Keeping Kids Healthy
The nutrients your children need, plus herbs to address colds,
upset tummies and other common ailments.
By Linda Melone
When cold-and-flu season hits, Marcus and Ashley Kusi of Burlington, Vermont, know it’s time to stock up on remedies—but they don’t trek to the drugstore for over-the-counter cough syrups and stomach medicines for their children, ages 2 and 4.
“Our favorite thing for colds and virus is elderberry syrup my wife makes with raw honey, slippery elm, apple cider vinegar and ginger,” says Marcus. “It’s pretty amazing how much faster the kids get over colds. Often they don’t even get a full-blown cold if we give them this in time and often enough. And they love it.”
Remedies from Nature
The Kusis make it a habit to try natural approaches before resorting to conventional medicines whenever they can.
“We use a cough tincture or a homemade cough syrup from different herbs like slippery elm, marshmallow root, echinacea and ginger, plus apple cider vinegar and other warming spices,” says Marcus. They find that mint tea with ginger works well for upset tummies and give coconut water to their kids if dehydration is a concern. Lavender-and-chamomile tea, served lukewarm, works well to ease anxiety and promote relaxation.
“I recommend a lot of natural products for issues such as the common cold,” says Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “I suggest a teaspoon of honey, for example, for a cough. Cough medicines have a lot of chemicals and colorings. Elderberry syrup works well when children have a cold.” Fisher also agrees about using ginger tea for stomach aches and nausea. “Cool it down (parents should taste it first) and have the child sip on it,” she says. Ginger candy is another, sometimes more palatable, option as well.
Always inform your pediatrician when you use homeopathic remedies, herbs or other natural therapies, advises Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, mother of three sons, cofounder of MommyMDGuides.com and co-author of several parenting books.
“If your doctor is uncomfortable with your use of these products, and you’re not willing to stop using them, it’s time to find another doctor,”
McAllister says, calling honesty “critical in every doctor-patient relationship.” She particularly recommends consulting with your practitioner “if you want to try a product that contains multiple ingredients.”
Key Nutrients for Kids
While many herbal remedies are tasty and easy for kids to accept, that doesn’t always apply to nutritious foods they need to keep them healthy year round.
“Kids need all vitamins and minerals for growth and development,” says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, a Dallas dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. “Specific nutrient requirements vary based on the age of the child: infants, toddlers, children, adolescents and teens. Small children need fewer calories than adults, but those numbers, along with nutrient needs, increase with growth and development.”
As a baby becomes a toddler and continues to grow, his or her dietary needs and appetite change. Toddlers and preschoolers grow in spurts, and their appetite typically reflects this. “Children regulate their food intake over a longer period of time than adults,” says Goodson. “So don’t worry if your child eats less for a few days. He or she will bounce back. Also, many kids will eat more leading up to a growth spurt before you see any growing happening. The key with kids is to not restrict calorie intake, but instead to offer nutrient-rich foods in a variety of ways for them to choose.”
Give children a selection of fruits, whole grains, lean protein and dairy. “Offering a combination of food groups at every meal and snack helps ensure your child is getting adequate nutrition,” notes Goodson. “In addition, introducing fruits and vegetables in different ways often increases the appeal of those foods.” Goodson recommends the government site ChooseMyPlate.gov for healthy snack and meal ideas for parents.
In a world of tempting processed foods and sweet treats, it’s unrealistic for parents to expect their kids won’t be swayed into eating unhealthy “junk food” and treats on occasion. “We want kids to have a nutritious diet, but we need to find a good balance between healthy foods and treats,” says Fisher. “It’s important to be able to work treats into a diet so children know how to manage it in healthy portions.” Treats can be easy to reach for, especially for kids, and they have their place in an overall nutrition plan.
Even with the best of intentions, it can be tough for parents to entice their children to eat enough variety to meet all their dietary needs.
“Throughout childhood, the nutrients most likely to be missing from a child’s diet are those that come from vegetables,” says McAllister. “Most parents struggle to get their kids to eat vegetables, but no matter how challenging it might be, never give up. Vegetables are chock-full of important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, critically important to a child’s present and future health.”
Each vegetable color group provides a unique combination of phytonutrients, beneficial substances produced by plants, that support the health of a child’s developing body. For example, beta-carotene in pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots and dark greens such as kale benefits the immune system, vision, skin and bones. Lycopene, found in tomatoes, red peppers and grapefruit, is good for heart health. “Plus, fiber keeps the digestive tract healthy and regular,” adds McAllister.
The challenge of getting kids to eat their veggies can be a tough one. “It often takes five or six tries before a child grows to enjoy the taste and texture of some vegetables,” says McAllister, who suggests the following ideas:
• Offer your child choices at every meal. This may be a couple of baby carrots, a few broccoli florets or several slices of colorful bell peppers, cucumbers and squash. Asking, “Would you rather have peppers or cucumbers?” is more likely to get the desired response, versus demanding children eat their vegetables.
• Serve veggies with a tasty, nutritious dip. Almond butter, yogurt-based dips and pesto are good ones to try.
• When introducing a new vegetable, ask your child to simply taste it with her tongue, and then encourage her to take a small bite. Assure her that you’ll allow her to spit it out into a napkin if she doesn’t like it. Praise her for trying it.
• Experiment with different textures. Your child might not enjoy cooked green beans but she might love them fresh and crisp. If fresh carrots are too crunchy, try offering them steamed.
• Most important, allow your children to see you eating and enjoying veggies at snacks and meals.
In addition to essential nutrients in produce, bone growth during childhood makes it especially important for children to take in enough calcium and vitamin D. Girls lay down 90% of their bone by age 17 and boys by age 22 to 23.
“We’ve done such a good job of using sunblock that we often don’t get enough vitamin D,” says Fisher. “Also protein can be lacking, especially when parents substitute other milks into their child’s diet in place of cow’s milk.” For example, when a child doesn’t tolerate dairy, parents often substitute almond milk, which contains very little protein but a substantial amount of calcium, says Fisher. “So parents need to include other ways to get protein in their child’s diet.”
“Another critical nutrient, iron, plays a role in developing red blood cells that carry oxygen to the other cells in the body,” says Goodson. “This becomes increasingly important when young girls start their menstrual cycles.” Potassium, found in sweet potatoes, bananas, and yogurt, is also of concern for children as it plays many roles in the body from maintaining a healthy heart to helping fluid balance.
Above all, it’s important for parents to set a good example, says McAllister. “Moms and dads are kids’ most important role models, and they love to follow your lead.”
Finding a Holistic Practitioner
for Your Child
Looking for a complementary/alternative healthcare professional who specializes in children? Your first click should be the site of the Holistic Pediatric Alliance (hpakids.org), which includes a seachable provider database. Their mission, according to the site, lies in offering “a practical approach to family care that focuses on the principles of health, wellness and the safe resolution of illness.”
Naturopathic medicine is based on the same kinds of lab tests that conventional doctors use but relies on diet, lifestyle, herbal medicine and other natural healing therapies instead of drugs and surgery. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians provider database at naturopathic.org allows you to search for NDs who treat youngsters.