • Wash lunch containers every night to keep bacteria from growing and clean them once a week to get rid of odours.
  • Don’t reuse plastic bags – they can hold bacteria.

Tips to avoid choking

  • Soften hard vegetables by cooking them slightly.
  • Grate vegetables such as carrots.
  • Chop fruit into small pieces (even grapes), and be sure to remove large seeds or pits.
  • Cut hot dogs in half lengthwise.
  • Spread nut butters thinly on toast or crackers.
  • Avoid hard or sticky foods like nuts, seeds, popcorn, hard candies, gum.

    Little extras: Non-food treats are special

    • Special napkin or straw
    • Sticker, picture
    • Funny joke, poem, or other note

    Veggies and fruits

    Tips for adding veggies and fruit to the meal:

    • Choose in season produce when possible.
    • Freeze summer fruits to enjoy all year round.
    • Try a fruit smoothie served in a thermos.

    Offer a variety of different choices over the week such as:

    • Cauliflower or broccoli florets
    • Baby corn, fresh sweet radishes
    • Pepper strips (yellow, green, red, orange)
    • Turnip or zucchini sticks
    • Peas in a pod or snow pea pods
    • Cherry tomatoes
    • Melon balls, cherries, berries
    • Kiwi, pears, peaches
    • Papaya, mango

    Leftover lunch ideas

    Cold leftovers

    • Left over pizza
    • Kabobs (e.g. meat or chicken, cheese, fruit, veggies)
    • Burrito with refried beans, cheese, tomato
    • Whole wheat steamed Asian bun
    • Homemade baked samosas
    • Vietnamese salad rolls
    • A chicken drumstick

    Hot leftovers

    • Stew
    • Curry
    • Chili
    • Casserole
    • Stir fried vegetables with tofu
    • Perogies/pot stickers
    • Spaghetti and meatballs
    • Macaroni and cheese
    • Baked beans
    • Soup or chowder

    Concerns about food allergies?

    Visit our Allergies and Anaphylaxis resource page. 

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