A balanced diet is important for your child’s growing body, overall health, and future. At this age, your child may become more influenced by their peers and what they are eating, which can make it challenging for you to keep them on a healthy meal plan. By eating a well-balanced diet yourself, you can also model good habits and give them the tools to make healthy choices even when they're not with you. Growing bodies require more food. You’ll notice in third grade between the ages of 8 and 9, the USDA recommends different serving sizes to take this growth into account. Additionally, boys are generally building more lean muscle than girls and their bodies require more food, leading to different recommendations for girls and boys in some food groups.
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, they 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.
Low in calories and high in nutritional value, vegetables are powerhouse foods and important for your child’s 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 found in many vegetables like tomatoes, 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.
Vegetables: How many?
At age 8, your third-grader should be eating about 1 ½ cups of vegetables every day. At age 9, your daughter should be eating about 2 cups of vegetables each day. Your 9-year-old son should eat about 2 ½ cups of vegetables. What counts as a cup? About 12 baby carrots count as one cup. Half of a cooked acorn squash is about ¾ a cup. One large pepper is about 1 cup.
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, such as bananas and apricots. It is still important at this age to encourage your child to eat fruit rather than drink juice. Many juices have added sugars, and even 100% juice doesn’t have the nutritional value of fiber, which is found in whole fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children this age drink no more than 8 to 12 ounces of juice per day.
Fruits: How many?
At age 8, your third-grader should be eating about 1 to 1 ½ cups of fruits each day. At age 9, your third-grader should be eating about 1 ½ cups of fruits each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, one medium grapefruit, or about eight large strawberries are all the equivalent of one cup. For a visual reference, a tennis ball is about the size of one cup.
Essential nutrients for your child’s muscles, skin, bones and blood are found in foods like beans, eggs, meats, nuts, and seeds. Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage. Iron, also found in the protein food group, carries oxygen in the blood, a crucial job for maintaining overall health.
Research shows that most American children get more than enough protein in their diet, so it is important to focus on the type of protein your child eats. Leaner cuts of meat provide fewer calories than their higher-fat counterparts. Too much fat in the diet can lead to weight gain, which puts children at a higher risk for obesity, which can lead to heart disease. Protein doesn’t just come from meat. Beans, nuts, and seeds are packed with protein and are lower in fat than meat. Fish is another healthy protein option and contains heart-healthier fats.
Protein: How much?
At age 8, your third-grader should be eating about four ounces of protein every day. At age 9, your third-grader should be eating about five ounces of protein each day. Protein consumption should be split between meals and snack. What counts as an ounce? One egg or two tablespoons of hummus is 1 ounce. For a visual reference, 2 tablespoons is the size of a ping pong ball. One small hamburger or veggie burger is the same as 2 to 3 ounces of protein.
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. According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains but few eat enough whole grains. Serve your third-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 them child feel full without eating too many additional calories. Studies have shown that eating whole grains with a healthy diet may reduce the risk of heart disease. If your child learns to choose whole grains your child will be promoting their long-term health.
Grains: How much?
At age 8, your third-grader should be eating about 5 ounces of grains each day. At age 9, your daughter should be eating about 5 ounces of grains, while your son should be eating about 6 ounces of grains each day. At any age, at least half of your child’s grains should be whole grains. What counts as an ounce? Half a cup of cooked brown rice is the same as 1 ounce. One whole wheat English muffin is the same as 2 ounces. One large tortilla (12 inch diameter) is the same as 4 ounces.
At this age, your child’s bones are still growing, and getting bone-building nutrients like calcium and vitamin D is extremely important for long term bone health. Calcium helps strengthen teeth and maintain bone mass. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Other dairy products may be fortified—read the label to be sure. Together, vitamin D and calcium can help your child reach their full growth potential – during a time when their bone mass is developing. Low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for children over age two. Although 2% milk is not recommended, it is a lower-fat choice than whole milk, which is about 3% fat.
Dairy: How much?
At age 8, your third-grader should be getting about 2 ½ cups of dairy each day. At age 9, your third-grader should be getting about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One small container (6 ounces) of low-fat yogurt is about the same as 1 cup. One low-fat string cheese is the same as half a cup. Eight ounces of milk is the same as a cup. That’s about the size of a milk carton from school.
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, such as 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. Those fats increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and increase your child’s risk of developing heart disease later in life. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, are healthier. Those oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health.
Oils & fats: How much?
At age 8, your third-grader should only eat 4 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. At age 9, your third-grader should only eat about 5 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. It can be hard to track the amount of fat your child eats, but it’s important to try and limit their overall intake. They are likely to get as much healthy fat as they need from eating foods like nuts, salmon, avocado, and oils.
How much is a teaspoon of fat? To visualize, one dice is about the same as one teaspoon. Keep that in mind when using butter, margarine, or other spreads. Half an avocado has 3 teaspoons of healthy fat. About 23 almonds have three teaspoons of healthy fat. How much fat is in foods? For example, in one kid-sized order of chicken nuggets from a fast food chain, there can be 3 ½ teaspoons of fats (or 14 grams) - almost an entire day’s worth of fat.
Sodium & salt
Your child’s body needs a small amount of sodium to maintain the right amount of fluid in the body to keep nerves and muscles functioning. However, too much sodium can lead to health concerns such as high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease. Studies show that children in the United States consume twice the recommended limit of sodium. When talking about foods, salt and sodium are used interchangeably, but salt is actually the combination of sodium and chloride. Sodium is the unhealthy part of salt. Both are used to enhance flavor in foods as well as to increase the shelf life of processed products. Chips, crackers, canned goods, and cured meats are just a few examples of high-sodium foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children consume most of their salt from processed foods and foods eaten away from home, like pizza, French fries and chicken dishes. Our experts say the best strategy you can use to reduce sodium consumption is to eat out less and prepare most of your meals at home.
Sodium & salt: How much?
It can be hard to track the amount of sodium your child eats, but the American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. How much is 1,500 milligrams of sodium? In one frozen dinner entrée, there can be 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 try to keep the salt shaker off the table at meals.
While many healthy foods, such as fruits, contain naturally occurring 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 some cereals, sweetened beverages like soda, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, desserts, and candy. Too much added sugar in your child’s diet can 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 – at one in two. 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 benefit. 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 8-year-old should limit added sugars to about 3 ½ teaspoons each day (or 15 grams). At age nine your son should limit added sugars to 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams), while your daughter should continue to limit to about 3 ½ (or 15 grams) 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 3 teaspoons of sugar (14.5 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average fruit punch juice box there are almost four teaspoons (15 grams), which is the limit for the entire day for an 8-year-old.
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 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 8-year-old drink about 5 cups of fluid each day. Your 9-year-old son should get about 8 cups and your 9-year-old daughter should get about 7 cups. 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 2 ½ cups a day of plain water for your 8-year-old and about 4 cups for your 9-year-old. If your child is still thirsty, let their drink as much plain water as your child would like.
Long considered the most important meal of the day, breakfast is key to your child’s balanced diet as well as their success in the classroom. 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. Just as with other meals, you should focus on healthy choices for breakfast to promote a healthy lifestyle.
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 third 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.