Healthy Fats and Oils for Kids
Is it just me, or is fat one of the most confusing macronutrients out there, at least if you go by what the media and society says about it?
Depending on who you ask, you might be recommended a super high-fat diet or an extremely low-fat diet. Your friend might tell you to eat more "good fats" while your mom tells you not to eat something because it's too fattening. But eating fat doesn't make you fat, right? Or does it? The confusion is real! Add to all this the responsibility of having to properly feed your child, and the confusion will become overwhelm in no time!
This post will cut through all the noise, and give you the skinny on fats once and for all (see what I did there?). You can rest assured that everything I'm recommending here is research-based. I did all the digging and learning so you don't have to. So let's jump in and talk all about healthy fats and oils for kids!
Why Kids (and Grown-Ups!) Need Fats
Let's start by saying that yes, fat is good for you! Fat is one of the 3 macronutrients (and many micronutrients) our bodies depend on to properly grow and sustain our daily functions, so it’s important to include it at meals!
There are definitely qualities that make some fats better than others, but that doesn't mean any foods should be off the table. Even the less nutritious fats can exist in your family's diet from time to time!
Need more convincing? Here are a few more reasons to love fat:
It makes meals more satisfying and filling
Usually when a meal feels like it’s missing that “satisfaction” factor (i.e., when your kids are begging you for a snack 6 seconds after lunch!), it’s because it’s too low in fat.
Especially for our little ones, it's an essential part of the diet
They’re in a really important stage of development where their brains and entire central nervous systems are growing and developing more every day, and their bodies require fat to make that all happen.
It helps us absorb certain vitamins
Fat soluble vitamins (like vitamins A, D, E, and K) can't be absorbed properly unless fat is present in the body.
Fat is so important for our kids' development that The American Academy of Pediatrics says not to restrict it at all in children under 2 years old. And even after age 2, they say that around 30% of our kids' total calories should come still from fat. (You don’t need to worry about trying to figure out what 30% of their diet looks like. Just include a fat at every meal, and it’ll all balance out!)
By the way, this is why for your little ones under 2, I always say to choose full-fat dairy over low-fat or nonfat. After age 2, it’s up to you. You can stick with full fat or go to low-fat, it’s just personal preference. (For more info on milk choices for kids, click here.)
My Go-To Healthy Fats and Oils for Kids
Healthy fats and oils for kids (and us!) come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. I like to primarily use plant based oils when cooking, though you’ll see butter and bacon make an appearance in my kitchen sometimes, too! There’s no food that has to be completely off limits.
With that said, the fats and oils I use most in my kitchen are:
- Oil or butter in cooking
- Nut butters
- Ground nuts (whole nuts are a choking hazard for toddlers)
- Fatty fish like tuna, salmon, sardines (see this post for more on seafood for toddlers)
- Ground flax seeds
- Chia seeds (whole or ground)
I love these ones because they're nutrient-dense and they make my meals more filling!
This list also gives me a lot of options to choose from. Depending on the recipe or just my preference, I can cook foods in an oil, serve a fatty fish as a main, or use nuts and seeds as a garnish for things like yogurt and toast. This makes it easy to make sure I'm serving a fat at every meal and giving my kids about 30% of their calories from fat!
Unsaturated vs. Saturated Fats
We can't talk about healthy fats and oils for kids without talking about unsaturated fats, which are essentially the ones that are liquid at room temperature (like olive oil).
Unsaturated fats are really good for us because they offer more protection from health risks like heart disease and stroke. It’s best to default to using them more often than saturated fats.
But to be super clear, all fats contain both saturated and unsaturated fats; we just categorize them based on the whichever type of fatty acids that they contain more of. So for example, coconut oil is made up of about 92% saturated fatty acids, making it a saturated fat. Olive oil is made up of about 86% unsaturated fatty acids, which makes it an unsaturated fat.
Just a little nutrition science nugget for you!
My Favorite Oils
My favorite healthy oils for kids (and for myself) are avocado oil and olive oil. Here's why:
I love avocado oil because it:
- is an unsaturated, heart-healthy fat.
- has a neutral taste that won’t alter the taste of whatever I’m cooking. (This makes it my go-to oil for baking!)
- has a high smoke point of 520 degrees F, which means that the oil stays stable when you cook with it. (This is important because when oils break down, they can release chemicals that give food an undesirable burnt flavor, and free radicals that can be harmful to the body. When you cook with oil that has a high smoke point, you don't have to worry about it breaking down.)
Shopping Tip: I like to buy a huge bottle of Avocado Oil at Costco!
I love olive oil because it:
- is also an unsaturated, heart-healthy fat
- has a lower smoke point, but the different variations make it so that there's an olive oil for just about every cooking method!
- Extra virgin olive oil is great for salad dressing or recipes where you only have to heat it minimally.
- Light olive oil is best for cooking because it has the highest smoke point of the olive oil varieties.
Other Choices to Use Sometimes:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Sesame oil
When To Use Each Oil
For baking, always choose a neutral tasting oil. My favs are:
- Avocado oil;
- Canola oil; and
- Sunflower oil.
For sautéing or pan frying, use an oil with a higher smoke point, like:
- Avocado oil;
- Canola oil; and
- Sunflower oil.
For searing, opt for:
- Sunflower oil
- Avocado oil
For stir frying, try peanut oil (it's so good!).
And, for dressings, vinaigrettes, and finishing oil, reach for extra virgin olive oil. Its lower smoke point means it's not as good for high-heat recipes, but it's perfect for things like this!
Need help creating balanced meals for your family?
Check out my Dinnertime Survival Guide! It's full of healthy recipes that are ready and on the table in 15 minutes or less, with NO prep! Use it as a 6-week meal plan, or just pick and choose for some mealtime inspiration.