Salt is such a powerful flavor enhancer and effective natural preservative that it was once traded like gold. But for the health of our families and children, it’s important to be mindful of just how much salt we’re consuming. Daily sodium intake is an important factor to our health–and the health of your child.
If you’re curious or even concerned about the sodium in your child’s diet, read the following FAQs answered by Nurture Life’s pediatric registered dietitian, Lara Field. We’ll clear the air on some of the most common questions regarding recommended daily sodium intake for kids.
1. Salt vs. Sodium: What’s the Difference?
Sodium is a mineral that occurs naturally in foods or is added during manufacturing—or both. Naturally occurring sodium can be found in common foods such as celery, carrots, beets and milk. What many of us commonly think of as “sodium,” however, is actually table salt, a compound of sodium and chloride.
Nearly all of the sodium we consume—around 90 percent—is in the form of sodium chloride, the vast majority of which comes from processed foods like canned soups, packaged lunch meats and frozen meals. Smaller amounts of other sodium-containing ingredients, like baking soda, are also included in foods to preserve them, enhance flavor or maintain texture.
2. Is Salt Important in My Child’s Diet?
While there are risks associated with excessive sodium intake, sodium is an important electrolyte that’s vital to your child’s health and development. An adequate daily intake of sodium is essential to cell, muscle and nerve function as well as the regulation of blood pressure and volume.
3. What is the Recommended Daily Sodium Intake for Kids?
Healthy sodium recommendations range from 1500 mg per day for kids 1–3, 1,900 mg per day for kids ages 4–8 and 2,300 mg for children 14 years and older. To give some perspective, here’s how these quantities measure up:
- 1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium
- 1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium
- 3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium
- 1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium
Recent research shows that most children dramatically exceed these sodium recommendations, with average intakes as high as 3,000 mg for young children and 3,500 mg for teens.
4. Should I Limit My Child’s Sodium Intake?
Being aware of sodium intake is important at all ages, but aiming to have next to zero is neither necessary nor reasonable. Nevertheless, sticking to the recommended daily sodium intake for kids can help shape your children’s taste buds in favor of less-salty foods, which may in turn lower their lifetime health risks. Foods eaten early in life have a big impact on taste preference, and as NIH researchers note, an excessively salty taste preference later in life is associated with the development of high blood pressure.
5. How easy is it to exceed the recommended daily sodium intake?
Unfortunately, many foods sold and marketed to you and your family are high in sodium. In fact, U.S. children eat an average of 3,300 mg of sodium each day, which is a full 1,000 mg higher than the CDC’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended sodium intake level at 2,300 mg. Complicating matters further, different children react to sodium differently, and African American children and children with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should be eating even less — only up to 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
As your kids get older, their sodium level also increases as teens tend to eat more sodium laden foods than younger kids. If you think about the normal teen diet, it makes sense. Some sugar cereal or a pastry for breakfast, a burger and fries for lunch, then a bag of chips for a snack and pizza for dinner. It’s no wonder that our kids have a high daily sodium intake. Multiply that by hundreds of days each year and you start to understand where it all goes wrong.
Where does the sodium come from?
While a healthy, nutritional diet can come from many different foods, it’s easy to have too much sodium when you consider a typical child’s diet. Truthfully, kids consume sodium with each meal, getting 15 percent of their daily sodium intake with breakfast, 30 percent at lunch, 39 percent at dinner and 16 percent with snacks throughout the day. Furthermore, over 40 percent of all sodium is consumed with just 10 food types, which includes:
- Bread and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Sandwiches and cheeseburgers
- Chips and other snacks
- Chicken nuggets, tenders and patties
- Pasta dishes such as spaghetti and mac-n-cheese
- Mexican dishes such as burritos and tacos
- and soup.
To make matters worse, all this sodium is in all the foods that children eat before it’s even purchased. Most comes from store foods — about 65 percent — but 13 percent comes from fast food and pizza, with almost 10 percent from the school cafeteria. Even before the age of 10, most children are already consuming almost 3,000 mg of sodium each day, and it only gets worse as they grow older.
Here at Nurture Life, for instance, we serve up plenty of kid-friendly favorites like those on this list, just with more mindful recipes that keep child and toddler sodium intake recommendations in mind. (A great example is our whole wheat Mac & Cheese with Hidden Butternut Squash, which definitely won’t have the same nutritional profile as boxed grocery-store mac and cheese.)
6. What are Good Salt Alternatives for My Kids?
Fresh herbs and spices like ginger, oregano and basil are wonderful flavor enhancers, adding depth to foods without affecting the development of your child’s palate. Similarly, a splash of acid (like balsamic vinegar or lemon juice) or a dash of heat (like cayenne or black pepper) can add a pop of flavor complexity without adding sodium.
7. Which Ingredients on a Food Label Mean Sodium?
Because sodium comes in so many different forms, it can be confusing to know exactly how much sodium your child is consuming. On a food label, you can identify sodium with the following names:
- Rock salt
- Sea salt
- Kosher salt
- Himalayan pink salt
- Fleur de sel
- Disodium guanylate (GMP)
- Disodium inosinate (IMP)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Sodium nitrate
- Sodium citrate
- Sodium chloride
- Sodium diacetate
- Sodium erythorbate
- Sodium glutamate
- Sodium lactate
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium metabisulfite
- Sodium phosphate
- Trisodium phosphate
8. What can a parent do to Reduce Daily Sodium Intake?
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your child’s daily sodium intake, know that it’s going to take some work. Instead of toast, egg and orange juice for breakfast, try giving them low-sodium, whole-wheat bread and seasoning the egg with pepper, parsley or thyme instead of salt. For that morning snack, ditch the salty crackers for fruit such as a banana or apple. When lunch arrives, don’t let them load up on soda and pizza with a side of fries. Instead, try a nice, whole-wheat sandwich that’s light on the cheese and condiments with a water beverage
When the afternoon rumblings send your child looking for some easy chips to eat, give them some carrots and hummus. That dinner burger or deli sandwich with chips and macaroni salad has also got to go, and a chicken filet contains much more beneficial protein than that carb-laden burger or sandwich.
Reducing Daily Sodium Intake While On-the-Go
It’s hard enough to get your kids to eat well when they’re at home, but what about when they’re at school or they’re at the local fast food joint with their friends. Good nutrition doesn’t have to stop when you’re not around, and your child needs to know that they don’t have to eat the same unhealthy stuff as everyone else.
No matter where they are, there’s likely a healthy option — or at least a healthier option — than the usual suspects. They can try a salad or chicken sandwich instead of a beef burger, but they’ll also need to ask for the nutrition facts because some seemingly healthy foods can be loaded with sodium. For a sit-down restaurant or a takeout meal, ask that no salt be added to your food when you order. You can also ask for lower sodium options during ordering if you’re unsure.
What are Some Manageable Tips to Reduce Child or Toddler Sodium Intake?
If you’re concerned about your child’s sodium intake, you don’t have to totally clean out your entire pantry, fridge and freezer. Just like our strategies for a kid-friendly kitchen, a few small adjustments can make a big difference:
- Keep fewer salty snacks. Rather than stock up on every kind of pretzel and cracker, choose one! With less in the pantry, your little ones will be more likely to reach for a lower-sodium healthy snack from the fridge.
- Dilute salty foods. Add fresh veggies to a prepared pasta dish to “thin” the sodium in the sauce, and rinse canned beans to remove the extra salt content.
- Put away the salt shaker. Simply removing the salt shaker from the table can limit mindless salting for both you and your kids.
- Split side dishes. Skip the fried sides and salty appetizers when you eat out, instead choosing a healthful veggie or whole grain plate to share as a family.
9. Help! My Child is Addicted to Salt. What Do I Do?
We recommend taking things one step at a time. There’s no need to panic or make yourself feel guilty; you can start making simple changes to bring your little one’s diet within the recommended daily sodium intake for kids.
In addition to the practical strategies listed in answer #8, consider the following “big-picture” tips:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry about doing everything “perfectly” or eliminating all sodium from your child’s diet. After all, many healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium (like carrots, plain milk and yogurt) contain essential nutrients that your children need!
- Don’t fear the salt shaker. A pinch of salt can make healthy foods, like kid-friendly vegetables, much more appealing, which may encourage your little ones to eat more of them.
- Don’t go overboard. You don’t need to immediately switch to salt-free versions of products or stress out over the fine print of every food label. Just limit the most processed foods (like chips, crackers and cereals high in salt), and don’t feel bad about serving your child an occasional bowl of canned soup or salted nuts.
Act Now to Reduce Your Child’s Daily Sodium Intake
While salt is an essential component of life itself and salt represents one of the main human tastes — along with sweet, sour, bitter, and savory — there is such a thing as too much. And especially today, where salt is added to just about everything, it’s hard to stay on top of your own salt intake, much less the salt intake of your kids.
But it’s important. The CDC estimates that about 90 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 18 consume too much sodium and salty foods on a daily basis, and the prognosis is only getting worse. Driving this are just 10 common foods that account for more than 40 percent of sodium consumed by children, leading to one in six children that have elevated or raised blood pressure, which puts them at risk of heart disease and stroke later in life.
The good news is that lowering your child’s daily sodium intake can help prevent health issues that develop later in life, and it can also help stem overeating associated with delicious and salty foods that skew our sensibilities of what a normal portion looks like. The problem is an entire food industry that is invested in foods loaded with preservatives that aren’t really that great for human consumption.
Instead of cooking balanced meals, most parents take the easy route and purchase boxed, canned or bagged food that tastes great but that has low nutritional value. Over weeks, months and years, this food conditions our kids into craving more of the bad stuff and shunning anything that might be healthy, like whole grains, fibrous vegetables and simple proteins like chicken and fish. The danger is even more pronounced in overweight kids that may settle into a lifetime of poor eating choices where gluttony is celebrated and revered — a dangerous combination.
But, as a parent, you don’t have to sit idly by while your child destroys their nutrition and health with each passing meal. Instead, you can model healthy eating behaviors by eating healthy yourself. Instead of chips, nuts and other snacks that are loaded with sodium, try fresh fruit and vegetables to encourage a healthy form of snacking. If you’re buying boxed or pre-packaged items, check the Nutrition Facts label and only purchase snacks that have the lowest sodium content. This way, you’ll stop enabling your kids to eat poorly, and, after an adjustment phase, they’ll start enjoying and craving healthier foods.
A better way…
Here at Nurture Life, we believe that there’s a better way to manage your child’s daily sodium intake. With pre-prepared meals delivered straight to your door, we enable parents to take charge of their children’s eating habits, encouraging a balanced, healthy diet instead of accepting that your child is just one of those “picky eaters.” If you don’t challenge their palate, they’ll grow up stunted in their tastes and proclivities, and that could lead to a lifetime of poor eating and health issues.
With Nurture Life, you can provide your child with healthy meal options that taste great and that can be prepared in just minutes. And because we work with nutritionists and registered dietitians, you can be sure that the fuel you’re giving your child is just right for their growing bodies and developing minds, and over time they’ll even start to crave more healthful options, even when they’re far from maxing out their daily sodium intake.
As parents, we all worry about providing the right diet for our children’s healthy growth and development—but just remember, you’re not alone! Many of us face the same common questions about kid nutrition, and just by doing your research, you’re already taking the right steps to nourish your little ones and set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
If you have questions or would like further guidance with your child’s sodium intake, feel free to contact our Nurture Life team at email@example.com.