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Healthy Snacks Are Key to Young Children's Overall Nutrition

Nutrition during the first years of your child's life is critical, not just for growth and development but also for establishing lifelong healthy eating habits and preventing weight-related diseases, such as childhood obesity and diabetes. Focusing on good nutrition, diverse food options and healthy snacks, rather than calories and weight, can help teach kids how to eat healthy and make smart decisions for themselves.

"Instilling good eating habits early can help put a child on the path to a healthy future," says Dr. Kathleen Reidy, a registered dietitian and head of Nutrition Science for Meals and Drinks in Nestlé's Infant Nutrition department.

Reidy is the lead author of Nestlé's Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), which is the largest dietary-intake survey of young children from birth to 4 years old in the United States.

"Nestlé realized a huge gap in nutrition information available for this age group, and this study help fills that gap," Reidy says. "It is a valuable resource in the pediatric and health community and referenced by organizations, such as the FDA and AAP."

The initial study was completed in 2002, and Nestlé has continued to collect and analyze data and learn from it. The findings that were published in 2008 have been updated and were presented at the 2014 Experimental Biology conference on April 28 in San Diego, Calif.

The power of snacks
At a time when Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition standards and guidelines are being implemented across the United States, these insights may have implications for helping address childhood obesity even before kids go to school.

"Our findings indicate snacks provide a significant portion—25 percent—of calories in children 1 to 4 years old," Reidy says.

The study also found that young children who consume snacks away from home—at daycare, friends' houses or while running errands with Mom or Dad—eat an additional 50 calories per day.

According to the study, children who eat one or more snacks away from home are more likely to consume sweets, such as cookies, candy and sweetened beverages, and less likely to consume milk.

Dairy intake
Milk is key in children's diets and a top contributor of many important nutrients, including protein; calcium; vitamins A, D and B12; thiamin; and riboflavin. However, it was found to be one of the top sources of saturated fat in children's diets because they were generally consuming whole or two percent milk. Therefore, the recommendation is not for parents to limit milk, but instead to offer lower-fat options, such as one percent and skim.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk from 0 to 12 months old, whole milk from 1 to 2 years old and low-fat milk after age 2. If heart disease runs in a child's family, the AAP advises switching to low-fat milk at 1 year old.

"Nestlé supports the World Health Organization's recommendation of breastfeeding children for the first six months their lives, then introducing safe and appropriate complementary foods, preferably while continuing to breastfeed, until children turn 2," Reidy says. "Whenever you make the switch to low-fat milk, make sure you add healthy fat. Avocado, fish and products made with olive, canola and safflower oils are all good sources of it. Children do need fat but tend to not get enough healthy fat."

Nutrients on the go
Kids also have trouble getting enough of the daily recommended amount of nutrients, such as calcium to build strong bones; iron to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells; potassium to aid in nerve and muscle function and water balance; and fiber to help with digestion and food intake.

"Nutrition issues during this period can have lifelong effects," Reidy says. "The period of 0 to 4 years old is such a critical time in child development because every organ system in kids' bodies is developing and being shaped and formed rapidly."

Reidy says families can play an important role in this development by providing nutritious snacks, especially when on the go, by cutting up fresh fruits or precooked veggies to pack in to-go containers.

Many food distributors, such as Gerber, which is part of Nestlé, package healthy snacks in convenient pouches or single-serving containers.

"Snacks provide nutrition throughout the day for energy, so think of them as mini-meals rather than treats," Reidy says. "Plan ahead, and talk to your child's other caretakers, such as family members and daycare providers, to make sure you're on the same page."

Fruits and veggies
During the second year, it is especially important for parents to provide healthy options when transitioning their kids to table food. According to Reidy, between 9 and 11 months old, kids consume more veggies than at any other time between birth and 4 years old. When baby food drops out of the diet, kids consume much fewer veggies and the quality of the veggies changes. For example, starchy potatoes replace vitamin-rich yellow and green veggies.

To help kids get the nutrients they need, Reidy recommends snacks that contain a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains and ones that limit saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

"Expose kids to different tastes and textures, and pay attention to the developmental appropriateness of foods. Kids don't always have the motor skills to eat a wide variety of food," Reidy says. "It's important to track your child's growth and check with his or her pediatrician for individualized nutrition plans."

Gerber provides a number of valuable resources on child nutrition on its website, It is organized by development stage and has an online meal planner and a 24/7, helpline 1-800-284-9488.

Additional findings from the study:

  • A few foods contribute almost 50 percent of daily calories; these include milk, cheese, bread and rolls, ready-to-eat cereals, chicken, turkey and butter or margarine.
  • Preschoolers consume nearly one-third, which is 400 calories, of their total daily calories from solid fats and added sugars.
  • Whole milk, cheese and hot dogs are top contributors of saturated fat and sodium to young children's diets. These foods, as well as bacon, poultry, butter, cakes and cookies, represent 70 percent of saturated fat intake for toddlers and preschoolers.
  • Top foods contributing almost 40 percent of young children's sodium intake include milk, hot dogs, bacon, chicken, turkey, cheese, bread and rolls, crackers and ready-to-eat cereals. This intake equates to a child, 24 to 47 months old, consuming an average of 1,863 milligrams of sodium per day.