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Feeding and Nutrition

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

189 - Family Dinnerimage by eyeliam (lic)Children require a balanced and healthy diet in order to fuel the amazing physical growth and bodily change occurring during Middle Childhood. As children become increasingly independent across all domains of their lives, they start to make more of their own food choices. This is the case at school where children may have a choice of lunch, and will likely make their own snack selections. It is also likely to be the case when children are away from home with friends. It may even be the case in children's own homes, as they increasingly become capable of fixing their own snacks and meals and determining their own portion sizes. Children's growing independence is inevitable and in many ways desirable, but it comes at the cost of parents ability to control what children will eat. The trick for parents at this stage, then, is to manage to foster children's independent healthy eating choices without over-stepping and over-controlling children's food selections, possibly setting the stage for children's later unhealthy relationship with food.

Parents should provide children with a menu that includes foods from all of the basic food groups, offering mostly nutrient-dense foods and minimizing "junk foods" that are low in nutrient value and high in sugar, fat, and salt. Parents also need to stock the pantry with healthy snack choices. Children need to learn how to make healthy food selections and to control how much they eat when parents are not present to do these things for them. To achieve this goal, children should be included in family grocery shopping and cooking chores so as to teach them by example how to read food nutrition labels, how to measure portions, how to follow recipes and how to prepare foods using healthier cooking methods, including grilling, steaming and baking.

A possible barrier to improving the family diet is that healthy foods often cost more than junk foods; in terms of money, but also in terms of time. It is expensive to buy fresh produce, lean meats, and whole grains, and even more so if the family decides to purchase organic foods produced without pesticides. Healthy foods typically require more prep time than do junk foods, and they spoil faster as well. Nevertheless, the nutritional benefits of healthy foods offset their additional costs. If families are struggling to provide their children with healthy foods, they may obtain help by visiting a food pantry, or alternatively, applying for financial assistance or "food stamps".

Children's Caloric Needs

As children grow physically larger, their caloric needs increase and they start needing to eat more.

On average, 8-year-olds require between 1400 and 1600 calories every day. At this age puberty is still something that will occur in the future. Accordingly, boys and girls are still about the same size, and thus require about the same amount of food.

Puberty transforms children's bodies starting in late middle childhood. As their size and general activity levels change as a result of puberty, boys and girls start to require different amounts of daily calories. Between the ages of 9 and 12, girls need approximately 1600 to 2000 calories each day. In contrast, boys between the ages of 9 and 12 need approximately 1800-2200 calories per day. These calorie ranges are wide so as to allow for individual children's varying needs. Not surprisingly, shorter, less active children require fewer calories, while taller, more active children require more calories to stay healthy.

The post-puberty caloric ranges described above will not apply to all children. Some kids may require more calories than others if they are engaged in vigorous activity for long periods of time on most days, such as intense sport involvement or heavy farm work. Caregivers should consult with their pediatrician regarding their children's unique caloric needs, based on age, height, weight, and activity level. The overall goal is to ensure that children consume enough food to fuel their growth and development but not enough to push them towards obesity and associated health problems.

Calorie counts can be found on the labels of packaged foods. As well, many commercial web sites and other informational media in grocery stores list the calorie content of many other foods, like fresh produce or meat. Most restaurants will also provide customers with nutritional information about their menus when requested. Many publish caloric information about their menu items on their web sites.