Essential Nutrients for Kids: Fueling Growth and Development
Children need a balanced, nutritious diet to support growth and development. But getting them to eat in a healthy, optimal way can be a challenge for many parents.
While all of the essential macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals are important for a child’s health, there are a few that stand out as they play a specific role in normal development and growth. These top nutrients for kids should always be a priority in your child’s diet or when you are looking for an optimal multivitamin supplement.
Protein is an essential nutrient that helps the body build cells, support immune health, and transport vitamins, minerals, and oxygen throughout the body. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 19 grams per day for children between 4 to 8 years and 34 grams per day for those ages 9 to 13 years old.1
When it comes to protein, variety is the key. Fish, chicken, or lean beef are nutrient-dense sources of protein, but may not be a favorite of all children. Consider also offering plant-based protein like beans, peas, or edamame. Or mix up a yummy protein shake with berries or a banana.
While dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt are also a good source of protein, dairy is high in calcium which if consumed in high amounts can impede the absorption of iron, a mineral essential for healthy growth .2 This is why variety is essential when it comes to protein intake.
Vitamin C is widely found in fruits and vegetables. It plays a role in skin health, immunity, and functions as an antioxidant. This essential vitamin also helps increase iron absorption from food. Children need between 25-45 mg per day depending on their age.3
Luckily, vitamin C is an easy vitamin to find in many foods. A medium orange contains 70 mg and a half cup of strawberries has 49 mg. Eating a variety of fruits and veggies makes it easy to meet the daily vitamin C requirements.
Iron is an essential mineral required to carry oxygen throughout the body. It also plays a role in normal growth, immune function, reproduction, and wound healing. Iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies worldwide, particularly in children who have increased iron needs. Children age 4 to 8 years old need 10 mg per day, whereas older children age 9 to 13 years old only need 8 mg.4
To ensure your child is getting the iron they need, offer both plant and animal-based sources of iron paired with a food rich in vitamin C. Some examples may include ½ cup of breakfast cereal with dried strawberries or lean ground beef topped with mild salsa.
Calcium is an important mineral for strong bones and teeth. It also has many other roles in nerve and muscle function, and heart health. Children need 1000-1300 mg of calcium per day.5
Dairy products such as milk and yogurt are a great source of calcium, but not the only source. Beans, certain green leafy vegetables, and plant-based milk all provide non-dairy sources of calcium that can also be included in a varied diet.
A Balanced Diet for Kids
Just like adults, children need a diet that is well-balanced with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. Healthy eating habits start at home at a young age. While it can be frustrating to feed a child sometimes, the important thing is to model good eating habits, encourage them to try new foods, and never give up on a healthy diet.
- Dietary Reference Intakes. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines/dietary-reference-intakes
- Piskin, E., Cianciosi, D., Gulec, S., Tomas, M., & Capanoglu, E. (2022). Iron Absorption: Factors, Limitations, and Improvement Methods. ACS Omega, 7(24), 20441–20456.
- Vitamin C. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
- Iron. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
- Calcium. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/