Sodium gets a lot of press in the nutrition world. You’ve probably heard that in the typical Western diet, we consume too much sodium- and that’s true!
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines estimate that up to 90% of people over the age of 2 in America are overdoing it on sodium. So it is a nutrient that we need to be mindful of from the beginning with our eaters.
Luckily, it’s also one that we have some pretty clear guidelines on. That can help us make informed choices when feeding our families!
Just want to see the numbers? Click here to see sodium guidelines by age.
First of all, sodium is NOT all bad. (Even for babies! Sodium exists naturally in breastmilk.)
It’s a delicious addition to foods that can add depth to our dishes and bring out savory flavor notes. Properly salting dishes is one of the reasons chef-made food tastes so good!
Salt, which contains sodium and chloride, has many practical uses in cooking. It’s a flavoring agent, but it’s also a preservative, a texture enhancer, a binder, and even a color enhancer.
Your body also needs sodium to function properly. It’s a critical electrolyte that helps muscles and nerves function.
So with sodium, the devil is in the details. Or more accurately, in the dose. HOW much sodium we consume is what matters.
Many things that are good for us in certain amounts become less so in larger amounts. So sodium itself isn’t the villain. The problem is what happens in our bodies when our dietary patterns include more sodium than our bodies need.
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Why do sodium guidelines matter?
Consumption of excess (key word: excess!) sodium is correlated with a few increased health risks. A big potential disease risk that increases with elevated sodium consumption is the onset of high blood pressure. We’ve even seen this in childhood, so it’s not an exclusively adult issue.
And as we know, many children have a diet that is a bit too high in sodium, so we’re seeing these numbers on the rise.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, puts a person at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the US.
Obviously, we want to avoid all these things for ourselves and our children! This doesn’t mean you can’t season your food with salt or serve your child’s favorite savory meal/snack. It just means that we want to be mindful of the OVERALL sodium level in the diet.
Let’s dive in to the specifics.
Where do we find the most sodium in the diet?
The American Heart Association has published a list to help parents identify the largest contributors of sodium in the diet. It’s not always easy to know which foods have high sodium content. So here is their helpful list:
- Mexican food (such as burritos and tacos)
- Sandwiches (fast food/restaurant burgers, chicken, egg and hot dogs)
- Bread and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats (pepperoni, sausage, etc.)
- Snacks (such as chips and pretzels)
- Cheese (certain types)
There are certain things on here that might make you scratch your head. Milk? Too much sodium? A cup of milk has about 100 mg of sodium- not crazy. But it IS something to be wary of if you have a kid that drinks several cups of milk a day AND regularly eats some of the other heavier sources of sodium!
Milk by itself is not going to cause any problems in regards to sodium consumption. But like I always say, it’s the WHOLE picture that’s most important.
As you can see from this list above, many of the biggest high sodium culprits are prepared foods, and often those that we eat out at restaurants.
Pizza, Mexican food, sandwiches/burgers-most of these are loaded up with sodium to increase flavor, prolong freshness), and make them more appealing.
Again, this isn’t a warning to NEVER eat at your favorite Mexican restaurant again. It’s just a helpful reminder of why restaurant food shouldn’t be an everyday thing.
Kid-specific high sodium foods
I also want to make a couple additions to this list myself, especially as we’re thinking about kids’ nutrition specifically:
- Many packaged kids’ snacks
- Many frozen meals
- Sauces like pasta sauce
Kids’ snacks are a tricky category because many of them are wonderful, kid-friendly, healthful options! Yet, others are just marketed to kids to make you think they’re more nutritious than they are.
Some snacks, especially some of the crunchy/savory ones, can pack in a huge amount of sodium- chips, crackers, salty snacks, etc.
Check out this blog post for easy healthy snacks you can make at home.
Frozen meals are also a place you’ll find excess sodium. When foods are frozen, sodium is used both as a flavor enhancer and a preservative, so the content gets quite high.
I recommend always checking the labels of the frozen meals you keep on hand so you can keep an eye on sodium content. I look for under 500mg of sodium per serving on frozen meals.
Pasta sauce is known to have extra high sodium contents sometimes. So again, I recommend glancing at the label before you buy!
Recommended sodium intake by age
For reference- for adults, the recommendation is to limit sodium to 2300 mg per day. The FDA notes that most adults exceed this daily amount. Teenage males exceed it by the highest amount. You don’t need to worry about limiting your sodium much lower than the guidelines. There’s no health benefit to severely restricting sodium (unless directed by a doctor to).
- Babies 0 to 6 months: Less than 110 milligrams per day
- Babies 7 to 12 months: Less than 370 milligrams per day
- Ages 1–3: Less than 1,200 milligrams per day
- Ages 4–8: Less than 1,500 milligrams per day
- Ages 9–13: Less than 1,800 milligrams per day
Salt for babies under one
For babies 6 months and younger, the adequate intake (AI) for sodium is 110 mg per day. (Side note: AI is used as a recommended average daily intake level for healthy groups that are assumed to be adequate for that population since we don’t have recommended daily intakes established for that age.)
Since babies 6 months and younger aren’t eating solid food, the only sodium sources they are getting should be breastmilk or formula.
For babies between the ages of 7 and 12 months, the AI goes up slightly to 370 mg per day. During this age range, babies start to get exposed to solid foods, and with that comes a higher amount of sodium. We still don’t want to ADD salt to their foods at this age. I recommend using spices for flavor, but holding the salt for baby’s portion. They’ll also still be getting some from breastmilk and formula at this age.
If you want some guidance on starting solids the healthy way check out my free Simply Solids guide. Starting solids can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! This guide gives you a simple start and shows you what foods to focus on.
Sodium guidelines for toddlers and children
The sodium recommendations do liberalize quite a bit after age 1. For children ages 1-3, the AI is 800 mg per day.
It’s still best to limit fast food and ultra processed foods at this point, since the sodium adds up fast. (Not to mention, those aren’t typically the healthiest options anyway.)
But of course you won’t be able to avoid eating out altogether, and that’s okay! Here’s a post with my favorite things to order toddlers at popular restaurants.
Here’s a sample day of meals and snacks that comes out to 1000 mg sodium. It is close enough to the AI for toddlers ages 1-3 that I wouldn’t consider it “bad” at all! And it includes some high sodium items, like the deli meat and cornbread.
Breakfast: smoothie with milk, frozen blueberries, frozen banana, and almond butter, plus 1 whole grain waffle
Lunch: Broccoli, strawberries, a slice of deli turkey, and a serving of homemade cornbread
Snacks: clementines and unsalted cashew pieces, and a pear with 2 Simple Mills cookies
Dinner: plain spinach (yes my kids eat this, I have no idea how they like it), unsweetened applesauce, and a spaghetti + chicken + peas dish with some parmesan cheese
When to start salt in baby food?
After their first birthday you can begin serving them salted foods. You’ll still want to limit high sodium foods at this point. But now you can serve them many of the foods the rest of the family is eating.
Here is another helpful and informative resource from Solid Starts about sodium and babies/toddlers/kids.
How can we limit sodium in the diet?
My top tip is to minimize the frequency of eating out, and serve homemade meals as often as possible. That doesn’t mean you have to spend all day in the kitchen! My Meal & Snack Survival Guide is a great resource to use shortcuts to minimize eating out and also get in easy fruit and veg servings.
When at home, be aware of the highest sodium foods and limit how often you serve them.
The main ones to limit include:
- processed meats (including deli meat, hot dogs, bacon, etc)
- canned soups
- sauces – look for lower sodium brands when buying jarred sauces
- condiments – ketchup, soy sauce, worcestershire, and bbq sauce
You don’t have to cut these foods out. Just be mindful of frequency & amount!
Reading labels for sodium content
Get familiar with what certain marketing phrases mean. There are actually regulations regarding what companies can and can’t put on their packaging, and certain claims mean different things.
- Salt/Sodium-Free: less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
- Very Low Sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
- Low Sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
- Reduced Sodium: at least 25% less sodium than the regular product
- Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted: at least 50% less sodium than the regular product
- No-Salt-Added or Unsalted: no salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated
It’s helpful to know these so that you can know what a product IS saying and ISN’T saying.
‘Reduced sodium’ may look nice on a package and lead you to believe it’s low in sodium, but really, all it means is that it’s lower in sodium relative to the original product.So, still check the label!
More tips for limiting sodium in the diet
The FDA also gives a list of tips for minimizing sodium consumption.
- Prepare your own food when you can
- Limit packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products
- Add flavor without adding sodium
- Buy fresh foods
- Choose fresh meat, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties
- Rinse sodium-containing canned foods, such as beans, tuna, and vegetables before eating. (This removes some of the sodium)
- Choose unsalted snacks
- Pay attention to condiments
Preparing your own food and buying fresh food are great ideas, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t have the capacity to do that all day every day. Almost none of us do!
It’s a great way to be in charge of controlling the amount of sodium in a dish, but there are some great products out there that you can rely on when you can’t always cook.
Some of my favorite low-sodium foods are:
- Fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen)
- Low-sodium cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta
- Fresh (or frozen) meats and fish
- Unsalted nut butters and nuts
- Greek yogurt
- Low sodium canned beans
- Kids snack bars:
Lower sodium frozen foods
Frozen foods are often very high in sodium. Here are some that are below 500mg per serving. Note this doesn’t classify specifically as “low sodium” but compared to other frozen options, I would choose these. Kidfresh, Dr. Praeger’s, Applegate Naturals, and Banza are some of my favorite go-tos!
Lower sodium frozen pizza
Lower sodium frozen chicken nuggets and other proteins
Lower sodium frozen meals for kids
Final thoughts on sodium
Sodium isn’t something to be scared of! In fact, it enhances almost all of our eating experiences.
My goal is just to provide you with some helpful information on the guidelines so you are mindful of your kids not getting too much of an otherwise good thing!
The more we know as parents, the better equipped we are to make good decisions for our children that set them up for a lifetime of health.
If you could use some ideas for how to build nutritious, easy meals and snacks for your family, check out my Meal and Snack Survival Guide. It’s chock full of ideas for every meal and snack as well as product recommendations for my favorite buys at the grocery store!