The term "processed food" can strike fear in the heart of any mom. You want your toddler to eat healthy, but he loves those packaged snacks that are conveniently placed at his eye level at the grocery store. Not all processed foods are bad, though, and some are actually healthy options. So you don't have to feel bad about tossing them into your cart, provided they offer some sort of nutritional value.
Food processing doesn't always equal unhealthy foods. There are several types of processing that food undergoes before it hits store shelves. Some products, such as milk and fruit juice, are heated to kill bacteria in a process called pasteurization. Some foods have added chemicals to prolong their shelf life. Canned foods are often sterilized to kill pathogens before being packaged. Some foods are concentrated or evaporated before being sold. Still other foods are frozen or dried before being shipped to grocery stores. In some cases, processing reduces the nutritional value of a food, but in some cases, it is still a good choice for a toddler's diet. The trick is to balance the good options with very little of the bad ones, even if your child really, really wants them.
Processed Foods to Avoid
You might enjoy a bag of cheese corn chips and a soda for a snack, but you wouldn't want your toddler eating the same thing because you know it's not good for you. Some processed foods should not be a part of your toddler's normal diet, though they do make a fun treat now and then, or a bribe to get you through the grocery store faster. Frozen foods, like waffles and pizza, aren't healthy options. Chicken nuggets, though they are likely a favorite, are also heavily processed and high in fat and calories. Avoid cereal that looks or tastes like candy or marshmallows. Hot dogs, sausage, lunch meat and pepperoni are processed meats that are not as healthy as fresh meats. Candy, packaged desserts and fast food are other items to avoid.
Making Healthy Choices
In general, if the ingredient list on a food is miles long or contains items you can't pronounce, back away and find something else for your toddler to eat. Some processed foods are safe and healthy for little ones and contain nutrients he needs for growth and development. Canned tuna and nuts are recommended by Cooking Light magazine. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, pasta, rice, bread and milk are other foods that retain their nutrition during processing and aren't pumped full of sugar, fat, salt, calories or chemicals.
Many processed foods are high in salt, sugar, fat and calories, which translates to unhealthy weight gain if your toddler eats them all the time. In addition, most contain little to no nutrition, which robs your little one of the vitamins and minerals he needs to grow. If that doesn't scare you into revamping your shopping cart, research from the University of Bristol in England indicates that a diet high in unhealthy processed foods can lower your child's future IQ, according to a 2011 Time Health and Family article.