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Tips for Raising Healthy Kids

She may look (and even act) like your Mini Me, but kids aren’t little versions of adults. Here are pint-size guidelines for diet, sleep, exercise, and more. 

By Maya Kukes
Little girl playing dress up in woman's heelsMeiko Takechi Arquillos

 

She Needs More Fat and Calcium

Both kids and grown-ups require plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. But very young children need a little more fat because they burn more body fat than adults do. According to the National Academy of Sciences, fat should make up 30 to 40 percent of daily calories for a child 1 to 3 years old. For kids ages 4 to 18, it’s 25 to 35 percent. (For adults, it’s 20 to 35 percent.) Fat is essential for brain and nerve development; it’s the major component of brain-cell membranes and the protective coatings around the nerves that help send signals from the brain to the rest of the body.

Kids also need more calcium, because childhood is a time of turbo bone growth. In fact, children’s bones grow so rapidly that breaks can heal in weeks, versus months for an adult, says William Hennrikus, a professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They heal so nicely that doctors typically can’t tell via X-rays that they were ever broken. Tweens and teens, in particular, need more calcium than adults do. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bones absorb the most calcium during the teen years. Kids ages 9 to 18 need about 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day, versus 1,000 for most adults.

Stay-healthy tips: “The best way to give kids all the nutrients they need is to introduce them to a variety of foods,” says Teresia O’Connor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. By age 2, children should be eating the same things that the rest of the family is eating. Of course, most of the kids’ fat intake should come from healthy foods, such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts, rather than candy bars. While kids don’t necessarily need a separate calcium supplement, it’s smart to give them plenty of leafy greens and dairy. For optimum daily servings by age, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendations at choosemyplate.gov.

She’s More Sensitive to Environmental Toxins

Continued exposure to household chemicals and pollutants (paint fumes, cleaners, insecticides) isn’t good for anyone, but kids are especially vulnerable. A child’s lungs are still developing, so irritation caused by toxins can result in an obstruction in her airway, leading to issues like allergies and asthma. Little kids are physically closer to potential pollutants and toxins than adults are, since they play in the grass and crawl on carpets.

Stay-healthy tips: You may not be able to keep all chemicals out of your house, but when possible, opt for nontoxic cleaners without harsh ingredients, like ammonia and bleach. Open windows for ventilation as often as possible, even when you’re not scrubbing the bathroom. Choose paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, potentially harmful fumes given off by paints, sealants, and adhesives), and buy only what you’re going to use, since gases can leak from closed cans. Keep all chemicals out of reach. And minimize exposure to other potentially toxic environments. A mother-daughter mani-pedi is OK once in a while, but don’t bring your child along to your weekly salon appointment, says Shu.

 
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