Your Kids’ Nutrition: Making Healthy Food Choices

kids nutrition
It is important that your kids are getting the most nutrition out of the food they eat.

March is National Nutrition Month, so we’ve put together a guide to help ensure your kids are getting the most nutrition out of the food they eat. Angela Hasemann Bayliss, RD, provides valuable insights to help your family eat healthy, balanced meals. Food is fuel, and kids’ nutrition is especially important as they learn, grow and develop.

Daily Guidelines for Kids’ Nutrition

These guidelines offer a general recommendation. It’s important to consider your child’s unique needs and preferences. Gender, age and physical activity all play a factor in the nutritional needs of kids. If you have any concerns about your child’s diet, it’s important to chat with your family’s doctor or ask to speak with a registered dietitian (RD). You can also find more information on healthy eating guidelines from the USDA.

Fruits

When it comes to fruit, general consumption is important. Aim to include a fruit with each meal, even if it might seem weird to have fruit at dinner. Make it into a delicious dessert. It’s best to eat fruit in its whole form, whether fresh, canned or frozen, and to try to avoid fruit juice, as it doesn’t pack the nutrients that whole fruits do. Variety is key, and eating more is a good thing.

Daily Fruits Recommendation
1-3 years old ½ to 1 cup
4-8 years old 1 to 1 ½ cups
9-13 years old 1 ½ cups
14-18 years old 1 ½ to 2 cups

Vegetables

Even though veggies aren’t necessarily a favorite of all kids, they still play an important role in not only providing the nutrients your child needs to grow and develop, but also in the fiber that helps to fill them up so they’re not craving a snack every five minutes. Looking for a variety of color at the grocery store and on your dinner plate is important. Each color of veggies provides different phytochemicals, which help your body to function at its best. Frozen or canned vegetables can be a healthy go-to when in a rush, and fresh veggies might provide the crunch that kids enjoy. Offering various forms of the same food can allow your child to determine what tastes best to them.

Daily Vegetables Recommendation
1-3 years old ½ to 1 cup
4-8 years old 1 to 1 ½ cups
9-13 years old 2 – 2 ½ cups
14-18 years old 2 ½ to 3 cups

Grains

While grains tend to be a favorite food of many kids (think bread, cereal, macaroni and cheese), the ones that most people crave typically aren’t the healthiest options. We recommend that half of the grains you eat be whole grains. Easy switches include moving from white bread to wheat bread, white rice to brown rice, regular pasta to whole wheat pasta. You may notice flavor and texture differences, so experimenting with various brands and types is helpful. These whole grains offer more vitamins, minerals and fiber than their enriched grain counterparts. If your child is adverse to the whole grain options, it can be helpful to mix white rice and brown rice, for example, until they get more used to the fiber-rich alternative.

Daily Grains Recommendation
1-3 years old 3 ounces
4-8 years old 5 ounces
9-13 years old 5 to 6 ounces
14-18 years old 6 to 8 ounces

In general, 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta or cooked cereal is considered a 1 ounce-equivalent.

Protein

Protein comes in a wide array of foods. Many assume protein can only come from meat sources, like chicken, pork and beef. Fish also provide protein, along with healthy fats. Plant-based proteins are a healthy alternative, and beans, nuts, tofu and soy products can be delicious additions to your family meals. Eating more protein from plant sources is associated with many health benefits. Adding some variety through meatless meals might be a fun, new adventure for your family.

Daily Protein Recommendation
1-3 years old 2 ounces
4-8 years old 4 ounces
9-13 years old 5 0unces
14-18 years old 5 to 6 ½ ounces

One ounce of meat, poultry or fish, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds is considered a 1 ounce-equivalent.

Dairy

Milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese are important sources of calcium and Vitamin D. These nutrients are key for your children as they grow. Aiming to have a dairy source 2-3 times a day or with each meal is recommended.

Daily Dairy Recommendation
1-3 years old 2 cups
4-8 years old 2 ½ cups
9-13 years old 3 cups
14-18 years old 3 cups

Fats/Oils

Most kids get plenty of oil and fats. Just make sure to use healthy oils such as olive, canola, corn and soybean oil. Foods like fish, nuts, olives, avocados and flaxseed also offer a good dose of healthy fats.

Vitamins and Minerals

A balanced diet with each of the food groups mentioned above will provide your child with the vitamins and minerals they need to grow up healthy. You can find the best sources of these nutrients in food, so seek meals that offer variety rather than going for a supplement in pill or chewable form.

Find a pediatrician

Learn more about primary care at UVA or find a pediatrician office near you.

Have a Picky Eater?

Most kids have some strong food preferences, starting at a young age. The best remedy is more exposure to the food and setting a good example for trying new foods, enjoying fruits and vegetables, and eating balanced meals. If your child refuses specific foods, you can try out these tips.

Our pediatric clinical nutrition team works with families at the Battle Building in a variety of clinics. These dietitians often offer some general tips:

  • Eating should be a family affair. Sitting together for mealtimes sets the stage for a healthier lifestyle.
  • Offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks at regular times each day. Kids’ bodies like to know when they’ll be fed, so stick to a consistent meal schedule.
  • Offer a variety of healthy foods and let your child decide which ones to eat. While we can encourage trying different foods, you should also respect the child’s preferences.
  • Be positive and supportive. Food should never be used as a reward or as a punishment.
  • Be a good role model. The best way to get your child to eat a certain way is for them to see you do it.

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