What's for dinner?


How do parents make sure children get the nutrients they need in the transition from milk to meals?

For the first four months of life, all a baby needs is breast milk. It's a complete nutrition package with antibacterial benefits. And the longer you can breastfeed, the better, according to the 2003 Australian guidelines for children. If you can't breastfeed, look for infant formula labelled "suitable from birth" and check with your early childhood nurse.

Feeding kids is a challenge. As they grow, their nutrition requirements change, with the greatest leaps from birth to toddler to pre-primary age. The average baby doubles in weight in the first five months. By 12 months, babies triple their weight and gain about 25 centimetres in length. "And they're ravenous," says paediatric dietician Penelope Stone, co-author of Breast Bottle Bowl. "Growing babies are hungry babies."

But dairy milk is not suitable as the main drink for babies before 12 months. It's too high in protein and sodium with not enough iron and other nutrients. And milk's mix of fats is not ideal for a growing baby.

At about six months, you can introduce solids - such as a spoonful of baby rice cereal or pureed pears - but ideally not before four months as babies' digestive systems are not fully developed.

Feeding kids is a challenge. As they grow, their nutrition requirements change, with the greatest leaps from birth to toddler to pre-primary age.

Solids are an educational diet - you're teaching your baby's palate to accept flavours and textures other than breast milk, which is sweet. It takes them time to get used to savoury, salty or bitter flavours. "If they reject solids, it's important to keep offering them little tastes," says Stone. "Don't give up straight away if they screw up their face or push it out."

When toddlers hit one to three years, once-good eaters can change as their growth rate slows and there are distractions at mealtimes. But parents should not overfeed their child. "Parents often serve up too-large portions and want everything on the plate finished," notes Stone. She says even toddlers know when they've had enough. "Don't override their natural appetite. It only encourages overeating and obesity."

"Toddlers will change," adds Stone. "You need to keep presenting new food in small quantities for them to become used to it." Offer them fruit, meat, yoghurt and bread to make their diet well-rounded and varied.

For toddlers and preschoolers, the biggest nutrition problem is lack of iron, essential for brain function and healthy blood. While only 2 per cent of infants have full iron-deficiency anaemia, about 4 per cent have iron deficiency and 9 per cent are iron-depleted. The cause? Too much milk - usually from staying on a bottle - and not enough iron-rich fare.

"Toddlers and preschoolers only need 600 millilitres of milk or three serves a day," says Stone. "If milk dominates their diet, they're not interested in other foods. Milk is nutritious but is not high in iron, which comes from red meat, legumes and iron-enriched cereals."

By the preschool years from three to five, kids can happily tuck into family food - as long as they don't have to chew a lot. Steak might be a chore but soft, lean burgers or spaghetti bolognaise go down a treat.

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