By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD
Preschool age children gain about 4.5 pounds and grow 2.75 inches per year. Because infancy is when a child grows the fastest, many children are actually less hungry during their toddler and pre-school aged years than when they are infants. This tends to worry parents, but it shouldn’t because young children know when they are hungry and they usually stop eating when they are full. Unfortunately, because parents get worried that their child isn’t eating enough and they don’t want to argue at mealtime, they tend to let toddlers choose whatever they want to eat for meals. The result is a diet that consists of pizza, chicken nuggets and mac & cheese, and is usually pretty low in the nutrients that your growing toddlers needs. We rounded up 10 of the worst foods you can feed your toddler and healthier alternatives.
While chicken is definitely a great lean protein source, it’s not as healthy when it’s covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
Try this instead: Many toddlers don’t like boring old grilled chicken, so try a rotisserie chicken. It’s juicy, flavorful and easy to eat with your hands.
Just like chicken nuggets, French Fries contain healthy ingredients (potatoes are a vegetable after all), but they are deep fried and covered in salt. A batch of French fries definitely has more calories than a preschooler should probably eat in an entire day.
Try this instead: Roasted sweet potato cubes. Chop sweet potatoes into tiny cubes, mix with a tiny bit of oil and salt and roast in the oven until the begin to brown. They are a fun finger food that is loaded with Vitamin A, a nutrient that is important for young developing eyes.
I think we all know hot dogs are not good for anyone—I can’t even tell you what part of the pig they come from. And they are made with tons of fillers and sodium.
Try this instead: Chicken or veggie hot dogs still contain some fillers, but are a healthier alternative to pork. No matter what type of hot dog you are serving your child, it should be a rare treat.
Sugar sweetened juice.
Unfortunately, not all juices are created equal. Some, like Capri Sun and Sunny Delight, are loaded with added sugar. Even some fruit juices contain extra sugars and unnatural colors and flavors. It’s best to avoid extra sugar at this age, especially when teeth are starting to come in and children are prone to cavities.
Try this instead: Obviously water or milk are the best beverage options for your toddler. If you like to serve juice occassionally, opt for 100% fruit juices that are made from just the fruit.
I love pizza as much as the next Italian American, but it’s devoid of the vitamins and minerals that you toddler needs to grow. If pizza is on your toddler’s menu more than once a week, they may be missing out on vital nutrients, like protein.
Try this instead: Make your own tortilla pizza. Layer a whole wheat tortilla with marinara sauce and a sprinkle of cheese. Throw it in the oven for 10 minutes, and voila. The whole wheat tortilla adds some fiber and protein to your child’s meal.
One of the unhealthiest foods marketed directly at children is cereal—Fruit Pebbles anyone? Research has shown that a healthy breakfast with protein, vitamins and minerals helps kids perform better in school. Unfortunately, sugary cereals have none of these things.
Try this instead: If your toddler really loves cereal, try Cheerios or Kix. Both have basically no added sugar and still taste great in milk.
When it comes down to it, ‘veggie’ straws and ‘veggie’ chips are really no different than potato chips. They are highly processed and contain minimal amounts of vegetables. In other words, they are empty calories and sodium for your toddler.
Try this instead: If your toddler likes something crunchy, makes roasted crispy chickpeas. Not only are they simple to make, but they are made with protein and fiber packed chickpeas and not deep fried. To make, try this recipe:
Makes 2 snack servings
1 15-oz can of chickpeas
½ tablespoon of Canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse and drain chickpeas. Lay on a paper towel and pat dry. Once dry, combine the chickpeas, oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl and stir. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Spread chickpeas evenly on baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until crispy. Cooking times may vary based on ovens.
Ketchup (on everything).
Kids get very accustomed to putting ketchup on everything, like hot dogs, fries and chicken fingers. But ketchup is not only loaded with sugar, it’s got a ton of nasty ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup.
Try this instead: Make your own honey mustard dip. Whisk together ½ cup vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons of honey. It’s sweet and has less fake stuff than bottled ketchup.
Boxed mac n cheese.
Cheese should not come in a powder form. Not only does it not taste good, it’s not natural.
Try this instead: Make your own mac and cheese with a whole wheat pasta and shredded cheddar whisked together with milk.
A-Game Sports’ nutritionist can speak with your child and work with you to setup a unique individual nutrition plan to reach all of your health goals. Set up a nutrition consultation today.
Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and food and nutrition writer, specializing in sports nutrition and adolescent nutrition education. Natalie has worked with many prestigious organizations, such as Hospital for Special Surgery, the American Dairy Association & Dairy Council, NY Yankees Baseball Camps and NYC Charter Schools. She has also written for many food and nutrition publications, such as Women’s Running, Spright, Toby Amidor Nutrition, The Active Times, SuperKids Nutrition and Food & Nutrition Magazine, and she has been quoted in Women’s Health Magazine and Men’s Health.