At ages 7 and 8, your second-grader is continuing to grow and develop their food preferences. To support physical growth your child needs a balanced diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Many children in America do not get enough of the essential nutrients the body needs. By encouraging and promoting healthy eating, you not only help your child’s body get the nutrients it needs to grow, but you’re helping them in the classroom as well. Studies show children who eat well, in particular a healthy breakfast, perform better in school.
The following serving suggestions are based on the USDA’s MyPlate nutritional guidelines. The recommended servings are based on children who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity. If your child is very 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 primary care physician.
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 against some diseases. 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 found in many vegetables, such as tomatoes, leafy greens, and beans. It controls the water balance in the body and it helps muscles do their work.
Vegetables: How many?
Your second-grader should be eating about 1 ½ cups of vegetables every day. What counts as a cup? One large ear of corn or two large stalks of celery are about 1 cup. As a general rule, one cup of vegetables is the size of a baseball.
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 fewer 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 8 to 12 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day.
Fruits: How many?
Your second-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 one cup of fruit. One small banana, or 16 grapes, equals half a cup of fruit.
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, like red meats, are high in iron.
It is important to focus on the type of protein your second-grader eats and not so much on the amount of protein, as most children get enough protein in their diet. When selecting meat, choose poultry without the skin, meats with visible fat trimmed, and lean ground meats. Nuts, beans, and eggs are also good sources of protein. 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 second-grader should eat about 4 ounces of protein every day. Those amounts should be split between snacks and meals. What’s an ounce? One sandwich slice of turkey is about an ounce. One egg is 1 ounce of protein and 1 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.
Grains offer nutrients like fiber that aids 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 second-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, such as 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 second-grader should eat 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. A total of five whole wheat crackers is the same as 1 ounce.
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 build strong bones and grow to their fullest potential. After the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children switch to nonfat (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk. Although 2% milk is not recommended, it is a better option than whole milk, which is actually about 3% fat.
Dairy: How much?
Your second-grader should be consuming about 2½ cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk is the same as one cup. Milk cartons at school are usually 1 cup, or 8 ounces. Some low-fat cheeses and yogurts also contain calcium and vitamin D, which can help supplement your child’s diet. A total of 1½ ounces of low-fat cheese counts as 1 cup of dairy. That’s about the size of your index and middle finger. For children with a diagnosis of lactose intolerance, or families who choose not to eat dairy, fortified low-sugar 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. These fats increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and increase your child’s risk of developing heart disease and obesity. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, are healthier. These oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health. It can be hard to track how much fat your child eats, and it’s likely he’s eating all the fat your child needs. But the total amount of fat your child consumes should be limited.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your second-grader should only eat 4 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. How much fat is that? For example, in half an avocado, there are 3 teaspoons of healthy fats. In one kid-sized order of chicken nuggets from a fast food chain, there can be 3½ teaspoons of fats (or 14 grams), almost an entire day’s worth of fat.
Sodium & salt
Sodium and salt are often used in foods to enhance flavor. When talking about foods, sodium and salt are virtually interchangeable, but salt is actually a mixture of sodium and chloride. 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 needs a small amount of sodium to maintain the right amount of fluids in the body to keep nerves and muscles functioning. However, too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Studies show children this age consume more than twice the recommended limit of sodium. Because salt is often a developed taste, meaning the more your child eats, the more your child enjoys the taste, if you keep salt consumption low, you can impact your child’s overall desire for more salt.
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. How much is 1,500 milligrams of sodium? In one frozen dinner entrée, you can find as many as 787 milligrams of sodium – more than half the total limit for one day. In two slices of pork and beef bologna there are 521 milligrams of sodium, add white bread for a sandwich (354 mg), and one lunch can add up to more than half the day’s limit. Like added sugars, sodium can add up quickly, so make sure you choose low-sodium options when possible and keep the salt shaker off the table.
While many healthy foods, like fruits, contain natural sugar, added sugar doesn’t contain any health benefits and leads to empty calories – no essential nutrients beyond the calories. Added sugars are found in sugar-sweetened cereals, beverages like soda, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, desserts, and candy. Too much sugar in your child’s diet can also lead to chronic diseases like obesity, which puts children at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease control, children today have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes over the course of their lifetime. For Hispanic children, the risk is even higher; one in two will develop the disease. Luckily, developing healthy eating habits can help prevent obesity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Added sugars: What about diet drinks?
Sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages that are labeled “diet” or “lite” are often made to taste sweet with artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. This does cut down on the sugar and calories in these items, but they still offer little to no nutritional benefits. There hasn’t been much research done on children’s consumption of artificial sweeteners, so there’s no evidence of their health impact. Water, low-fat milk, and limited amounts of 100% juice are more nutritious beverages.
Added sugars: How much?
Your second-grader should limit added sugars to about 3½ teaspoons (or 15 grams) each day each day. It can be hard to keep track of added sugars, but an idea of how much is too much can be helpful. How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one doughnut with chocolate frosting there can be over three teaspoons of sugar (14.5 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average fruit punch juice box there are almost 4 teaspoons (15 grams), which is the limit for the entire day.
Water is one of the most important nutrients for your child’s health, because the body needs water for almost every function. Water makes up more than half of the body’s weight and is in a major ingredient in blood, urine, and sweat. Water can be found in foods, especially in fruits and vegetables, as well as plain drinking water and milk.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your second-grader drink about 5 cups of fluid each day. This includes water as well as milk and other beverages. Our experts recommend that half your child’s fluid come from plain water, which means about 2½ cups a day of plain water. If your child is still thirsty, let their drink as much plain water as your child would like.
You may have heard the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and it still rings true. Research shows that 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. Not skipping breakfast can also help to keep your child at a healthy weight. 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? An egg, fresh fruit, and whole grain toast is a healthy option for breakfast and supplies three of the food groups in one meal. If you’re in a hurry in the morning, packable breakfasts like smoothies or fresh fruit with low-fat yogurt and nuts are also good options. 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 second 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.