Nutrition and Food Labels for Children

Girl reading food label at grocery store

Feeding kids can be a challenge on the best day. One day they love apples, and the next day they won’t touch them. When you add in food allergies, sensitivities, picky eating, or sensory differences, the complications multiply. Unfortunately, figuring out what is healthy is not always straightforward. Here to help you make sense of the food you buy is Venus Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP, a board-certified pediatric registered dietitian and nutritionist at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. She also discusses understanding food labels in a HealthTalks podcast.


Kalami has a master’s in nutrition science and policy and works with children and their families to teach them how to make healthy choices when it comes to mealtime. “There are a lot of factors that go into making a food choice based on someone’s nutritional needs for children and even adults. There are factors like age or food preferences, cultural background, food access, and physical activity that’s really going to guide what the priority is for your child with what you’re looking for on the food label,” she says.

Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” Kalami recommends taking an intuitive approach to eating. Intuitive eating means that parents encourage their children to listen to their body. Instead of bargaining for “just one more bite” or having to follow a clean-plate policy, kids learn to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. All foods, from cookies to broccoli, are valued and have a place as a source of nutrition and enjoyment. All you need to do is offer a variety of balanced, whole foods and let your child take care of the rest.

“I think if there’s anywhere that we can take pressure off of parents to be making the ‘perfect’ food choices, I am all for it,” Kalami says. “We have research to tell us that it is good enough when you have a diverse and balanced diet, but you don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders when it comes to food.”

Some days kids will clean their plate and ask for more; other days they may seem to eat only a bite or two. The key is to respect their body’s cues that they have had enough and understand that it is normal for their appetite to vary. Embracing the concept of listening to your body is especially important for children because their nutritional needs are greater than adults’.

“Something I commonly hear parents telling me is, ‘My child eats more than I do!’” Kalami says. “That actually might be because kids’ metabolisms are much higher than adults. As adults, we’ve stopped growing. Kids are rapidly growing and developing, building up their bone density, their brain is developing, their muscles are growing, and they’re growing inches by the month.”

Your child’s health care provider is a great resource when it comes to learning how to make the best choices to meet your child’s nutritional needs. While different fad diets wax and wane in popularity over time, one thing remains the same: the importance of a balanced diet containing all food groups. That’s why it is important to know what’s really in the food you’re serving your family.

When you’re shopping at the store, you may be inundated with all the promises you read on a food label. But what does it all mean? The surprising answer is, in many cases, not a lot. For example, foods can claim to be “all natural” or “healthy” without any regulation. According to Kalami, much of food packaging is just marketing.

“Foods are marketed and made to be interesting and colorful, especially foods that are marketed toward children, she says. “[Some brands] use color schemes or cartoon characters or well-known actors, for example, to really draw them to want to buy their food products regardless of what the food actually is.”

Kalami recommends focusing on verified claims. “If you ever see on the front label of a package that the food is a ‘good source of fiber’ or a ‘good source of iron’ or vitamin C, or you see the term ‘may support heart health,’ these are actually phrases that are backed by data and science and are government-regulated terms.”

While organic foods have become popular, a varied diet that is mostly whole foods is the primary goal, according to Kalami. “If you’re looking for organic or free-range or grass-fed, this is what I would call a food philosophy type of question. It’s a personal question of [whether] choosing organic food is personally important to you or something that’s feasible within your budget; but at the end of the day, diet diversity is our goal, and that can look different for everyone,” she says.

Ultimately, making the right choices for your family is a personal decision. But some guidance from your health care provider or nutritionist and understanding food labels can make it a lot easier. “Starting from what the child actually needs is the place to begin,” Kalami says. “Having that lens can help you have the right filter on when you’re making choices—and help you not feel like you need to weigh all the messaging and marketing around nutrition that’s out there in the world.”

You can read more advice from Venus Kalami here: Growing Up with Celiac Disease and Eating Well With Celiac Disease.

To read more about nutrition and children, check out 5 Questions About Your Child’s Eating Habits and Nutrition: School-Age.


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