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How to read the nutritional label on your child's food

Spoiler alert: Understanding your child’s nutrition starts long before you pick up a food package.

By Justine LoMonaco, sponsored by

This post is sponsored by Stanford Children’s Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas. 

When it comes to nutrition, it can be hard to separate the health from the hype. From “free-range” labels to fat content confusion, most millennial parents have spent most of their lives yo-yoing between a myriad of diet fads and marketing spins around food, and now we struggle to know what we should be putting on our own family’s plates.

Fortunately, we’re not alone. One of the best places to begin to understand how best to meet our child’s nutritional needs is their dietitian or nutritionist. That’s why we partnered with the pros at Stanford Children’s Health to demystify what parents should know when it comes to understanding nutrition labels and making the best choices for their children. “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,” says Venus Kalami, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Stanford Children’s Health with a Masters in Nutrition Science & Policy.

Kalami encourages parents to lean into intuitive eating, or the idea of recognizing and listening to biologically built-in hunger and satiety cues. Instead of focusing on or labeling foods or ingredients as “good” or “bad,” treat all foods as having a place in the diet and make choices that make sense for your child (and you!) in a given moment. Children are naturally able to regulate portion size and caloric needs, and by encouraging this form of intuitive eating (and providing balanced, varied whole food options for them to choose from) Kalami says parents can take a lot of pressure off of themselves to make sure their child’s nutritional needs are being met. “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 -you don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders when it comes to food.”

This is an especially important skill set to pass on to our children because, for the most part, children will have increased nutritional needs compared to adults. For example, if you’ve ever had weeks where you feel like your toddler is eating more than you are, you might not be exaggerating as much as you think. “Something I commonly hear parents telling me is, ‘My child eats more than I do!’” Kalami says. “They 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.” When in doubt, one of the best place to start is a conversation with your child’s health provider. This will help you make more confident choices about their nutrition because you’ll have a better understanding of what they actually need.

That’s because the basics of nutrition are still the basics—we’re looking for a balanced diet with all food groups included. When it comes to the amount your child eats, Kalami says it’s important to encourage children to listen to their body and their body’s needs. It’s perfectly normal for their appetite to ebb and flow because it’s all part of the intuitive eating process.

Once you have a clearer idea of your child’s needs, it becomes easier to separate the label fact from the fiction. In general, Kalami says the front of the food label is mostly marketing. “Foods are marketed and made to be interesting and colorful, especially foods that are marketed toward children, Kalami 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.” That can also bleed into the terms used on the packaging itself. Terms like “all-natural” or “healthy” are unregulated, and labels like “made with whole grain” often don’t tell the whole story. For example, whole grain might be included in a food, but that doesn’t mean it’s a primary ingredient.

Kalami says it’s more helpful to look for more 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.”

But even when it comes to regulated terms like “organic,” Kalami recommends that parents continue to prioritize a varied diet of whole foods. “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 if choosing organic food is personally important to you or something that’s feasible within your budget, but at the end of the day, a healthy and diverse diet is our goal and that can look different for everyone.” Kalami says.

Because, the truth is, making healthy food choices for your child is likely a lot simpler than you think. “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.”