Healthy Eating for Growing Bodies & Minds
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist who treats eating disorders—and as a parent—I have invested many hours trying to learn the most important principles of nutrition for physical and mental health. Even with my medical knowledge, I sometimes find it overwhelming to incorporate all of the information from medical journals, newspapers, my pediatrician, and other parents:
A healthy diet should limit excess calories and saturated fat to decrease the risk of future health problems such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 Diabetes.
A balanced diet for growing children should contain adequate iron, to prevent iron-deficient anemia, as well as sufficient calcium, to provide for skeletal growth and bone mineralization, to prevent future osteoporosis.
Added sugar should be limited, to prevent dental cavities.
Other important nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin D, potassium, etc., must also be considered.
The list goes on …
Fortunately, the 2015–2020 dietary guidelines reflect what many parents already understand well. These guidelines are grounded in actual existing eating behaviors and suggest introducing variety and moderation to help achieve a balanced and nutritious diet. While these guidelines were not uniformly celebrated by the experts, they do offer guidance for adopting healthy eating patterns with measurable goals that are tangible for parents to implement.
- Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
- Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all.
These guidelines broadly map out the principles to maintain a healthy body weight, obtain adequate nutrition, and prevent chronic disease. More specific dietary intake references ranges are available.
But thinking of meals in strictly mathematical terms does not factor in the pleasure of taste and the joy of sharing a meal with others. What about parents who wish to impart a healthy attitude toward eating? In addition to providing adequate nourishment, parents may also want to guide their children how to eat healthy when they grow up—not only to maintain health, but also to be successful, adaptive adults who feel comfortable in many settings (regardless of the meal that is served).
Here are the goals that I set for the families that I treat, as well as for my own:
- Serve variety: Include all major food groups throughout the day without overly emphasizing that each meal has to have it all.
- Introduce and try new foods that allow for expanded food variety: Even if a food or meal is rejected on the first or second introduction, keep serving it.
- Set consistent meal times to teach healthy eating patterns: 3 meals per day, 1–2 snacks.
- Provide portions to meet your child’s demands for the day: Consider an extra snack or denser (higher fat) foods on a day with a test or athletic event.
- Encourage a family meal: Eating the meal served (rather than requesting a special order) helps children practice being adaptive (and polite). More flexible eating and thinking prepares them for summer camp, college, and beyond.
- Avoid black-and-white rules about good versus bad food: Desserts, fried foods, and salty snacks—in moderation—can all be part of a healthy diet.
- Model openness and flexibility: Eating meals together and showing that your food choices include variety and a willingness to try new tastes is an important part of teaching healthy eating habits.
Balance and moderation, concepts that apply to good parenting, are also key to feeding children. Keeping this in mind should make it possible—in most situations—to be a little less overwhelmed in the pursuit of healthy nourishment.
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
Eve K. Freidl, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD). Her areas of expertise are eating and anxiety disorders. Eve is also the mother of two children, and finds that sometimes serving meals with balance and moderation is easy … and sometimes not so much.