Healthy food choices for kids of all ages

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Madelyn Fernstrom, Diet and nutrition editor

When it comes to feeding our children, there are always a lot of questions. With all the nutrition messages bombarding us, it’s often hard to figure out when your child is not eating enough for healthy growth, or perhaps eating too much for their dietary needs. And “kids” is a loose term, ranging from preschoolers through high school. 

While the relative nutrient proportions remain the same across this nearly 15 year span, the amounts and number of servings DO increase with age to accommodate growing children.

Here are some national guidelines that can help you determine the optimal nutrient intake for your children. Remember that every child is an individual whose needs will vary not only with age, but with level of activity. Most importantly, avoid the “clean plate club”. 

Forcing a child to finish their food can lead to eating issues later in life, including the negative health message of dessert as a “reward” for eating healthy foods first. This can be avoided by listening to your child, and feeding not by the clock, but with the ebb and flow of your child’s natural appetite, especially for younger children.

Keep fresh foods handy for snacks, including fresh and dried fruits, seeds and nuts (if allergies are not a problem), and plenty of raw vegetables. And start early with your children — before age 2 — to become "adventurous eaters." Even if your own personal eating habits are narrow, avoid passing those biases on to your children. That’s the best way for your child to be an eater of a variety of healthy, fresh foods.

Start very early to reduce the risk of overweight in your children. Avoid liquid calories found in juice, soda, and most purchased smoothies. And don’t offer food "by the clock." Don’t force your child to eat if not hungry. And, if your child is hungry an hour or so before the meal, offer part of the meal, like fruit or vegetables, a salad or soup. 

This doesn’t mean becoming a short order cook! It means being aware of variations in your child’s natural appetite. 

Studies show that eating together as a family supports a healthy weight in kids, so aim for as many meals as possible with at least part of the family present.

And if your child is a picky eater, and you’re concerned that daily needs are not being met, especially for key nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D, talk to your doctor about adding a vitamin/mineral supplement containing 100% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for kids. Many children can’t keep up with nutrient requirements for healthy growth, and this can avoid unpleasant food fights to “eat your vegetables”!

Daily Requirements for ages 4 – 8 (elementary school):

  • 5 ounces of grains (one ounce = 1 slice bread; ½ cup rice; 1 cup cereal)
  • 4 ounces protein (size of a deck of cards – can be split into 2-3 meals)
  • 2 cups dairy (1 cup low fat or skim milk; 6 ounces yogurt; 1 slice of cheese)
  • 1 to 1 ½ cups fruit (1 small whole fruit, ½ cup cut up fruit; 4 apricot halves)
  • 1 to 1 ½ cups vegetables (1 cup raw veggies; ½ cup cooked veggies; 1 cup fresh greens)

A typical dinner plate should contain about half fruits and/or vegetables, one quarter lean protein, and one quarter whole grains. Here’s one: 2 ounces of sliced chicken, ¼ cup sliced oranges ½ cup brown rice

Daily Requirements for ages 9 – 13 (middle school)

  • 5 to 6 ounces of grains
  • 5 ounces of protein
  • 3 cups of dairy
  • 1 ½ cups fruit
  • 2 to 2 ½ cups vegetables

This group of children is also entering puberty, with a range of hormonal and metabolic changes. Nutrient needs can vary widely based on body weight, and level of activity.

 Daily Requirements for ages 14 – 18 (high school)

  • 6 ounces grains
  • 5 to 6 ½ ounces protein
  • 3 cups of dairy
  • 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit
  • 2 ½ to 3 cups of vegetables

The requirements for teens are quite similar for those of most adults. Many teens of this age skip meals, and it’s best to use grab-and-go foods to meet some of your teen’s nutrient needs. Protein bars or shakes, plastic bags with nuts (or any mixture of nuts, dried fruits and cereals), or whole fruit are all popular choices.

And daily treats can always be part of a healthy diet at any age. My own motto to live by when it comes to small indulgences? There are no bad foods, just bad portions.