Your little one needs the vitamins found in fruits and vegetables to help develop a healthy immune system.

Importance of a Balanced Diet in Early Childhood Development

by Carly Seifert

Between your child's picky eating habits and your busy schedule, you may be tempted to give your child a box of mac-and-cheese or a quick-and-cheap fast-food meal for dinner and call it a night. But growing children need foods rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins to provide proper development -- even when your budget is tight and your time is fleeting.

1. Breastfeeding

Good news! For the first six months of your child's life, you don't have to put much thought into a balanced diet because all of your child's nutritional needs can be met with breast milk. According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding provides babies with the perfect balance of protein, sugars, fats and vitamins, making it critical to healthy child development. KidsHealth.org states that the antibodies in breast milk work to fight off infections, and that the components of breast milk -- lactose, protein, and fat -- are easy on your newborn's digestive system. While breastfeeding is considered optimal, not every parent can provide breast milk. For those needing an alternative, infant formula is a nutritious option that also contains vitamins and nutrients.

2. Vitamins and Minerals

There's a reason your mother told you that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Vitamins found in fruits and vegetables work to strengthen a child's immune system. They are an essential part of a child's development, and deficiencies in certain vitamins can cause blindness and neurological deterioration, according to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Minerals such as folate and iron are an important part of your child's brain development and can be found in leafy green vegetables, fruits and fortified cereals and pastas.

3. Calcium

According to KidsHealth.org, during your little one's childhood and adolescent years, his body is using calcium to build strong and healthy bones; his calcium stores will begin to decrease during young adulthood. Teens who don't have enough calcium in their diets are at higher risk for Osteoporosis, a disease which causes bones to become weak and brittle and puts them at greater risk for fracturing weakened bones. This is especially true for girls, who have less bone mass than their male counterparts. Consider replacing your child's lunch-time sugary drink -- which, according to Healthy Child, suppresses your child's appetite and makes him less likely to eat nourishing foods -- with a glass of calcium-rich milk.

4. Protein

Your child's muscles, organs and immune system are comprised mostly of protein, making it an essential part of a well-balanced diet for your busy little one. When he eats a ham-and-cheese sandwich, his body breaks the protein down into amino acids, which are than reused to make proteins needed to maintain his organs, muscles, blood and bones. According to KidsHealth.org, the body needs nine of the 22 essential amino acids from food since it can't produce these acids on its own. Luckily, plenty of kid favorites are protein rich -- from peanut butter to chicken nuggets.

5. Junk Food and Obesity

Fast food, sweets and sodas are contributing to childhood obesity, and obesity rates have doubled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese youth are more likely to develop other diseases later in life, such as diabetes. Such youth are also at risk for cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. Aside from the effects on a child's physical development, obesity effects a child's social development and often leads to low self-esteem.

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