By Dr Poh Bee Koon
Feeding your child may be one of your most important tasks as a parent. By giving him healthy and nutritious food, he will be able to meet the daily nutrient requirements he needs to enhance his growth and development throughout childhood. It will also safeguard his health for life.
Wholesome and nutritious diet
A balanced and nutritious diet for growth should comprise a wide variety of foods. These foods are categorised into various food groups rice, cereals and cereal-based products; fruits and vegetables; meat, fish, poultry and legumes; and milk and dairy products. You should eat more of certain food groups and less of others. The Food Guide Pyramid is an easy reference for the foods to offer your child.
The Pyramid places the common food groups on different levels. You should give your child most food from the base of the Pyramid and least from the top.
As a rule, give rice, bread, other cereals and cereal-based foods as the main sources of energy. These starchy foods are a good source of energy for children. It gives them the fuel to grow, learn, play and explore, as is their natural inclination at this age.
Give your child both fruits and vegetables every day; one cannot substitute the other for its nutrient contents. Fruits and vegetables provide children with the vitamins and minerals to grow and develop, build a strong immune system, and maintain a healthy body. Fruits and vegetables also contain fibre, which helps improve digestive health and prevent constipation.
Protein provides amino acids, which the body uses to build muscles and other tissues. Fish, lean meat, poultry and eggs are good sources of protein, which is also available in beans, bean products and pulses. A mixture of animal and plant sources of protein is best for your child.
By eating fish, lean meat, poultry, and vegetables (for example, spinach or kangkung), your child will also be getting iron. Iron helps the blood transport oxygen to all parts of the body. This mineral is crucial, as it helps keep your child active and alert.
Unfortunately, many children lack this mineral in their diet. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among children worldwide. Rest assured, however, that your child will get sufficient iron if he eats a well-balanced diet that conforms to the Food Guide Pyramid.
You should also give milk, milk products (cheese, yoghurt) and other calcium-rich foods daily. The calcium is used to build strong bones and teeth. Other calcium-rich foods are fish with edible bones (e.g. sardines, ikan bilis), bean products (e.g. tofu, beancurd, tempeh), and green leafy vegetables.
Children need the fat found in foods. It gives them energy, essential fatty acids and helps transport fat-soluble vitamins in their body. It also helps in the development of body cells (including the brain and nervous system).
Most foods are bound to contain fat. You can cut down on dietary fat by using less oil when cooking. Having said this, it is unwise to severely restrict the fat intake of young children, unless they are overweight.
It is all right to offer your child cheese and full-cream milk if he has a normal body weight and is physically active.
Keeping an eye on eating
Perhaps you are already offering these foods to your child, but you may be facing problems feeding him. Does your toddler or pre-schooler refuse to eat during main mealtimes, eat only one type of food, eat very little or not like eating at all?
On the other hand, do teach your child about healthy eating habits and making wise food choices. You should be a good role model and be patient in guiding your child. Most importantly, make healthy eating enjoyable, not a cause for rebellion and tantrums.
The right time to eat
Children should learn to observe regular mealtimes. The three main meals of the day breakfast, lunch and dinner should contribute to a major portion of children's daily nutritional requirements.
Breakfast: Don't let your child miss breakfast. It should be a nutritious start to the day. A combination of milk, eggs, porridge, bread, cheese, cereal, fruits or fruit juices makes for a wholesome breakfast. This way, he will get the energy and nutrients to kick-start his school day, help him concentrate, have better memory, and generally learn better in class.
If your child is reluctant to eat during the early hours of the morning, sit down at the table and invite him to join you. Treat it as your special time together before he goes off to school.
Lunch and dinner: Energy and nutrients can be used up during the course of your child's day. Having lunch and dinner at approximately the same time every day will help sustain him throughout the whole day.
Rice is a good choice for these two meals. However, you can alternate them with noodles, chee cheong fun or pasta. But be sure to include meat and vegetables for a nutritionally complete meal. Try to be as creative as you can, to make the meals more appealing and appetising. Younger children, in particular, usually need to be enticed to eat.
One of the joys of being a parent is watching your child grow, especially when you're already doing your best to provide the proper nutrition to help him along.
For more information about childhood nutrition, visit http://www.nutriweb.org.my. Parents with young children can also contact the secretariat of NSM's Bright Start Nutrition programme at: 03-5621 1408 or e-mail email@example.com. This article is part of an educational series disseminated for Nutrition Month Malaysia, jointly organised by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, Malaysian Dietitians Association and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity, and supported by the Health Ministry.Dr Poh Bee Koon, nutritionist, is the honorary secretary of Nutrition Society of Malaysia.