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Getting our kids to eat a healthy diet can be challenging. Whether your child is a fussy eater, time pressures mean you often order takeaway, or the cost of a fresh meal seems too high, at the end of a long day, no parent enjoys the prospect of trying to convince reluctant children to eat their greens.
It can seem so much simpler to just get them to chew a specially-formulated kid’s vitamin and be done with it (the gummy ones look just like lollies - so easy!).
But is that necessary and, more importantly, is it good for their health?
Generally speaking, children need the same vitamins as adults, but in smaller amounts.
Instead of thinking in terms of vitamin quantities, think in terms of food groups and serving requirements.
“The two minerals most likely to be limited in children are iron and calcium,” says University of Newcastle professor of nutrition and dietetics, Clare Collins.
“So if your child is drinking what they call plant-based milk (such as soy or almond milk), make sure it’s calcium fortified.”
Those most at risk of iron deficiency are toddlers and teenagers, who have increased iron requirements because of rapid growth spurts. “For toddlers, one of the highest sources of iron is iron-fortified cereal. If they don’t like red meat, they can also get it from fish, chicken and baked beans,” Clare says.
“Iron absorbs better with vitamin C, so include vitamin C-rich food such as tomatoes, capsicum or broccoli.”
However, instead of thinking in terms of vitamin quantities, think in terms of food groups and serving requirements.
“I recommend parents look at the Australian Government chart which tells you how many serves your child needs depending on their age.
“As a general rule, the bigger variety in foods your child is eating the better. Go for a broad range of colour in terms of fruit and vegetables.” Clare, along with other nutrition experts at the University of Newcastle, developed a quiz for parents to be able to tell if their children are getting adequate nutrients, plus suggestions on how to improve their diet.
“Most parents use vitamins as an insurance policy, however it’s not a good idea to rely on vitamin supplements to make up for what you perceive as a gap,” Clare says. “It’s far better to role model healthy eating habits; it doesn’t have to be fancy.”
Research shows that vitamins found in food are far easier for your body to metabolise than vitamins found in supplements.
“Many of the supplements provide a day’s requirements in one pill, and your body simply can’t absorb it all at once, particularly if other foods aren’t present. Because what’s not included in vitamins are all the phytonutrients and trace elements found in real food. Your body needs these to run better and they’re just not found in supplements.
“The exception are kids with medical problems that affect vitamin and mineral absorption, or those with food allergies such as coeliac disease. But most healthy people don’t need to take vitamins.”
One of the most frustrating things for parents is kids getting to dinnertime not hungry because they’ve either eaten too many snacks or dinner is late and they’re overtired.
“Many families eat dinner too late, so eat as early as you possibly can, even if that means batch cooking every second day,” Clare explains.
Most childcare centres operate according to government nutrition requirements, Clare says, “but if you have other carers for your children, it’s worth having a chat to them about what you want your kids to eat.”
“Put sweet potato with potato, for example.”
“Instead of trying to force your child to eat, say ‘I love how you ate that’ and try to ignore what they haven’t tasted.”
“Calling things cute names like ‘little trees’ for broccoli is a great trick.”
When kids know why something is good for them (‘milk makes your bones strong!’) it’s something tangible they can relate to.
Remember frozen vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh.
We know that letting your kids run amok in the kitchen often turns into a mess, but try and get them involved. Even small jobs like getting vegetables from the fridge can help them invest more in the meal.
Never exceed the recommended dose, even if your child is sick and you want to give them a ‘boost’. Taking too much iron, for example, can be extremely dangerous for children.
If a doctor prescribes medication to your child, be aware that some drugs interact badly with vitamins, so let them know what vitamins your child is taking.
Check the ingredients list if your child has allergies.
Finally, avoid vitamin brands that are high in sugar or artificial sweeteners or vitamins that look like lollies. Teaching your kids to associate vitamins with lollies is not going to be great for their long-term health!
And the expert’s final advice? “Just don’t buy them at all!” Clare says. “At the end of the day, vitamin supplements aren’t cheap. A better safeguard for your health would be to spend the money you save from not buying supplements, on buying more vegetables and fruit.”
Having a baby and raising a toddler is hard work – emotionally, physically and financially. That’s why at nib, we offer our members access to the Nourish Baby program. Free of charge to eligible members, this program aims to help prepare parents on what to expect during the early stages of pregnancy through to the first three years of your child’s life, using evidence-based education. For more information on Nourish Baby, check out our Health Management Programs page.
For more myth-busting health tips, check out our article Fresh vs frozen: Which vegetables are better?
Clare Collins is a Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics in the School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medicine at the University of Newcastle. Passionate about creating healthy communities, Clare is focused on developing innovation new technologies to evaluate nutrition and dietary intake including The Healthy Eating Quiz and the Australian Eating Survey.