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12th grade nutrition guide: Find out what you need to know for your child

Here's what you should know about healthy eating for your 12th-grader.
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Your 12th-grader’s tastes and food preferences are likely established at this point, and if you’ve been modeling healthy eating and teaching them the importance of a balanced diet, 12th grade can be a wonderful time to see your child apply that knowledge. If your teen hasn’t always had a great diet, there’s still time to get them eating well. Proper nutrition at this age not only supports their growing body, but also prepares your child for preventing chronic illness and other long-term health risks as they age. Try to continue to focus on your teen’s plate – half of it should be fruits and vegetables, the rest should have whole grains and lean protein along with nonfat or low-fat dairy. As your teenager gets closer to adulthood, it’s important that they know what a healthy diet is and how to prepare some healthy meals and snacks. Next year, they may be out of the house and should be able to make healthy choices on their own.

The following recommendations are based of the USDA’s MyPlate unless otherwise noted. These recommendations are based on teens who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity each day. If your 12th-grader is involved in sports, or is very active in other ways, they may be able to eat more healthy foods. The servings allow for more food for boys in some places. This is because boys tend to build more lean muscle mass than girls do, increasing their need for additional calories. Girls have different nutritional needs as well. For example, teen girls need more iron than boys do. This guide is intended as a resource for parents and not a substitute for speaking with your child’s health care provider.



Vegetables are one of the most important foods for your teen. They provide many nutrients and are low in calories, making them a powerhouse food. Vegetables have phytonutrients (what gives them their color), which protect the body from some diseases. They also have a lot of fiber, which contributes to feeling full and helps the digestive tract function. Green leafy vegetables are high in iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is particularly important for girls, as they lose iron during menstruation. Plant-based irons are harder for the body to absorb than irons from animals. To aid in absorption, eat those vegetables with foods that are high in vitamin C, like oranges or strawberries. Calcium, a mineral vital to bone health, can be found in beans and greens.

Vegetables: How many?

Your 12th-grade daughter should consume about 2½ cups of vegetables each day, while your 12th-grade son should consume about 3 cups of vegetables. What counts as a cup? One large sweet potato, one large whole tomato, or two large stalks of celery all count as a cup. Two cups of raw leafy vegetables are the same as 1 cup of other vegetables. To help visualize a cup of chopped vegetables, keep in mind a woman’s fist (or a baseball) is about the same as 1 cup. A man’s fist is about the size of 1½ cups.


Fruits, like vegetables, have a lot of fiber and other nutrients without a lot of calories. Fruits are high in potassium, which helps the body regulate water. Potassium also helps prevent high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. At this age, your teen should still try to limit fruit juice consumption, as juice strips the fiber from whole fruits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting juice to 8 to 12 ounces of day for teens. Any juice your teen drinks should be 100% fruit juice in order to get the most nutritional benefits.

Fruits: How many?

Your 12th-grade daughter should eat about 1½ cups of fruits each day. Your 12th-grade son should eat about 2 cups of fruits each day. What counts as a cup? One large peach, and about eight large strawberries each count as a cup. To help visualize, keep in mind a baseball is about the same size as one cup. So is a woman’s fist. A man’s fist is about 1½ cups.


Grains are an important part of a balanced diet, as they contribute fiber, B vitamins, and are often enriched with iron. Fiber helps the body feel full and aids in digestive health. B vitamins help the nervous system function, while iron carries oxygen throughout the bloodstream. According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains, but most do not consume enough whole grains. Unlike other grains, whole grains are not processed and are therefore more nutritious. Brown rice and whole wheat bread are examples of whole grains. White rice and white bread are processed grains.

Grains: How many?

Your 12th-grade daughter should eat about 6 ounces of grains each day. Your 12th grade son should eat about 8 ounces of grains each day. For both boys and girls, at least half of their daily intake should come from whole grains. How much is an ounce? One small tortilla (6 inches in diameter), ½ cup cooked brown rice, and one pancake (about 4 inches in diameter) all count as 1 ounce of grains.


Protein is a building block for muscles, skin, and blood. It is found in meats, seafood, beans, eggs, and nuts. Other nutrients found in these foods include B vitamins, which help the nervous system and aid in the building of tissues. Most of these foods are good sources of well-absorbed iron, which is used to carry oxygen in the blood. Iron is especially important for teenage girls, because many don’t get enough and iron is lost during menstruation. Lentils and lean red meats are a good source of iron.

Research shows most Americans consume enough protein in their diets, but it is important to focus on the kind of protein they are eating. Some meat, especially red meat, can contain saturated fats, or “bad” fats, which can contribute to obesity and heart disease. Choosing leaner meats, like seafood and skinless chicken, can help to keep your teen’s fat intake down and increase their consumption of healthier fats.

Protein: How much?

Your 12th-grade daughter should eat about 5 ounces of protein each day. Your 12th-grade son should eat about 6½ ounces of protein each day. These amounts should be eaten throughout the day in meals and snacks. How much is an ounce? 1 egg, 24 pistachios and ¼ cup of cooked black beans are each the same as one ounce. One small chicken breast half is the same as 3 ounces.


Many dairy products contain calcium, a crucial mineral for bone growth and health. Your teen’s bones grow and increase in density for the first 18 to 20 years of their life. After that time, the bones’ ability to store calcium starts to slow, and over time bones can lose density. That makes this a crucial time for your teen to build long term bone health. As your child grows older, they will not be able to make up for a time when your child might not have been consuming enough calcium. Many dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.

When choosing dairy products, it is important to focus on low-fat options. Saturated or “bad” fats can be found in whole milk products. Eating too much of that kind of fat can increase your teen’s risk for heart disease if your child eats too much of it. Have them choose low-fat yogurt, cheese, and low-fat milk or nonfat to keep the amount of fat limited. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens stick to low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk. Although 2% milk isn’t recommended, it is a better option than whole milk (which is actually about 3%). For teens who are lactose intolerant or choose not to drink cow’s milk, calcium-fortified low-sugar soy milk or almond milk are good substitutes. Unsweetened almond milk doesn’t have saturated fats and can have more calcium and vitamin D than cow’s milk.

Dairy: How much?

Your 12th-grader should consume about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? Eight ounces of low-fat milk or calcium-fortified soy milk is the same as a cup. Eight ounces is the size of a milk container from school, or half of a standard size (16 ounce) water bottle. One regular carton of low-fat yogurt (8 ounces) counts as one cup. One and a half ounces of hard cheese (like Swiss or cheddar) is the same as 1 cup. That’s about the size of your middle and index finger.

Oils & fats

While the body does need a small amount of fat to help it transport vitamins and maintain healthy skin, not all fat is the same. Saturated fats, or “unhealthy” fats, like butter or shortening, are generally solid at room temperature and are often found in meats and milk. Unsaturated fats, or “healthy” fats, like vegetable oils, are generally liquid at room temperature. They are found in avocados and seafood like salmon. Choosing healthy fats over unhealthy fats can reduce your teen’s risk of developing heart disease. Too much unhealthy fat in the bloodstream can lead to plaque buildup, which is a factor in developing heart disease. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some plaque buildup can already be seen in teenagers. Trans fats, which are man-made from heating oil, are particularly harmful. They are found in processed foods and anything that says hydrogenated oils. Trans fats form sharp edges, which can rip apart blood vessels from inside the body. It is recommended teens not consume any trans fats.

Oils & fats: How much?

It can be hard to track the amount of fat your teen consumes, but it is important to limit unhealthy fats, and also to limit the overall intake of fats. All fats are high in calories and can contribute to weight gain. For an idea of how much is too much fat, your 12th-grade daughter’s fat intake should be limited to 5 teaspoons each day. Your 12th-grade son’s fat intake should be limited to 6 teaspoons a day. How much fat is in foods? For example, one double cheeseburger is well over your teen’s fat amount for the day. In a double cheeseburger from a fast food chain, there is on average 51 grams (or about 13 teaspoons) of fats, with an average 23 grams (or about 6 teaspoons) of bad fats. In contrast, a 6-inch vegetable sub sandwich has on average 6 grams (or 1 ½ teaspoons) of total fats, with 1 gram (or ¼ a teaspoon) of bad fats. How much is a teaspoon of fat? Generally, a teaspoon is the size of one dice. Keep that in mind when using butter, margarine, and other spreads.

Sodium & salt

Often used interchangeably when talking about food, sodium is actually part of salt. Both sodium and salt are used to enhance flavors in food and increase shelf life for packaged foods. The body does need a small amount of sodium to maintain water balance in the body, but too much sodium can increase blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Sodium is often found in frozen foods, canned foods, cured meats like bacon, and in fast food. Research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that most of children’s sodium comes from processed foods and foods eaten away from home, like fast foods, French fries, and pizza. Our experts recommend preparing as many meals at home as possible and limiting use of the salt shaker to keep sodium intake down.

Sodium & salt: How much?

Tracking the amount of sodium your teen eats is difficult. But it is important to know how much is too much. The American Heart Association recommends that your teen limit sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams each day. How much is that? One slice of delivery, or pizza parlor, pizza with extra meat has 850 milligrams of sodium. If your teen eats more than one slice, your child will have consumed more than the recommended limit in one sitting. For context, 480 milligrams of sodium per serving is considered high.

Added sugars

While foods like fruit and milk have naturally occurring sugars, many foods like cereal, soda, candy, and pastries are sweetened by adding sugars. Consuming too many added sugars can lead to cavities and weight gain. Added sugars fall into a category called “empty calories,” meaning there is no nutritional value for the calories in the foods. Empty calories should be limited to very small amounts in the diet. While it’s unlikely your teen will stay away from added sugars all together, it’s important to talk to them about moderation and consuming added sugars infrequently.

Added sugars: How much?

Added sugar consumption can be hard to track, but it can be helpful to know how much is too much. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your teen’s added sugars to no more than half of their daily empty calories. Your 12th-grade daughter should have less than 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams) of added sugars each day, and your 12th-grade son should have less than 8 teaspoons (or 33 grams) each day. Added sugars can add up quickly. Four cream-filled chocolate cookies can have 3½ teaspoons (or 14 grams) of sugar. Some items that appear healthy can also have a lot of added sugar. For example, in one protein or energy bar there can be more than 5 teaspoons (or 23 grams) of sugar.

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Sodas, sweetened teas, juice drinks, sweetened waters, energy drinks, and sports drinks all fall into the sugar-sweetened beverage category. Many offer no nutritional value, and lots of empty calories in addition to added sugars. Research shows that teens and young adults consume more sugar-sweetened drinks than any other age group. The drinks don’t fill the body up like eating food does, and they can lead to consumption of too many empty calories. Sugar-sweetened beverages can also contribute to cavities and weight gain, which is a risk factor for obesity.

What about sports drinks?

Marketed as a way to rehydrate and replace electrolytes after exercise, sports drinks are often popular among teens who are involved in athletics. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sports drinks are not needed unless a child is participating in extended, rigorous activity for more than one hour. The drinks should only be consumed during and immediately after that strenuous activity, not during mealtime or with snacks. In most cases, teens will get the amount of nutrients and hydration simply from drinking plain water and eating a balanced diet.

What about diet drinks?

Artificially sweetened diet drinks can be one way to cut down on added sugars and calories from sugar-sweetened beverages, but they do not offer any nutritional value. The American Academy of Pediatrics has no recommendation on these drinks because there hasn’t been enough research done on their use in children. They are lower in calories than regular drinks, but they are also sweeter, which can leave your teen craving super sweet drinks. Our experts agree that water, low-fat milk, and small amounts of 100% fruit juice are healthier options than drinking diet drinks.

What about energy drinks?

Energy drinks often contain a combination of caffeine, sugar, sweeteners, and herbal supplements. Sometimes energy drinks can be confused with sports drinks, but unlike many sports drinks, energy drinks have stimulants. According to a report published in the journal Pediatrics, the drinks can have serious side effects, including seizures and sudden death. Studies show that the drinks can be particularly harmful when mixed with alcohol. While the beverage industry says energy drinks are safe, little research has been done about the effects of caffeine on children. Our experts recommend that your teen strictly limit or restrict consumption of these drinks.


Water is vital to almost every function in the body. It helps the body eliminate waste, cushions joints, and helps control body temperature. Water is not just from the tap or bottle. Water can be found in fruits and vegetables too. Drinking adequate water and maintaining a balanced diet can help your teen feel energized and achieve optimal health. Water can be depleted from the body through sweating, breathing, and urinating. Consuming water is an important part of your teen’s overall health.

Water: How much?

The Institute of Medicine recommends your daughter drink about 8 cups of fluid each day. Your son should drink about 11 cups of fluid. Those cups include plain water as well as other beverages like milk. Our experts suggest at least half your teen’s fluid come from plain water, so that means 4 cups of plain water for your child and about 5 to 6 cups of water for your son.


Long considered the most important meal of the day, studies show that students who eat breakfast perform better in school. It can be challenging to get your teen to eat breakfast. your child may be up late studying, involved in extracurricular activities, or just looking to get a bit more sleep in the morning. Research shows as many as 20-30% of adolescents skip breakfast. Missing this important meal can put your teen at a disadvantage in the classroom, as studies have shown children who eat breakfast are more focused and perform better academically than those who don’t. If your family is short on time in the morning, try to plan ahead and prepare breakfast the night before. Try stocking up on foods that can be eaten on the go, like yogurt, bananas, and nuts.

Breakfast: Healthy choices

What is an example of a healthy breakfast? Breakfast should be as well-balanced as any other meal. Try including a whole grain, fruit, vegetable, and lean protein. Eggs with sautéed vegetables, a side of fruit, and low-fat milk is one good example. For something more on-the-go, try making a smoothie with frozen fruits, spinach, and low-fat milk. Adding a small amount of peanut or almond butter can add protein to a smoothie as well. If your teen eats breakfast at school, encourage them to choose healthier options like whole grains, fruits, and low-fat dairy when possible. A pastry and soda are not healthy breakfast options, as they are full of added sugars and have little nutritional value.

Learn more about how to encourage healthy eating habits for your child with our 12th grade nutrition tips page.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Wanda Koszewski, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Human Nutrition, Winthrop University; Manuel Villacorta, Author, Speaker and Registered Dietitian, Whole Body Reboot; and Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates