Nutrition For Your Toddler and Teen

By: Elizabeth Lowder

Nutrition is an essential factor for a healthy life across a person's lifespan. However, in childhood proper nutrition is crucial for normal development. It is important for parents to know the importance of a healthy and balanced diet during childhood and possible consequences that may result from a lack of various nutrients.

Prenatal and Infancy Nutrition

Nutrition in a child's life is directly influenced by the child's caretaker. Studies show that if a pregnant mother's diet is poor, the fetus can experience a loss of brain weight (Berk, 2014). They can also experience suppressed immune systems in infancy as a result of poor nutrition. Research has also alluded that there is connection to low intelligence and learning skills in impoverished homes; this may possibly be a result of inadequate nutrient intake (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014). In addition to other health benefits, breast feeding is often considered the best feeding technique for infants (if the mother or a surrogate is able to) because it is free, natural, and sufficiently nutritious.

Start Healthy Eating Habits Early

For new, or even expectant, parents, adequate nutrition is a vital, yet it is often disregarded, for a healthy child. While society seems to accept unhealthy eating habits during pregnancy as typical, it is still important for a developing fetus to get a nutritionally healthy and diverse food supply. Some research has shown that early stages of atherosclerosis, or the build up of fat and plaque in/on artery walls, can develop as early in an unborn fetus. In the United States, nine percent of infants and twelve percent of children ages two to five may be considered overweight and/or obese (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014).

Smart Children Eat Healthy

There are numerous research studies on the affects of obesity/malnutrition on brain development and the child's intellectual performance. Studies have shown that the percent of body fat had an inverse correlation with their scores on reading and spelling tests. This means that the higher percentage body fat the child has, the worse they are likely do on reading and spelling tests (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014). Likewise, it has also been shown that overweight children were reported to have lower inhibition responses; they were less self-controlled than their peers who had healthy weights. In a study of elementary school girls, those who gained enough weight to qualify as overweight (during the four years the study was held) performed worse on math and reading tests than their peers who remained at a healthy weight during the study. If overweight children's weight is not monitored and adjusted accordingly, it could lead to unhealthy eating patterns when they get older. Obesity in adolescence has been linked to attention problems, among other mentally-based issues. Similarly, overweight adults are shown to be at a greater risk for cognitive declines in late life, such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014).

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The US Department of Agriculture has come out with a new image, shown above, to help people know how much of each type of food to eat in a given meal (Salomon, 2012). This graphic, called MyPlate, is simplistic and easy to comprehend. There is a section for fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy. Each section varies in size depending upon the amount of food in each category which should be consumed at each meal. It is also important that different meals include various types of the vegetables, grains, etc. Showing your child this diagram, and defining each category with what foods qualify, will help them see what they should compose their meals of. It is important for you as a parent to know this diagram so that whenever you plan a meal you know to satisfy each category in sufficient amounts.

Health for Teens

While parental direction over the types of and amount of food their children eat decreases when their child becomes a teenager, it is important for parents to be aware of possible developing issues. The variation of eating habits teens will adopt when they are able to decide what they eat is extremely diverse; therefore it is important to be aware of the different courses the teen could take.

While some will take advantage of the newfound freedom to consume vast amounts of sugary, calorie-loaded foods, others may take a vastly different approach. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are incredibly detrimental to the person's health. Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness in which a person, oftentimes a female adolescent or young adult, feels the need to restrict their caloric intake or the types of food they eat. This can be in order to obtain the societally-deemed beautiful body ideal of thinness. Anorectic behaviors may also be developed in response to stress; some people, often those who suffer from anxiety, depression, etc. may feel relief by being able to control what they eat and how many calories they consume and/or expend.

Although anorexics often have similar backgrounds, in which the mother has high expectations for academic, athletic, etc. performance and the father is emotionally distant, these are not necessary for a person to develop an eating disorder, nor will every teen in this home environment become anorexic (Berk, 2014). Warning signs of an eating disorder that are important to watch for as parents are sudden weight loss, a reluctance to eat with others, obsession with their appearance, etc. If you think your child may be suffering from this type of illness, more information of possible signs and intervention methods may be found at the link below.

Healthy Habits Start with Family

Children and teenagers are highly influenced by family. The environment they come home to can determine their motivation and happiness levels. Studies show that children with overweight or obese parents are more likely to suffer from weight problems. This may be attributed to the fact that parents often plan and/or determine meal plans. If the parents want to eat junk food five nights a week, then the children will most likely eat these foods as well. Also, parents using high-fat, sugary foods in order to bribe their children (to do chores, finish their vegetables, etc.) can lead to the child being more inclined to choose these types of food when offered (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014). Changing these parental habits can have lasting impacts on the child's overall health throughout their life; starting healthy eating habits early in life allows them to become accustomed to it and may even encourage them to grow to enjoy healthy foods. Research has shown that by simply giving toddlers and young children vegetables, fruits, or other healthy foods at meals, they are more inclined to grow up and enjoy eating them (Khan, Raine, Donovan, & Hillman, 2014).

The consequences of leading children to desire only, or mainly, junk food and indulging their wants is depicted in the video below. An excerpt from the popular show Wife Swap, it depicts the health-conscious mother Joy intervening on the Holland family who is accustomed to eating unhealthy options at almost every meal. Due to this, the youngest male of the Holland family, Curtis, has a tempter tantrum at the threat of his beloved bacon being taken away.

"Bacon is good for me!"

Be a Role Model

It is a well known fact that children look up to their parents; they see them as perfect and invincible, the keepers of all wisdom. However, as a parent, you know this is not the case. It is important to be a mindful and aware parent. Knowing the facts about nutrition is vital in order to raise a happy and healthy child. What you eat, your children eat; if you eat healthy, balanced meals, then your children will to. As long as you as a parent have the will to exhibit healthy behaviors, then you will be able to have a lasting positive affect on your children's nutritional habits.


Berk, L. (2014). Development Through the Lifespan (Sixth ed.). Illinois, Chicago: Pearson.

Khan, N.A., Raine, L. B., Donovan, S.M., &Hillman, C.H. (2014). the relation of childhood physical activity to brain health , cognition, and scholastic achievement: IV. The cognitive implications of obesity and nutrition in childhood. Monographs Of The Society For Research In Child Development, 79(4), 51-71. doi: 10.1111/mono.12130

Salomon, J. (2012, February 1). MyPlate helps remind people how to make smart, healthy eating choices. Retrieved November 10, 2015, from