What parent doesn’t want to raise a healthy, nutrition-loving child who will eat everything put in front of him or her, then place his or her napkin in their lap and say “thank you” with a big smile? Well, we can’t make any promises about the manners, but we will say that if offered early and often, these 11 foundational foods will guarantee healthy, veggie-loving, no-fuss kids.
Eggs are the perfect one-ingredient food. Easy to prepare, they are a convenient and healthy source of protein, fat, and other nutrients such as biotin and iron, which are important for growth and a healthy body. Eggs are a top source of protein for children, so introduce them early and frequently to your infant’s diet. Research shows that eating a protein-rich breakfast can help older children too. Kids who eat protein in the morning learn and behave better during the day. Yes, you can feed your infant a whole egg (or rather, some portion of an egg that contains yolk plus white) starting around six months. If you introduce eggs early and serve them often, your child will like them. Then you’ll always have a very healthy morning (or anytime) option. Involve your older child in the kitchen by letting her crack or whisk eggs in a big bowl.
2. Dried Plums/Prunes
Prunes are fun fiber fruits that help prevent and treat constipation. Prunes also have tons of important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all this in a tiny, tasty, low-calorie package. An apple a day is important, but a prune a day works wonders to prevent constipation and keep young bodies healthy in the first place. Offer infants pureed prunes regularly on their own or mixed into oatmeal and other foods. Older toddlers and children can try whole prunes (also called dried plums), but cut them into small pieces. Teach older toddlers that prunes (or dried plums) are yummy giant raisins—kids love that! Look for the prunes sold in cute single-serve packages so fingers won’t get sticky.
Avocados are actually fruit that are high in potassium, fiber, and healthy monounsaturated fat, which is good for hearts of all ages. Don’t be discouraged if your infant doesn’t immediately take to mashed avocado. Some foods must be introduced a dozen times before a child will like them. Take photos of that funny face as your infant spits the avocado out—and then keep trying. Most infants and kids will eventually enjoy avocados. Many health-conscious moms offer avocado as their baby’s first food. Whether you introduce it first or farther down the line, puree or fork-mash it for lumpier texture. As your infant grows, she will find small pieces of avocado fun to pick up and smash, and preschoolers can join their parents in enjoying guacamole.
Fish is a great natural source of protein. It also contains vitamin D—a vitamin that most kids (and adults too!) need more of. Vitamin D is important for building bones, preventing illness, and lowering the risk of certain diseases, including cancer. The oils in fatty fish such as salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, which are great for brain and eye development and thus are especially important for pregnant women, infants, and young children. Some adults dislike fish because, having never had it when they were little, they are unfamiliar with its taste and smell. Being introduced to fish early (any time after six months of age, and remembering to check that there are no bones), your children will grow to enjoy fish and the important nutrition it provides throughout their life.
Dairy products are healthy for children and packed with a powerful punch of nine essential nutrients that most kids don’t get enough of—calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and niacin. In fact, milk is the best source of vitamin D for kids. Although babies under one year of age should not drink regular cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese can and should be introduced around six months of age. Greek yogurt is a great choice at any age because it is packed with more protein per serving than regular yogurt. After one year, offer whole or reduced-fat cow’s milk; toddlers need the nutrients and fat for brain development. Even if you are still nursing, offer sips of cow’s milk to get your toddler used to the taste. For young ones over age two, nonfat or low-fat milk is best, since these offer the same nutrition but with less fat (milk fat being something that even skinny kids no longer need).
6. Nuts And Nut Butters
Nuts and nut butter are delicious, healthy, and convenient. Nutrient-wise, they offer vegetarian protein, vitamin E, and healthy monounsaturated fats. Nuts and nut butter are an easy way to add healthy protein to any meal, even breakfast! Starting around six months of age, you can mix one teaspoon of creamy peanut butter into one ounce of baby oatmeal and add more liquid to thin the consistency. Offer older infants and toddlers a super-thin layer of creamy nut butter to lick off your finger or on whole-grain bread. Eventually your preschooler will be better able to handle chewing crunchy nut butters and small pieces of raw nuts—a great snack or portable protein to carry with you anywhere. Some parents worry that kids will become allergic if they eat nuts too early, but research has shown that introducing nut products early does not put your child at risk of becoming allergic. In fact, early and frequent introduction may decrease the chances of later developing an allergy, so it is recommended that parents introduce this important food early on.
7. Chicken And/Or Beans/Lentils
Chicken and beans or lentils (vegetarian option) are healthy sources of protein and easy finger food for older infants and toddlers. The key is getting your children used to eating plain chicken at a young age. Countless children will consume chicken only if it’s breaded, fried, and in a familiar nugget shape. Chicken can taste great on its own, so get your kids used to grilled, baked, broiled, barbecued, poached, and sautéed preparations. Infants need a source of iron and zinc around six months of age, and chicken is a great one. It can be pureed with a veggie to make a nutritious baby food, or cut into tiny pieces for little fingers to self-feed. At restaurants, just order a side of grilled chicken from the adult menu and cut a small portion into tiny pieces for your child. For a vegetarian alternative or to add variety to your child’s protein intake, introduce beans or lentils—basically, anything in the legume family. High in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, legumes are versatile and inexpensive. You can play counting games with all sorts of beans, too!
Summer Berries/Winter Citrus
All fruits are great, but seasonal berries and citrus in particular are packed with nutrition. Both are high in fiber and contain vitamins and minerals your body needs to function normally and stay healthy. In addition to fiber, berries contain loads of vitamin C and other antioxidants important for vision and brain development, as well as nutrients that may help protect against disease later on in life. Offer berries plain, in a smoothie, or as dessert. Buy berries fresh in the summer season, when you can. In the winter, when berries aren’t in season, buy frozen! They have the same nutritional value and you can easily add them to pancakes, yogurt, or smoothies. During winter, when your immune system needs them most, citrus fruits are in season. Oranges and other citrus fruits are a fantastic source of many vitamins; they are high in vitamin C, folate, and fiber, all of which many kids need more of. Clementines (a cross between oranges and tangerines) are super easy for kids to peel, are seedless, and can easily be packed in school lunches.