By Stacy Whitman
The word “fiber” may conjure visions of your grandmother’s go-to breakfast of All-Bran and prune juice. But dietary fiber isn’t just for the gray-haired crowd: We all need a hefty dose of it, including toddlers. For one thing, it can help prevent chronic constipation, an all-too-common problem that can wreak havoc on potty training. Second, because naturally fiber-rich foods (such as fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, seeds and beans) are packed with nutrients, tots who eat them typically get more vitamins and minerals, iron and folic acid. Plus, if your toddler consumes lots of fiber now, he’s likely to keep doing so as an adult, which could significantly slash his risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity later in life.
So how much fiber does your wee one need? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that tots ages 2 and 3 down roughly 19 grams of fiber every day (and that number increases to 25 grams once your child turns 4). Sound like a lot? It is. And unfortunately, the vast majority of American munchkins aren’t coming close to achieving it, confirms a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. In the study, which examined the eating habits of more than 3,200 small children, 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds averaged just 10 grams a day. Even the kids who ate the most fiber failed to reach the 19-gram daily target.
While the IOM’s fiber recommendation may feel daunting, it is completely doable with some relatively simple switches, says Kim Galeaz, RD, the Indianapolis, Ind.-based nutrition consultant who created the “Fiberlicious Recipes” that begin on page 00. Trading white breads, pastas and tortillas for whole-grain versions (made with whole-wheat flour, quinoa or spelt, for example) is a great place to start. Another idea: When making muffins, pancakes and pizza dough, use white whole-wheat, buckwheat or quinoa flour, and sprinkle in wheat germ, ground flaxseeds or oat bran for an added fiber boost. At the store, look for frozen waffles and breakfast cereals with ingredients like whole-grain wheat, wheat bran, oats, yellow corn and flax. And swap white rice for brown or another high-fiber grain like quinoa or whole-wheat couscous.
Fresh and frozen fruits and veggies are typically fantastic sources of fiber, notes Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. To sneak more into your child’s diet, toss raspberries and blueberries into a smoothie, add shredded zucchini to breads and muffins, or top pancakes and waffles with peaches. Most kids love dipping raw veggies like carrots and red peppers into low-fat ranch dip, Johnson adds. Or serve steamed broccoli sprinkled with Parmesan cheese or low-sodium soy sauce. Since your toddler is no longer a baby, you can leave the skins on fruits like apples, pears and nectarines, where the bulk of the fiber lies-just be sure to dice them small to avoid a choking hazard. Choose whole fruits over canned versions and sauces, which are usually lower in fiber because the skin of the fruit has been removed during processing. Unsweetened dried fruits, such as plums, apricots and cranberries, also contain a fair amount of fiber and make yummy finger foods.
Fiber-packed beans, lentils and peas (otherwise known as “legumes”) are excellent choices, too. For a kid-friendly meal, wrap pinto beans, brown rice and cheese into a whole-wheat tortilla. Or, at snack time, serve white bean dip with high-fiber crackers or chips. If your toddler turns up his nose at beans, try slipping a few tablespoons of pureed white or navy beans into mashed potatoes, pasta sauce or homemade pizza. Lentils can be paired with brown rice and tomatoes or made into a tasty soup or a veggie burger (just add ketchup and your tot will love it!).
Most toddlers will happily eat foods that are high in fiber, especially if you introduce them early. If your child balks, Johnson suggests easing into it by mixing brown and white rice, or whole-wheat pasta and semolina noodles, for instance. And be sure to set a good example by noshing on lots of high-fiber foods yourself. While your toddler is watching, munch on a bowl of mixed greens, top your yogurt with blackberries, pile your plate with edamame and corn, or order a side of black beans. Chances are she’ll see what you’re eating and want some, too. If not, be consistent and keep offering. Just don’t push it: Some kids are pickier than others and need a bit more time to come around.
NEXT: Six Fiber All-Stars