The following was produced with Sunkist, a cooperative of family-owned farms bringing you the best fresh citrus California has to offer.
Getting your kids to eat nutritious foods isn’t always easy. But oranges, mandarins, tangerines, and other sweet citrus fruits are usually an easy sell. These juicy treats can satisfy their sweet tooth without all the added sugar of candy, soda, and cookies. But more importantly than what citrus fruits don’t have is all the nutrients they deliver. Whether it’s a clementine, a tangy lime, or tart grapefruit, all citrus fruits supply key vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients that kids’ growing bodies need.
“They all have slightly different distributions of vitamins and minerals, so one may be a little higher in vitamin C or potassium than another,” says Hanna Freeman, a pediatric dietician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “However, I would never classify one citrus fruit as ‘better for you’ than the rest. It is more important to vary kids’ intake of citrus in order to maximize their intake of the nutrients each fruit provides.”
But when choosing which citrus fruits to give your kiddos, also keep in mind how much of the fruit they will actually consume. “Kids will eat a whole orange or tangerine, but most will not down a whole lemon,” says Natalie Allen, a registered dietitian and instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University. “So although lemons are great nutritionally, unless your child eats the whole thing, they won’t get all of its nutrition.”
Overall, you just can’t go wrong with citrus. Here are the top reasons these fruits are fantastic for children’s health.
1. They’re a super source of vitamin C.
Citrus fruits are famous for their abundance of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant. “This is certainly one of the biggest benefits of consuming citrus,” says Allen. Of all citrus, oranges have the most vitamin C per gram. A large orange (about 3 inches in diameter) has 150 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C. But even a little clementine covers 60 percent of kids’ daily needs.
“Vitamin C is important for a variety of reasons, but specifically for immune boosting, helping to defend against colds and flu,” Allen says. “It also helps with collagen synthesis, so it promotes healthy skin and helps the tissue regenerate after injuries.” And since vitamin C is water soluble, you never have to worry about your kids getting too much, she adds. They’ll just pee out whatever their bodies don’t need.
2. It’s all about the potassium.
Citrus fruits are a decent source of minerals including calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. But where they really shine is with potassium, an important mineral for the heart. “We recommend that adults consume citrus because potassium help lower blood pressure, which also reduces risk of stroke,” Allen says. “So for kids, it’s great to get them used to eating citrus now to keep them on that healthy track long-term.”
3. They contain soluble fiber.
Another major benefit of citrus fruits is they’re jam-packed with fiber. A large orange has roughly four grams, while a kid-friendly clementine has 1.3 grams. “Fiber is a great source of nutrition,” Freeman says. “It helps prevent digestive issues like bloating and diarrhea and can ease constipation in kids. Fiber also makes them stay fuller for longer, which aids in weight management.” (The high water content in citrus also keeps kids feeling full.)
While all fruits have fiber, it’s predominantly insoluble fiber, which is great for digestion but passes right through the body. Citrus fruits, though, are unique. Along with lots of insoluble fiber, they contain even more soluble fiber. “This is a huge benefit because soluble fiber lowers cholesterol,” Allen says. It also helps control blood sugar, which reduces the risk of heart disease down the road.
4. They don’t spike blood sugar.
Unlike birthday cake and fruit snacks, which jack up kids’ blood sugar, fresh fruit like citrus satisfy their sweet tooth without causing the parent-dreaded “sugar high” — or the awful crash that comes next. Thanks to the fiber in citrus, these fruits take longer for the body to digest than processed sweets, so the sugar is absorbed slowly instead of hitting them fast and making them crazy. Keeping children’s blood glucose balanced lowers their risk of unnecessary weight gain and heart problems.
5. They’re full of flavonoids
Along with the many macronutrients in citrus fruits — vitamins, minerals, fiber — they are loaded with nearly 50 different flavonoids. These naturally occurring plant compounds are potent antioxidants that tame inflammation, protect against cancer, and safeguard the brain. Flavonoids also help hearts stay healthy by lowering bad cholesterol, steadying blood glucose and lowering triglycerides.
6. They’re easy to eat.
“With most citrus fruit, there isn’t much, if any, work you need to do for kids to enjoy them,” Allen says. Just put them where they are visible, such as in a bowl on the counter or front and center in the fridge. Allen suggests cutting up and quartering oranges ahead of time so they’ll be even more likely to snack on them.
7. They’re hydrating.
It’s important to keep kids hydrated, yet it can be tough to get them to drink plain water. Citrus fruits can help with this, Allen says, since most are about 90 percent water. And since kids are more likely to drink water with a bit of flavor in it, she suggests cutting up some oranges and plunking them in a pitcher. Fruit-infused water is a fantastic substitute for fruit juice and soda.
8. They’re healthier than fruit juice.
Since whole citrus fruits are treasure troves of nutrition, you might think fruit juices are too. While they do deliver vitamins and minerals, they don’t provide as much nutrition as whole fruits. “Juice does not have the filling fiber that whole fruit does,” says Allen. “Plus, there may be healthful compounds in whole fruits that we don’t even know about yet, so turning citrus into juice may be oversimplifying it.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long encouraged parents to limit kids’ consumption of fruit juice, but it tightened its recommendations even more in 2017. Now APP suggests a maximum daily intake of just 4 ounces for 1- to 4-year-olds, 6 ounces for 4- and 6-year-olds, and 8 ounces for children age 7 and up.
“We set limits on fruit juice and not whole fruits because juice makes it easy to consume too much sugar and calories,” Allen says. “You’re not going to eat five whole oranges, for example, but it’s easy to consume multiple oranges in juice.” Sometimes fruit juices even have added sugars, which can lead to weight gain and tooth decay.
However, Allen says there are times when a small glass of citrus fruit juice is fine for kids, such as when whole fruit isn’t available. Also, she says calcium-fortified orange juice can be a smart choice for lactose-intolerant children, who don’t get this bone- and teeth-building mineral from dairy.
9. You can start kids on citrus young
As soon as children start on whole foods, usually around 12 months, Allen says parents can introduce whole citrus fruits. “An easy segue into citrus fruits is mandarin oranges because they are easy for little kids to pick up and easier to chew because they are soft and don’t have a tough skin,” she says.
While Freeman suggests no more than two servings of citrus a day, Allen isn’t worried about kids overconsuming these fruits. “Most people don’t get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, so as a dietitian, I’d hesitate to say ‘don’t eat too much citrus,’” she says.