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.
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. Which Foods are Highest in Sodium?
After examining the diets of over 2,000 children between the ages of 6 and 18, researchers found that just ten foods were responsible for almost half of their sodium intake:
- Mexican-mixed dishes
- Cold cuts
- Savory snacks
Of course, the exact sodium content in each of these foods varies greatly based on preparation method and ingredients, so we aren’t saying that these foods should be banned altogether. Just make sure you pay a little extra attention to the label!
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 Cauliflower, 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 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 occuring 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.