Why Nutrition Is Important to a Child’s Growth and Development

View List of Childhood Nutrition Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Parents have much to worry about when it comes to raising a child. How can you keep your child safe? What can you do to ensure that your child is healthy? How can you plan for your child’s happy, healthy future? One of the most important factors when it comes to the growth and development of a child is nutrition. The foods and beverages that your child takes in affects every area of their development and growth – physical, cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social. In this article, we will examine how you can foster your child’s healthy growth and development through proper nutrition, suggest what foods and drinks to avoid feeding your child, and provide you with a list of resources for healthy meals for your child.

The Importance of Nutrition to Brain Development

Childs brain developement with healthy food

The first 1000 days of a baby’s life are crucial in healthy brain development. During this time in particular, children are quite vulnerable to deficits in nutrition, which can result in cognitive and behavioral deficiencies. Scientists note that, in order for a healthy brain to develop, a child must receive the essential nutrients of protein, fats, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals. Just as important, they note, are micronutrients, such as choline, zinc, iron, vitamin B12, folate, iodine, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are vital in cognitive development. Examples of what deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals can do to a child include:

  • Deficiencies of iron during early childhood development can impact cognitive development and intelligence
  • Zinc deficiencies in infants can lead to delays in motor development, as well as deficits in short-term memory and attention, and stunted growth
  • Choline deficiencies can cause memory problems
  • Iodine deficiencies can affect cognitive function and are the leading cause of intellectual disabilities worldwide
  • Folate deficiencies in pregnant mothers can cause babies to be born with malformations such as anencephaly and spina bifida
  • B12 deficiency can lead to neurological disorders and cerebral atrophy
  • Vitamin A deficiency can cause visual problems and weaken a child’s immunity
  • A deficiency of long-chain fatty acids can cause problems in brain development, memory, and visual recognition

The next 1000 days of a child’s life, typically during the preschool years, are also vital to overall development. Developmental changes that occur during this time prepare them for learning and the school environment.

If children do not receive proper nutrition in these years, they will likely show cognitive deficits and perform poorly in school, which can lead to problems with education throughout their lifetime and result in them earning lower incomes as adults.

A study from 2022 examined various nutritional interventions with children and their effects on cognitive performance. They found that supplementing children with multiple micronutrients increased their scores on cognitive tests. Another study found that daily iron supplementation for toddlers (age 1 to 4) for a period of three to four months could reverse developmental delays. A group of children ages 4 to 6 who were supplemented with meals containing fatty fish also scored slightly higher on cognitive tests than those who ate meals containing beef. In these studies, when nutritional supplementation was combined with psychosocial stimulation, however, the greatest increases in cognitive test results were seen.

What Should I Feed My Young Child to Enhance Growth and Development?

parent offering kid different types of food to eat

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all infants begin breastfeeding within an hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for their first six months. After age six months, foods should be introduced to children, in no particular order. These foods should contain variety and nutrients and be given throughout the day according to the child’s hunger signals.

Foods to feed your child should include fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish, meat, and grains. Unfortunately, in the Western world, many young children’s diets weigh heavily towards grains and eschew all other categories, with processed, sugary foods comprising much of the diet. Parents should avoid processed, refined, prepackaged foods with high amounts of sugar, fat, and salt.

Examples of foods to introduce to a young child include:

  • Fruits, such as strawberries, bananas, pears, oranges
  • Vegetables, like cooked spinach, peas, carrots, beets
  • Whole grains, such as whole grain pastas, crackers and breads
  • Meats, like lean beef, chicken, fish, lamb, turkey (in small pieces to prevent choking)
  • Dairy, such as cheeses and yogurts

Remember to keep your child well-hydrated too! From ages 6 to 12 months, a child should be drinking four to six ounces of water daily, and either breast milk or formula. After age 1, cow’s milk may be introduced. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding fruit juice until after age 1. After that, if you must give your child fruit juice, make sure it’s 100% fruit juice with no added sugars.

As your child grows, they will follow your lead in eating, so it’s a good idea to model healthy eating patterns for them. Limit foods high in sodium as well as sugar.

What Foods Should I Limit or Avoid Feeding My Child?

Girl trying to decide what type of foods are healthy and unhealthy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends limiting the following foods when feeding your child:

  • Honey, before age 12 months- this can cause botulism and make a child seriously ill. Don’t add honey to any of your baby’s foods or drinks before age one
  • Cow’s milk, before age 12 months – this can cause intestinal bleeding in young children, as a baby’s kidneys cannot process the proteins and minerals it contains
  • Unpasteurized or raw foods or drinks – this might include milks, yogurts, cheeses or juice- these can cause diarrhea in children
  • Foods with added sugars, as well as artificial sweeteners- you should avoid feeding kids younger than 24 months added sugars altogether, and severely limit them in children over 24 months of age
  • Foods with lots of sodium/salt – this includes processed meats, canned foods, frozen foods, snacks, and prepackaged foods
  • Fish with high levels of mercury – these include mackerel, orange roughy, marlin, swordfish, tuna, and shark. Mercury can be detrimental to a child’s developing brain and nervous system. See the link in the resources section below for recommended, healthy fish for kids with lower levels of mercury that will provide the omega 3 fatty acids their developing brains need.
  • Beverages with added sugars – like sodas, sports drinks, flavored water and juices – these should be avoided in kids younger than 24 months and limited in kids over 24 months
  • Juice before age 12 months – avoid feeling your baby juice until after age 1. After that, make sure it is 100% juice and only feed four ounces or less per day
  • Drinks with caffeine – such as soda, tea, coffee, sports drinks – avoid giving these to kids under age 2, and limit them in kids older than 2

Childhood Nutrition Resources for Parents and Caregivers

The following is a list of nutrition resources that should be helpful for parents and caregivers of children of all ages in encouraging healthy growth and development.

General Healthy Eating

Beverage Choices

Foods for Young Children

Meal Planning and Patterns


Reading Nutrition Labels

Avoiding Sugar

Avoiding Salt

Avoiding Trans Fats