While proper nutrition matters at any age, it’s especially important when your child is young, as it's the best time to learn healthy eating habits. The best way you can help your growing child is by feeding their nutrient-rich foods that will promote their growth and development. Many children in the United States do not get enough of the essential nutrients the body needs. With a well-balanced diet, your child will not only grow physically; studies show that children who consume healthy foods, and particularly a healthy breakfast, perform better in school.
The following serving suggestions are based on the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guidelines, unless otherwise noted. The recommended servings are for children who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity. If your child is more active, your child may be able to eat more healthy foods. The guidelines and tips here are a resource for parents, and are not intended as a substitute for speaking with your child’s health care provider.
Vegetables are powerhouse foods—they pack a lot of nutrients per calorie, so the body gets health benefits at a low-calorie cost. The phytochemicals in vegetables (what gives vegetables their color) have a protective effect on the body and are important for lifelong health. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body make new healthy cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Potassium is an important mineral found in many vegetables like potatoes, leafy greens, and beans. It controls the water balance in the body and it helps muscles do their work. Calcium, an important mineral to bone health and development, can also be found in beans and greens as well.
Vegetables: How many?
Your first-grader should be eating about 1½ cups of vegetables every day. What counts as a cup? One large ear of corn is about 1 cup, or two large stalks of celery. As a general rule, a woman's fist is about the size of 1 cup – so moms, you have a way to measure servings at all times.
Fruits, like vegetables, are full of nutrients that will support your child’s growth and development. Potassium, which is integral to the water balance in the body and promotes proper muscle function, is found in many fruits, like bananas and apricots. To get the most nutrients out of fruit, it’s best to eat whole fruit. Fruit juice is very popular with kids and parents alike, but many juices have added sugars and less nutrients. The fiber in whole fruits will help your child feel fuller longer, and that fiber gets lost in juice form. Juice also trains your child’s palate to prefer sweetened beverages which is not ideal for long-term health. If you choose to give your child juice, make sure it is 100% fruit juice, and even then, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends your child not drink more than 6 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day (about the size of one juice box).
Fruits: How many?
Your first-grader should be eating about one to 1½ cups of fruits every day. What counts as a cup? Half of one large apple, or 32 seedless grapes, equals 1 cup of fruit. One small banana or 16 grapes equals half a cup of fruit.
Grains offer nutrients such as fiber that aid in your child’s digestion, and they are a good source of B vitamins, which help the body release energy from other foods and contribute to a healthy nervous system. Serve your first-grader plenty of whole grains and limit the amount of processed grain in their diet. Refined grains have been processed and some of the fiber is removed. White rice, pasta, and white bread are all refined grains. Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat pasta have not been processed and maintain their fiber content. Fiber is important to your child’s bowel function and also helps your child feel full without eating too many additional calories.
Grains: How much?
Your first-grader should be eating about 5 ounces of grains each day. Half of those grains should be whole grains. How much is an ounce? Generally, one slice of whole wheat bread, 1 cup of cereal or ½ cup cooked brown rice is the same as 1 ounce. Five whole wheat crackers are the same as 1 ounce.
Meats, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds provide essential nutrients for your child’s muscle, skin, bone and blood. Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage. Iron carries oxygen in the blood, a vital job for maintaining overall health, and many foods in this group are high in iron, like red meats.
It is important to focus on the type of protein your first-grader eats and not so much the amount of protein, as most children get enough protein in their diet. Vegetable sources of protein (nuts, legumes and seeds) and fish are the healthiest options. Of the animal sources of protein, white meat from poultry is healthier than red meat (pork and beef) and when selecting meat, choose the lean cuts over their higher-fat counterparts like non-lean beef. Too much fat can contribute to more empty calories and increase your child’s risk for weight gain, obesity, and heart disease.
Protein: How much?
Your first-grader should eat about 4 ounces of protein every day, split between meals and snacks. What’s an ounce? One-fourth cup of cooked beans and one egg are each 1 ounce of protein. One tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter is the same as 1 ounce of protein. How much is a tablespoon? The size of a ping pong ball is 2 tablespoons, so half a ping pong ball is equivalent to 1 tablespoon.
At this age, your child’s bones are growing, and getting bone-building nutrients such as calcium from dairy products is extremely important for long-term bone health. Calcium helps strengthen teeth and maintain bone mass. Many dairy products contain and are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Together, vitamin D and calcium can help your child reach their full growth potential during a time when their bone mass is developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children over the age of 2 drink only nonfat (skim) and low-fat (1%) milk. While 2% is not recommended, it is a better option than whole milk, which is about 3% fat.
Dairy: How much?
Your first-grader should be consuming about 2½ cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk is the same as 1 cup. Milk cartons at school are usually 1 cup, or 8 ounces. Some low-fat cheese and yogurts also contain calcium and vitamin D, which can help supplement your child’s diet. One and a half ounces of low-fat cheese counts as one cup of dairy – that’s about the size of your index and middle finger. For children with a diagnosis of lactose intolerance, lactose-free cow’s milk and fortified milks like soy or almond milk can be good alternatives.
Oils & fats
Your child’s growing body needs fats for brain growth and the continued development of their sensory system. Fat also helps aid the absorption of some key vitamins like A, D, E, and K. However, not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats are those that are solid at room temperature, like butter or lard. They can be found in some meats and whole milk. These fats increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and increase your child’s risk of developing heart disease. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, are healthier. They can be found in foods like avocados. These oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health. Too much fat in their diet can put them at an increased risk of weight gain and obesity. While it may be hard to keep track of, you should try to limit your child’s fat intake.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your first-grader should only have about 4 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. It is likely your child will already get all the healthy fats they need from foods they are already eating like fish, nuts, and avocado. For example, in half an avocado, there are three tablespoons of healthy fat. But in one small ice cream blended with cookies there can be over 4 teaspoons (18 grams) of fat, which is the limit for entire day. And almost half of the fats in that dessert are unhealthy fats.
Sodium & salt
Sodium and salt are often used in foods to enhance flavor. Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably but sodium is actually the unhealthy part of salt. In processed foods, salt increases the amount of time an item can last on a store shelf. Higher sodium content is often found in packaged foods like chips, crackers, and canned soups, in addition to cured meats like sausage and salami. Your child’s body does need some sodium to maintain the right amount of fluids in the body and keep nerves and muscles functioning. However, too much sodium contributes to health complications, primarily high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. At this age, it’s rare that your child would have heart disease, but developing healthy eating habits now will help your child navigate their health in the future and give them the tools to prevent chronic disease.
Sodium & salt: How much?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s intake of sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. It can be hard to track the amount of sodium your child consumes, but having an idea of how much is too much can be helpful. How much is 1,500 milligrams of sodium? One can of chicken noodle soup can have as much as 744 milligrams of sodium, more than half of the daily limit. Like added sugars, sodium can add up quickly so make sure you read the label.
Sugar that is added to foods and beverages doesn’t contain any health benefits and leads to empty calories – no essential nutrients beyond the calories. Studies show that children this age consume as much as 16% of their total calories from added sugar. That means a child can eat 13 teaspoons of added sugar, or 208 extra calories, each day. Added sugars are found in sweetened beverages like soda, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, desserts, and candy.
Too much added sugars in your child’s diet can cause cavities and also lead to chronic diseases like obesity, which puts children at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Today, children have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes over the course of their lifetime. For Hispanic children, the risk is one in two. Luckily, developing healthy eating habits can help prevent obesity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Added sugars: How much?
Try to limit your first-grader’s added sugars to less than 4 teaspoons (or 16 grams) of sugar each day. It can be hard to keep track of the amount of sugar, but still is important to keep in mind. For example, in one toaster breakfast pastry there can be almost 3 teaspoons (11 grams) of added sugars. In 1 cup of strawberry-flavored nonfat milk, there can be more than the entire day’s limit of added sugars (over 4 ½ teaspoons, or almost 19 grams).
Water is the most important nutrient for your child’s body, as it is used for almost every major function in the body. It is a main ingredient in blood, urine, and sweat. Keeping the proper amount of water in your child is important in order to keep them in optimal health.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your first-grader drink about 5 cups of fluids each day. This can come from water, milk, and other beverages. Two-and-a-half cups should be from plain water. How much is a cup? A cup is the same as 8 ounces, which is the same as a standard milk carton at school, or about half a standard-size water bottle.
You may have heard the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and it still rings true. Research shows children who eat breakfast in the morning are more focused in school, better able to learn, have better academic performance, and are less likely to be absent. By serving your child a nutritious breakfast, you are helping their succeed academically as well as promoting their physical development and overall health. Make sure breakfast has fiber and protein and is low in sugar, this will keep your child full longer and prevent a sugar crash midday.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What are examples of a healthy breakfast versus an unhealthy breakfast? Oatmeal made with low-fat milk, topped with fruits and almonds or walnuts is a great option for your child and has many of the food groups. If you’re short on time in the mornings, oatmeal can be made ahead of time and reheated in the morning. A doughnut, which is full of added sugars and has virtually no nutritional value, is not a good breakfast option.
Learn more about how to encourage healthy eating habits for your child with our first 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.