We asked Dr Joanna McMillan to answer common questions parents have while ensuring their children eat a range of nutritional foods, and have met their daily dietary requirements.
Throw in some food allergies and intolerances, plus the minefield that is packaged foods, and no wonder that nutrition is one of the biggest concerns that parents have, right from the moment their little one hits the six-month mark and begins to eat solid food for the first time.
From the moment children begin on solid foods, our intentions are good – fresh produce, organic only, locally grown….etc. As the meme goes, eventually they are eating corn chips of the floor and we’re just glad they’re eating something.
But, as we know even on those relaxed days, the challenge never goes away: our children return from school with lunches uneaten, we worry if they eat a lot more than we do, or a lot less, and packaged food can be confusing, send our children on a behavioral spiral, or just not agree with their tiny tummies.
At KidSpace Gold Coast, we have the same concerns as most parents. That’s why we were super excited to be able to ask Dr Joanna McMillan, Nutritional Advisor for Freedom Foods, some questions about childhood nutrition, and to have her answer them for us:
My 8 year old boy ‘forgets’ to eat his school lunch. How can I ensure he is eating properly throughout the day?
Most kids will have days where they come home and frustratingly your lovingly packed lunch is half eaten or worse still barely touched. The answer given is that they were busy playing, had some extra curricular activity on or some other distraction. My advice is not to worry too much, provided the child is a healthy weight, growing and developing appropriately and eating well outside of school. In an ideal world of course we do want them to eat a healthy lunch, but at the end of the day if you ensure a nutritious breakfast, afternoon tea when they come home and dinner, then their nutritional needs will be met. To save food waste (and your annoyance!) try giving them their packed lunch as their afternoon snack if it comes home uneaten – provided it’s been kept cold of course and hasn’t been squashed in their bag. To encourage him to eat his lunch talk to him about managing his time and the importance of eating to fuel his afternoon – his brain in the classroom and his muscles if playing sport. Lastly do ensure his lunch is easy and quick to eat – few kids will take the time to deal with fiddly food, or too many items. Keep it simple and easy, with only a few options and you stand a better chance of an empty lunchbox coming home.
What are the nutritional requirements of a 13 year old girl? Should she eat the same as an adult or should she be eating more of certain food groups?
A 13 year old girl needs more calcium than an adult woman since she is still growing and to develop her optimal bone density – the RDI for adult woman is 1000mg while for a 13 year old it is 1300mg. The recommendation to meet this is for her to include 3.5 serves of dairy foods (milk, yoghurt and/or cheese) every day. If she can’t or won’t eat dairy then a calcium fortified soy milk or other fortified alternative is pretty essential. The other nutrient to watch for is iron as girls of this age often choose to avoid or eat less red meat. Once they start to menstruate their iron requirements almost double from 8mg/d to 15mg/d. It’s tricky, although not impossible, to meet this requirement without animal sources of iron, as these are better absorbed than plant sources. Finally, in terms of energy, this is very much dependent on how active she is. Be guided by her appetite and whether she is a healthy weight – teaching her to have a good relationship with food and to enjoy healthy food is key at this age.
Is it true that food with additives have an impact on a child’s behaviour?
Yes, but not all food additives. The now famous “Southampton 6” are six artificial colours that were identified in a study by Southampton University in the UK to lead to behavioural changes in some children. The old news is that many companies are voluntarily phasing out these colours and using natural alternatives instead. Some kids may also be particularly sensitive to chemicals in foods, and so it’s certainly worthwhile paying attention to changes in their behaviour, but it’s all too easy to attribute normal playing up behaviour to a food. The bottom line is if their diet is mostly fresh whole foods then the odd packaged food with additives probably won’t affect them. In contrast a diet filled with many packaged food and lacking the nutrients found in whole foods will of course affect their physical and mental health, caused as much by the absence of nutrients as the inclusion of additives.
When buying packaged food for my child, what should I look for when reading a food label?
My advice is to read the ingredients list first. If it reads like a list of food ingredients that you could buy and recognise, that’s a good start. If it has a long list of ingredients with many items that you don’t recognise or look like they belong in the chemistry lab, then put it back. Then look at the nutrition information panel and check out the sugar content, the sodium content and so on. Depending on the food category what to look for is different, but in essence use this to compare products and choose those generally with less sugar (although do recognise the nutrition panel does not differentiate between added and naturally occurring sugars) and less sodium. Importantly look at the kilojoules per serve and have a rough idea of how many kilojoules they need in a day. If a healthy looking oat bar contains 1000kJ per bar this is way too much for a child! You’ll find more information on energy requirements on https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/
How do I know if my child has a food intolerance or allergy?
Allergies and intolerances often have the same symptoms, although an intolerance does not involve the immune system. Things to look for primarily are skin conditions, respiratory symptoms and gut symptoms. These may not be food related as allergies can also be to environmental agents, but this is your start point. Then seek the help of an experienced dietitian in this are to help you to pinpoint the problem. Allergies are more easily diagnosed as they do involve the immune system and therefore an allergy clinic can test various foods and identify any problems.