Hidden Malnutrition – Why It Can Happen to Your Child, And What You Can Do About it

Hidden Malnutrition – Why It Can Happen to Your Child, And What You Can Do About it

Try these nutrition tips from Mommy Dedet Reyes-Panabi to help develop your kid’s healthy eating habits! 

13 min read

When you hear the phrase “malnourished child”, what image flashes through your head? You may think malnutrition only occurs in situations of extreme poverty or famine, but there’s more to nutrition than getting three meals a day.  

Even a cute, chubby child can be malnourished, because he’s not getting the nutrients he needs to grow. And sadly, hidden malnutrition seems to be the trend. A study published in the journal Nutrition and Food Science found that the average child’s diet lacks fruits and vegetables, Vitamin D, iron and healthy fats. As we mentioned in our articles on healthy eating habits, how to boost brainpower and snacks that build the brain, these nutrients are important for energy and development – especially in the growth spurt that happens during the first 6 years of life.  

What is Hidden Malnutrition?
Malnutrition can come in different forms.

1.    Not getting the right nutrients
Sign: Your child’s plate is overflowing with rice.  
World nutritional guidelines say that a healthy plate is ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ protein, and ¼ carbohydrates. If your child’s plate is overflowing with rice you already know that meal isn’t nutritionally balanced.

2.    Not getting nutrients from a variety of sources. 
Your child only eats certain kinds of food.  
Fried chicken is a protein, but it also has a lot of unhealthy fat. Get protein from different sources – milk, eggs, beans, and nuts – so your child develops his taste buds and benefits from the other nutrients in that food.  

3.    Not eating the right amount. 
Your child eats almost as much as an adult.  
Many parents and caregivers overfeed kids. This can lead to childhood obesity, which increases his risk for diabetes and heart disease. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, these are the right portion sizes for a child: 



Portion Size


About the Size of...

Grains Group







1 ounce or 1 regular slice


DVD cover

Dry cereal


1 ounce or 1 cup



Cooked cereal, rice or pasta


1 ounce or ½ cup


½ baseball

Pancake or waffle


1 ounce or 1 small piece (6 inches)



Bagel, hamburger bun


1 ounce or ½ piece 


Hockey puck


Fruits Group





Orange, apple, pear


1 small fruit (2½ inches in diameter)


Tennis ball



¼ cup


Golf ball


Vegetables Group





Baked potato


1 medium


Computer mouse

Vegetables, chopped or salad


1 cup




Dairy Group







1 cup





1½ ounces natural cheese or 2 ounces processed cheese


9-volt battery

Ice cream


½ cup


½ baseball


Protein Foods Group





Lean beef or poultry


3 ounces


Deck of cards

Grilled or baked fish


3 ounces



Peanut butter


2 tablespoons


Ping-pong ball


Oils Group







1 teaspoon


Standard postage stamp

Oil or salad dressing


1 teaspoon


Standard cap on a 16-ounce water bottle


What can parents do?

We know the importance of nutrition – the challenge is getting our kids to eat the meals we prepare. As a mom to two picky eaters, I completely sympathize with the difficulty of consistently preparing healthy meals. However, these tips can help!

Set non-negotiables

Your child won’t ask for food he can’t see! Don’t buy junk food, and discuss your diet rules with grandparents, yayas, and anyone who helps you care for your child. For example, I was very strict about forbidding softdrinks -- even when went to restaurants, birthday parties and playdates. Since my kids never tasted sodas, they never developed a liking for them. They’re used to drinking water and milk. 

Develop their tastebuds

I prepared their baby food, so I had full control over the amount of salt and sugar. While they did discover cookies and cakes – which were in abundance in their grandparents’ house, since my mom loved to bake – they associated these desserts as “treats” rather than everyday snacks. At home, merienda was always fried saba, kamote fries, vegetable-packed quesadillas, finger sandwiches, and egg dishes. 

They also learned to like different cuisines, from Japanese veggie tempura to Indian lentil curry. The great thing about young children is that they only eat food that we serve to them – so we have full control over what they learn to accept as “normal.”

Sneak in the veggies

I grated carrots into their lumpiang shanghai, and pureed squash and kamote into a creamy soup. They got used to eating adobo with sitaw and eggs, and gobbled up eggplant lasagna and tortang talong because they thought it was just another pasta or an egg dish. I also serve a lot of sinigang, sinabawang gulay, tinola, and other meat-and-veggie stews, because the nutrients of vegetables seep into the broth. Kids may not like to eat veggies on their own, but will become familiar to them when mixed with meat and soup.

Turn restaurant trips to nutrition adventures

My kids are always excited about eating out, and I secretly turn a trip to a restaurant into a chance to introduce them to a new dish. While they balk at trying unfamiliar food at home, somehow the dish becomes more exciting when it’s on a menu. I don’t try to argue – I just order a veggie dish, challenge them to try it, and then try to recreate it at home. Then, when it’s on the table, it has that additional appeal of having been served at a restaurant. That’s how I got them to eat vegetable pastas, vegetable pizzas, and vegetable stews!

Use bento boxes

No, I don’t mean the Instagram-worthy bentos with food arranged into cute cartoon characters – I love those, but I don’t have that level of artistic talent! I meant serving food in plates that are divided into sections that easily and visually represent food groups. I found this in Daiso and other bargain stores, and they’re also sold online. My husband says that it reminds him of his school cafeteria plates. They don’t look glamorous, but they work!

These bento-type plates let you (or anyone who’s preparing your child’s meal) control food portions and variety. There’s a section for rice, a meat viand, a vegetable dish, and sometimes even a small bowl for soup. It’s also easier to do portion control without a child going, “Is that all I’m going to eat?”

Sometimes, I’ll also assemble a rice bowl with meat and vegetable toppings, or a Buddha bowl that combines veggies, beans and meat. (By the way, this is also a great way of using leftover vegetables or meat before market day.) My kids love sliced chicken tonkatsu, with strips of cucumber and carrots, and a sprinkling of seaweed and sesame seeds, and pre-made salad dressing. They feel like they’re eating out – and I feel happy because I basically gave them a deconstructed Caesar salad.

The 7-Try Rule 

Kids will instinctively say no to any new dish you offer. So I have instituted this simple ritual: they just have to eat one spoonful of whatever unfamiliar dish I made. They don’t have to finish an entire plate – just a single bite. The only rule is they have to try anything I give them, and I take mental notes and see if they’re just being difficult or if they really don’t like the flavor. Usually this is about 5 to 7 times of making a dish.

My point is don’t be discouraged if your child refuses an ingredient or recipe. Sometimes they’re just afraid of something new, but the more familiar it becomes, the more open they become to eating it. Insisting they take just one bite is reasonable: they don’t have to finish it, or like it, they just have to try it. Thus, new dishes don’t become a power or personality struggle – just an attitude of, “Try it before you say no.” That’s how I got my kids to like tofu, fish, vegetables or even bagoong!

On my end, I also try to adjust my meals according to my kids’ preferences. From these little food trials, I learned that they prefer vegetables to be crunchy, and they’re more likely to like vegetables in soup or sandwiches. They also like a lot of sauce, so they may say no to pinakbet but yes to ginataang kalabasa. Use this tip to discover food preferences and expand your child’s taste buds at the same time. 

Don’t give up 

Healthy eating is important, but it’s not something parents can develop overnight. Even adults struggle with that choice between steamed chicken and chicharon, so we really aren’t in a position to judge! However, we can – as a family – prioritize nutrition, and make healthy eating a positive experience.

As a mom, I know I became healthier after I got pregnant. I only started making conscious food choices when I knew I was responsible for the life inside me, and any nutritional know-how I have now comes from researching on what to feed my family. Until I was a parent, I was Team #UnliRice and #SisigIsLife. Even now, I still have a love-hate relationship with lechon. How can something so good be sooooo bad? 

I am learning about nutrition with my kids, and for my kids. While I understand why cake is more fun than carrots any day, I want them to grow up with healthy eating habits – so they can avoid the struggle I felt when I had to change my own adult diet. They will still discover the joys of eating, but hopefully they will always prefer the healthier choice. It starts at home, and it starts with us.


About The Writer


Dedet Reyes-Panabi

Dedet Reyes-Panabi was editor-in-chief of a parenting magazine for over 10 years, but has been writing for newspapers and magazines much longer than that (hint: back then, people still used film for photo shoots!). Today, she is a content marketing consultant for both local and international companies. She is full-time mom to two kids, three cats, and a stubborn French bulldog.


The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.



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