Pre-Teen Nutrition (Age 5-12)
Well-balanced nutrition sets the foundation for optimal health and growth for children. A healthy diet improves physical health as well as cognitive development, academic performance, and productivity, and is therefore incredibly crucial to a child’s growth stage. With proper awareness and education, you can support your daughter’s developmental years and help her to thrive.
Many pre-pubescent girls are already experiencing some type of hormonal imbalance or start their period several years too early, due to excessive antibiotic use and hormone-disrupting foods along with the influence and overconsumption of chemical-laden foods. Many children also begin to experience mental and emotional imbalances at a very early age and this often disrupts their most formative years. Various medications are then offered to alleviate symptoms while the root causes are ignored. It doesn’t have to be this way!
A holistic approach to nutrition can help you take proactive steps toward creating a healthy life for your child. While there are increasing amounts of unhealthy food options available (which pre-teens tend to gravitate toward!), there’s also an abundance of healthy options + real-food alternatives. Education is key to making healthy decisions.
This guide contains nutritional recommendations to best support pre-teen girls in their optimal growth and development. While it’s ideal to obtain as many nutrients as possible from food sources, a multivitamin and mineral supplement is also recommended to balance any potential deficiencies. Unfortunately, most foods are not as nutrient-dense as they used to be, due to soil depletion and monocultures - so supplementation on top of a healthy diet is wise. If you live in the northern hemisphere, consider adding a vitamin D3 supplement as well as the multi.
The greatest gift you can give to your child is the formation of healthy habits. Your daughter’s current eating habits and the relationship she develops with food now will dictate her health in the future. In today’s society, females have a greater susceptibility to being influenced by what they see in the media - and this can often include damaging and unrealistic pressure to be thin and beautiful. Research has shown that American girls as young as 10 years old are afraid of being fat. Creating a healthy mindset around food in childhood will better equip your daughter to handle numerous influences later in life, and will teach her to listen to her body and to trust her body’s wisdom rather than looking to the external world for answers or validation.
Nutrition for all Female Children
Focus on the following building and supportive foods to encourage healthy development:
Organic, Seasonal, Local Produce
Organic fruits and vegetables are pesticide-, insecticide-, and herbicide-free, do not have chemicals or toxins, and are non-GMO. They’re also more flavorful and contain a higher amount of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, especially when bought locally and seasonally. If you can’t find a local farmers’ market or don’t have the time to visit them weekly, do a quick online search for a delivery service that can bring them right to your doorstep.
Fats and cholesterol are essential for proper brain and nervous system development as the brain consists of at least 60% fat. It’s also needed for healthy tissues and cell membranes, optimal immune system functioning, and strong bones and teeth.
Foods to focus on: Plant oils (coconut, olive, avocado, etc.), avocados, whole fat organic dairy, wild-caught cold-water fatty fish (such as salmon and mackerel), nuts + seeds, organic free-range meats, and pastured eggs.
Homemade bone broth is rich in essential nutrients that enhance the health of growing children. It contains a wide variety of minerals, gelatin, and glycosaminoglycans, which promote proper development of bone and dental structure as well as healthy hair, nails, and joints. Bone broth can also improve digestive problems, food allergies, and immune health.
How to make it: Use organic beef, chicken, fish, or other animal bones (source locally if possible), and place in a giant pot or crockpot/slow cooker with water and some apple cider vinegar (which helps to extract minerals from the bones). Add organic vegetables and spices for taste (onions, celery, carrots, garlic, turmeric, etc.). Bring to a boil and then down to simmer for 24-48 hours.
These populate the digestive tract with healthy bacteria, which has many benefits for girls. Probiotic-containing foods improve the entire digestive tract and enhance immunity. They can also reverse various skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis. It’s important to introduce them into your child’s diet gradually to prevent any adverse reaction.
Foods to focus on: Sauerkraut (raw - it should be in the refrigerated section at the grocery store), kefir, tempeh, miso, kimchi, kombucha, coconut kefir, natto, kvass, apple cider vinegar, salted gherkin pickles, and brine-cured olives. You can make these all at home for maximum nutritiousness and affordability. .
These are essentially foods for the probiotics (healthy bacteria) to feed on. They modulate the body’s immune response and set children up for a healthy immune system.
Foods to focus on: Raw chicory root, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw onion, cooked onions, raw asparagus, raw wheat bran, and raw bananas.
An important aspect of children’s growth is bone growth. Calcium is one of the vital nutrients required to ensure this occurs at an appropriate rate.
Foods sources: Bone-in sardines, full-fat yogurt/kefir, leafy greens, okra, soybeans, white beans, hard cheese, broccoli, almonds, bok choy, and watercress.
Deficiency in this vital mineral is common amongst children aged 6-12. Iodine is needed to manufacture thyroid hormone, which is an important regulator of growth factors for mental and physical development. Iodine deficiencies can stunt growth and lower IQ scores.
Food sources: Sea vegetables (kombu, kelp, arame, nori), cranberries, organic yogurt, organic navy beans, organic strawberries, and organic potatoes.
Iron supports growth, neurological development, and blood cell formation in children.
Food sources: Organic red meat, especially organ meats, wild-caught fish, organic chicken, spirulina, dried beans, peas, lentils, dark chocolate, spinach, sardines, and raisins.
Important for physical growth and immune development, zinc can also help with diarrhea and pneumonia.
Food sources: Grass-fed beef, organic chicken, kefir/yogurt, lamb, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashews, cocoa powder, mushrooms, and spinach.
This fat-soluble vitamin is extremely important for eye and skin health and provides immune support. Vitamin A is available in retinol form (from animal sources) as well as in beta-carotene form (from plant sources), which is a precursor to the pure vitamin A/retinol form. Aim to include a variety of vitamin A food sources in the diet, from both plant and animal sources.
Food sources: Retinol - Grass-fed beef, chicken liver, pastured eggs, fish liver oils, and organic dairy products. Beta-carotene - Carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, apricots, cantaloupe, lettuce, turnip greens, cabbage, beet greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and kiwi.
B12 is a cofactor in myelination. Myelin is the protective covering around nerves fibers that insulates the nerves and increases the efficiency of impulse transmission. The highest amount of myelination takes place during childhood years, so adequate amounts of vitamin B12 in the diet are crucial.
Food sources: Pastured eggs, organic dairy products, grass-fed meat, beef liver, chicken, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, lamb, nutritional yeast, and cottage cheese.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient, meaning humans cannot manufacture it in our bodies. We’re required to get it from our diets. Vitamin C assists with collagen formation and deposition and is needed for bone growth, tissue healing, and immune system response.
Food sources: Most fruits and vegetables, especially guava, black currants, red and green peppers, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, papaya, broccoli, kale, parsley, pineapple, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, peas, cauliflower, and mango.
This nutrient is only required if 15-20 minutes of direct, unprotected sunlight on most of the body is not received on a regular basis. It’s needed for healthy bones as it has a substantial role in the regulation of calcium and maintenance of phosphorus levels in the blood.
Food sources: Cod liver oil, wild-caught salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, eggs, caviar, and certain types of mushrooms.
K2 ensures proper utilization of calcium in the body. Rather than being deposited in arteries and muscles, vitamin K2 directs calcium to the places it’s needed for optimal health and growth, such as the teeth and bones.
Food sources: Natto, green leafy vegetables, spring onions, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, fermented dairy, prunes, cucumbers, and dried basil.
Choline forms DNA and cell structures, supports the central nervous system, helps the liver process fat and clear toxins, improves memory and brain function, and is needed to create neurotransmitter channels in the brain, which help with information retention, verbal abilities, creative thinking, mathematical skills, and social cues.
Food sources: Beef liver, grass-fed raw dairy, yogurt, kefir, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, wild-caught salmon, chickpeas, split peas, navy beans, pastured eggs, turkey, chicken breast, cauliflower, and goat milk.
Nutrition for Girls 5 - 8 Years
Children at this age may still be picky about their food likes and dislikes, so it’s important to offer a wide variety of foods. It can take up to 10 tries for a child to accept a new food - therefore you should keep encouraging your child to try a new food again, even if they’ve previously refused it. A focus should be placed on fresh, bright vegetables, high-quality meats, vegetable protein sources (such as legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains), and adequate amounts of filtered water.
Food needs vary depending on a girl’s stage of growth and her level of physical activity. As activity levels increase, so should protein, vitamins, and minerals. Ideally, children should be accumulating stores of nutrients in preparation for the growth spurt experienced just before or during adolescence. To know if your child is getting the appropriate amount of nutrients, constantly monitor if she is developing on schedule.
Consuming nutrient-dense foods starting at this age will be actively preventing potential future health issues. Consider a child's food schedule over the course of a week rather than each day to ensure variety so that your child gets everything they need. Eating higher portions of veggies on one day means that it’s alright if fewer are eaten the next day.
It’s important to avoid all foods containing added sugar, such as boxed fruit juices and processed foods, as much as possible. At this age and onwards, no more than three teaspoons of added sugar/fruit juice should be consumed per day. This is equivalent to about 12g of sugar, and a typical juice box contains 15g.
Always offer protein and healthy fats at each meal and snack. Proteins are important for growth and enhance satiety. Healthy fats improve a child’s energy levels, appetite, concentration, sleep, and general behavior.
Empty calories, such as from popcorn, rice, crackers, and white bread, are not suitable for satisfying a child’s appetite once they’ve burned off the initial sugar spike. To enhance their nutritional value, add protein and fat-rich foods on top. Good options are nut butters, yogurt, hummus, baba ganoush, and any other vegetables you can blend into a spread.
Nutrition for girls 9 - 12 Years
The growth spurt children experience as they move into adolescence requires higher amounts of calories and nutrients. For girls, the growth spurt generally occurs around 10-11 years of age.
Girls in this age group use a higher amount of energy than in previous years. Energy is used for physical activity, as well as growth, acquiring and processing new information at high rates, and immune system development. The carbohydrates consumed are generally used up quickly for these tasks, so ensure they’re also getting a lot of protein, fiber, and healthy fats to sustain them once they’ve burned through the sugars in their diet. Fats and protein will also help to keep your child’s blood sugar levels regulated, contributing to improved mood and concentration.
Girls at this age typically tend to place value on their own independence. Encourage them to always listen to their body and let you know how they feel. A signal that should not be ignored is bowel movements. Every person should constantly be monitoring how frequently they have a bowel movement and if it’s in proper form. Aim for type 4 or 5 on the Bristol Stool Chart.
In building a strong nutritional foundation for pre-teen girls, you can help set the stage for optimal growth and development now, as well as good eating habits and prime health in the future. Remember that education is key, so share this information with your daughter and empower her to make healthy choices from a young age onwards.