During early childhood, every day is full of exploration and discovery. Food provides children with the calories they need to be active and the nutrients they need for proper growth and development. Here you will find information on your child’s nutritional needs and practical suggestions for a healthier diet.
Key Components of a Healthy Diet for Children
How many calories your child needs depends on age, sex, and activity level. You don’t usually need to worry about tracking calories with children as they are pretty good at self-regulating how much they need to eat. However, it is up to you to provide them with healthy food options and an adequate amount of food. Here are some tips on making sure your child gets the right amount of calories:
- Serve small portion sizes. Serving too much food at one time encourages overeating, but always give your child more food if desired. Do not limit the number of servings.
- Children have small stomachs and short attention spans, so spread food out over the course of the day. But rather than allowing your child to graze all day, try to have set eating times—3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day usually works well.
- Focus on providing your child with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the different food groups and limit foods that are high in added sugar or fat.
- Serve juice occasionally, or never. Do not serve soda at all. These drinks are full of sugar, and it's easy to fill up on them.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your child. About 45%-65% of their calories should come from carbohydrates. In general, try to choose healthy carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. Limit foods that are high in refined flour or added sugar, such as white bread, non-whole-grain crackers, cookies, juice, and soda.
Your child needs protein for growth and repair and to build muscle. About 5%-20% of your young child’s calories should come from protein. An older child should aim for 10%-30% of protein. Good sources of protein include poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.
Very young children need a little more fat than older children and adults. Children aged 2-3 should consume about 30%-40% of calories as fat, while those aged four and older should consume 25%-35% of calories as fat. Dietary fat provides essential fatty acids, which are especially important for proper growth and brain development in children. Your child’s fat intake should come mostly from healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils like canola and olive oil. Try nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish as well. Some fish with good fats include salmon, sardines, and tuna.
Vitamins & Minerals
Eating a variety of foods from each of the food groups will help ensure that your child gets all the vitamins and minerals that are needed for proper nutrition. If you feel your child’s diet is not as balanced as it could be, ask the pediatrician about multivitamin supplementation. One way to help ensure picky eaters get all of their vitamins and minerals is to buy fortified breakfast cereal.
While all vitamins and minerals are important, here are a few that are particularly important during childhood:
- Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. Good sources include milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified cereal, and canned salmon.
- Vitamin D is necessary for the body to use the calcium that is consumed. Good sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, salmon, and egg yolks. Exposure to sunlight will allow your body to make vitamin D, but should be limited due to the dangers of too much sun exposure.
- Not getting enough iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which can affect your child’s growth and ability to learn. Good sources of iron include lean meats and fortified breakfast cereals.
Diets high in fiber tend to be lower in total calories, fat, and cholesterol than diets that are low in fiber. What’s more, research shows that a high fiber intake may help prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Fiber can also prevent constipation and increase fullness following a meal. To be sure your child is getting enough fiber make sure whole grains make up half of the daily grain intake. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of fiber with multiple nutritional benefits.
While it may not be a nutrient, physical activity is a key component of any healthy diet. Structured exercise is usually not necessary at this age, but see to it that your kids spend at least 1 hour actively playing every day. Keep TV viewing to a minimum and limit the amount of time spent doing other sedentary activities, such as sitting in front of the computer or playing video games. When possible, get moving with your children—whether it’s a walk around the block together or throwing a ball back and forth. All movement counts, and you are your child's number one role model.
Eating Guide for Children
This eating guide is based on the United States Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate website. It lists the main food groups, examples of the recommended daily amount for different ages, as well as suggestions about which foods to choose in each group. The recommended daily amount varies based on your child’s age, weight, sex, and activity level. Use the daily amounts below as a starting guide, then go to the website for more individualized recommendations.
Grains (1 ounce = 1 slice bread, ¼ bagel, ½ cup cooked pasta or rice, 5 whole-wheat crackers)
- 2 years old: 3 ounces
- 5 years old: 5 ounces
- 8 years old: 5 ounces
- 11 years old, female: 6 ounces
- At least ½ of grains should be whole grains
- Whole grains include: whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, bulgur, popcorn.
Vegetables (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 2 cups raw leafy vegetables)
- 2 years old: 1 cup
- 5 years old: 1 1/2 cups
- 8 years old: 2 cups
- 11 years old: 2 1/2 cups
- Offer your child a variety of different vegetables every day
Encourage more of the following types of vegetables:
- Dark greens like broccoli, spinach, bok choy, or romaine lettuce
- Orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash
- Dry beans and peas like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu
Fruits (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup fruit juice, ½ cup dried fruit)
- 2 years old: 1 cup
- 5 years old: 11/2 cups
- 8 years old: 1 1/2 cups
- 11 years old: 1 1/2-2 cups
- Offer your child a variety of fruit
- Choose fresh fruit over juices—limit juice to 4 ounces of 100% fruit juice per day
- Choose dried, frozen, or canned juices without added sugar
Milk (1 cup = 8 ounces milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces natural cheese)
- 2-8 years old: 2 cups
- 9-11 years old: 3 cups
- Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, kefir, and cheese
- Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or -fortified foods and beverages
Protein (1 ounce = 1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry; ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon peanut butter; ½ ounce nuts)
- 2 years old: 2 ounces
- 5 years old: 4 ounces
- 8 years old: 5 ounces
- 11 years old: 5-6 ounces
- Choose lean meats and poultry
- Eat more fish and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds
Fats and Sweets
- 2 years old: 165 calories
- 5 years old: 170 calories
- 8 years old: 130 calories
- 11 years old: 195-265 calories
- Limit solid fats such as butter, stick margarine, lard, and shortening
- Look for products that contain no saturated or trans fats
- Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats like soda, candy, cookies, muffins, chips, French fries, and fried foods
Healthy Eating Ideas
Always start the day off with breakfast. Studies show that kids learn better when fueled with breakfast. Try to include a serving from the grain, milk, and fruit group at each breakfast. Here are some healthy breakfast ideas:
- Whole-grain pancakes topped with fresh berries and a glass of milk
- Drinkable yogurt, whole-wheat toast, and fruit slices
- Whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk, and a banana
- Oatmeal mixed with raisins and made with milk
- Eggs and cheese on a whole-wheat English muffin and a glass of orange juice
Most children need 2-3 snacks a day: a mid-morning snack, an afternoon snack, and perhaps an evening snack. While it may sometimes be necessary to eat snacks on-the-go, do not get in the habit of feeding your child snacks throughout the day. And like with meal times, keep the TV off during snack time, this will help your child focus on eating and make him less likely to overeat. Here are some healthy snack ideas:
- Fresh fruit
- Whole-grain crackers and sliced cheese
- Plain yogurt topped with fresh berries and/or granola
- Grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread
- Raw vegetables and peanut butter
- Whole-grain pretzels
- Bagel pizza
Try to include most of the food groups at lunch. If your child is school-aged, pack balanced lunches. To keep lunch interesting for your child and to help you stay organized, get your child’s input and then set up a rotating lunch schedule. That way you will always know what to pack.
If your child buys lunch, make sure that it is a balanced, healthy meal. The National School Lunch Program is required to provide meals that meet nutritional requirements. In fact, children who participate in the school lunch program tend to eat more vegetables, milk products, and lean proteins, and fewer soft drinks than those who do not. It is when kids purchase food à la carte that lunches are least likely to be healthy.
Ideally, your child should eat dinner with you. Rather than having special meals for your kids, or having your children eat before you, try to eat the same dinner together. Research shows that children who eat dinner with their families tend to have higher quality diets than those who do not. A healthy dinner includes whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and sometimes dessert. Providing fruit for dessert is a good way to get this food group included as well.
On selecting and preparing food:
- Get your children involved with meal planning, shopping, and cooking. The more involved they are, the more likely they are to take an interest in trying the foods that you prepare.
- When shopping for food, focus on the foods located in the perimeter of the grocery store, these tend to be whole foods that are staples in our diet. Staples include: fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, meat and poultry, eggs, seafood, and bread.
- Avoid foods with lots of ingredients that you do not understand. Focus on those with as few ingredients as possible.
- Cook at home whenever possible. Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier and lower in calories, fat, and salt than restaurant food.
- Know that dessert does not have to be included at every meal and can be something healthy, such as fresh fruit slices, yogurt, or whole-wheat graham crackers.
On helping your child establish a positive relationship with food:
- Do not push your child to clean the plate—this can encourage overeating.
- Try new foods over and over, but do not force it if the new food gets rejected.
- It may take 10 times before your child actually decides to try a new food.
- Do not use food as a reward or as a bribe.
On creating good habits that lead to better nutrition:
- Start eating with your child when they are still toddlers. You can benefit from eating small, frequent, healthy meals too!
- During snack time, sit down and eat with your child. And remember, they will probably want what you are having, so try to make it the same.
- While it may be unrealistic to sit down as a family at dinner every night, make sure it happens at least a few nights during the week.
- It is normal for your child to eat more on some days than others. Likewise, do not worry if your child does not eat a perfectly balanced diet every day, it will even out over the course of the week.
- As your children get older and more independent, you have less control over what they are eating. But, as long as you are doing your part to help them eat a healthy diet, habits will fall into place.
- One of the most important steps you can take in ensuring that your child develops healthy eating habits is being a role model. Kids are quick to pick up on their parents’ behaviors. If you eat in front of the TV, expect that they will want to do the same. If you skip breakfast, they notice. And if you snack on cookies, they will want to, as well.
- Reviewer: Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
- Review Date: 03/2017 -
- Update Date: 05/08/2014 -