Children can be very energetic, especially when all their bodily systems are functioning optimally. They can engage in active play that involves running, jumping, wrestling, dancing, and singing for three hours straight; sometimes even longer. Just reading that list of activities aloud can make an adult tired!
My daughter, who is now two years old, is no exception to being energetic. Even as a baby, she was bouncier than other infants, and would be awake and moving for four to six hours. As a parent, a valid concern would be: how do you nourish the body of a child who engages in physical activities that require a lot of energy?
Balancing is not simple
The body’s fuel is sugar. But supplying fuel to little bodies is a bit tricky because parents must also prevent their children from being hyperactive. Children, especially in the first few years, also need naps or enough sleep to support their rapid growth and development. But these can be hampered by too much sugar supply. Thus, balancing nourishment and rest during their childhood years cannot be overemphasized.
Sugar is mostly obtained from carbohydrates. Good sources are those that are not literally laden with sweets or simple sugars; which are popularly known as sucrose, fructose, dextrose, or dextrin. When food is high in glycemic index or simple sugars, the tendency is for the body to have a sugar high with fast burning of fuel. Although the process may provide a surge of energy, it will not be the sustained type that can nourish. To illustrate further, imagine a marathon runner who did not eat right sources of carbohydrate before an event; he may run briskly for a few meters but will eventually tire and lag towards the finish line. The common fares that you should avoid giving your child are processed cereals, white rice or bread, cakes, doughnuts, pizza, and power bars, to name a few.
Good carbohydrate sources are those with sugar and fiber to moderate burning of fuel and temper digestion. Camote or sweet potato, saba banana, whole grain bread, brown or red rice, and whole grain pasta are some examples of nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources. Being mindful of choosing your child’s carbohydrates will go a long way in feeding not only their bodies but also sustaining them throughout the day.
Aside from carbohydrates, protein and fats are also needed by active kids. They help maintain muscle and bone integrity for movement. They also repair damages and facilitate wound healing. These nutrients usually come from animal food sources like fish, chicken, beef, and pork as well as dairy. When choosing meat for your children, quality should not be compromised over quantity. The rule of thumb is that meat should be as fresh and lean as possible. Processed meats, although cheaper and require less time to prepare, may be laden with preservatives, artificial flavorings, and simple sugars. You would not want to feed your precious little ones with possibly treated meat. Not only do they lack in nutrients, but they may also cause illness in the long run. Parents, who prefer a vegan lifestyle for their family, may also utilize non-meat sources like chia seeds, buckwheat, hemp seeds, sprouts, and legumes.
Vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables should cover a large part of your child’s daily meals. These nutrients complement energy from sugar by supplying the body with necessary ingredients for bodily functions. Vitamin A is for eyesight, while B complex is for nerve function. On the other hand, vitamin C boosts the immune system, as well as promotes cell repair. Vitamin D aids in bone function, via calcium absorption, while vitamin E is for cellular repair and at the same time limits harmful oxidation.
Creativity is key
As your child gets older, he or she may engage in sports activities and may continue to have high energy requirements. Compared with adults; infants, toddlers, children, and young adults also have an increased need for iron and calcium. These special nutrients support rapid growth and tissue repair. For females, a higher iron requirement also facilitates the menstrual cycle.
Creativity is vital to ensure that kids will develop healthy eating habits early on and meet their nutritional requirements. A mother or father should be able to encourage their child, without coercion, to have the right food choices that should continue until adulthood. Here are some tips that parents could follow:
1. Be a good model – Before parents could encourage their son or daughter to have a balanced diet, they need to modify their eating and parenting habits. Avoid eating at fast food chains, or using it as a reward or positive reinforcement for good behavior. When your child sees that you prefer whole grains and milk, over doughnuts and instant coffee, he or she may follow suit. Besides, the food you prefer will also be the ones frequently available at home, and thus accessible to your child. Educate yourself about what your little ones need most and revise your tastes accordingly. This will result in a better health condition for you and your kids.
2. Make meals pleasant – Good conversation and food presentation are important so that mealtimes are something that a child will look forward to. It is sad when after much preparation; your son or daughter will not even have a bite of the food you cooked because it’s not plated well. Establish a meal routine and have the whole family sit at the dining table and eat together. You can even tell stories about the food on the plates or showcase the different colors and tastes of the ingredients in the viands. In my case, my daughter loves broccoli because she imagines it as a flower bouquet! Also, she drinks yogurt milk for breakfast, and we all make a toast with our mugs and say, “Cheers!”
3. Come up with meal plans – Way before I had my daughter, my husband and I already decided to have a healthier diet. Initially, the move was a bit difficult because the consumption of more non-processed food, fruits, and vegetables is also prone to more food spoilage. But planning your meals in advance will help a lot! Have menu cycles that may be for as short as a week, or as long as a month. This can make your grocery or palengke shopping more systematic and allow you to have better time (even budget) management. It may just require that you buy fruits and vegetables twice weekly (as they cannot be stored long in the ref), or cooking twice as required for storage and reheating of one meal in the week. However, you will get the hang of it in no time.
If your child engages in sports, he or she may need to eat two to three hours before the event. Sandwich with chicken/tuna or egg, brown rice pasta with veggies, may be consumed. A snack, 30-60 minutes before warm-up, may also provide the needed fuel top-up. Planning the carbohydrate meal or snacks will definitely affect his performance. Avoid high-fiber snacks though, as this may burn a bit longer and also cause more work for his tummy that can be distracting. Banana, avocados, homemade oatmeal cookies, or whole grain pancakes are some packed snack suggestions.
4. Water is important – Hydration is necessary as water aids digestion and composes a large part of our body! A rigorous activity will also produce more sweat and may lead to dehydration without enough water. If you notice sluggishness or fatigue in your child, especially while playing outdoors, lack of water may be the reason. Having a handy frequently-refilled water bottle will reap a lot of rewards given that it will be easier for your child to grasp and sip or drink from it.
As a mother, I could say that nourishing an active child properly is feasible amidst massive junk food marketing. It just takes discipline and practice for the entire household. My toddler would also be occasionally tempted to eat chocolate candies, ice cream, hotdog, corn chips, etc. But we consciously limit these in our pantry and avoid them as snacks. Remember, what is usually out of sight, will be out of mind (this is especially applicable in children).