A balanced diet is important for your child’s growing body, overall health, and future. Around age 10, you may notice an increase in your daughter’s appetite. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this change in appetite usually precedes the growth spurt associated with puberty. (Your son’s appetite increase will usually happen a bit later – closer to age 12). By eating a well-balanced diet yourself, you can also be a strong influence on your child and give their the tools to make healthy choices.
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. At this age, the USDA recommends different servings in some food groups for boys and girls. This is because boys generally are larger than girls and their bodies require more food than girls’ bodies. 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. Phytochemicals (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 an important nutrient found in many vegetables such as tomatoes, leafy greens, and beans. It controls the water balance in the body and helps muscles do their work. Calcium, an important mineral for bone health and development, can also be found in beans and greens.
Vegetables: How many?
Your daughter should be eating about 2 cups of vegetables each day, while your son should eat about 2½ cups of vegetables. What counts as a cup? About 12 baby carrots count as 1 cup. Half of a raw acorn squash is about half 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 not drink more than eight to 12 ounces of juice per day.
Fruits: How many?
Your fourth-grader should be eating about 1½ cups of fruits each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, one medium grapefruit or about eight large strawberries. 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 lower in fat. Fish is another healthy protein option and contains heart-healthier fats.
Protein: How much?
Your fourth-grader should be eating about 5 ounces of protein each day. Your child should split protein between meals and snacks. What is an ounce? One egg is the same as an ounce of protein. Two tablespoons of hummus is 1 ounce. Two 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 aids in your child’s digestion, and they are a good source of B vitamins, which help the body release energy from other foods as well as contribute to a healthy nervous system. According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains but few eat enough whole grains. Serve your fourth-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. 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, they will be promoting long-term health.
Grains: How much?
Your daughter should be eating about 5 ounces of grains, while your son should be eating about 6 ounces of grains each day, with at least half being whole grains. What is an ounce? Half a cup of cooked brown rice is the same as one ounce. One 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 such as 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. After the age of two, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends your child consume only low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk. While 2% is not recommended, it is a better choice than whole (which is about 3%).
Dairy: How much?
Your fourth-grader should be getting about 3 cups of low-fat 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 string cheese is the same as half a cup. Eight ounces of milk is the same as 1 cup.
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, such as butter or lard. 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, like vegetable oils, are healthier. These oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your fourth-grader should only have about 5 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. Your child will most likely get the healthy fats from foods they are already eating. For example, half an avocado has 3 teaspoons of healthy fat and about 23 almonds have 3 teaspoons of healthy fat. Fats can add up quickly. For example, in a standard four-piece chicken nugget order from a fast food restaurant, there are on average 12 grams of fats (or four teaspoons of fat). Add in French fries, and your child has already eaten more fat than is recommended in one day. When using butter, margarine, or other spreads at home, keep in mind 1 teaspoon is about the size of one dice.
Sodium & salt
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 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. According to the CDC, 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?
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, you can find as many as 787 milligrams of sodium – more than half the total limit for one day. And one can of chicken noodle soup can have as much as 744 milligrams of sodium, also more than half of the daily limit. Like added sugars, sodium can add up quickly, so make sure you read the label 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 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 of Disease Control, children today have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes over the course of their lifetime. One out of two Hispanic children have a chance of developing diabetes. Luckily, developing healthy eating habits can help prevent obesity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Added sugars: What about diet drinks?
Some juices, teas, and sodas offer a “diet” or “lite” version of their products. These are usually sweetened using artificial sweeteners. They do offer fewer calories and less sugar, but still offer little to no nutritional value. Water, low-fat milk, and limited amounts of 100% juice are still healthier beverage choices for your child.
Added sugars: How much?
The USDA recommends limiting your son’s added sugars to less than 5 teaspoons (20 grams) and less than 4 teaspoons (15 grams) for your daughter. How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one can of soda, there are about 8 teaspoons (or 33 grams) of sugar. Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average chocolate chip cookie, there are 2½ teaspoons (or 11 grams) of sugar.
Water is one of the most important nutrients for your child’s health.It helps transport nutrients throughout the body, regulates body temperature, and helps energize muscles. Water is found in many fruits and vegetables, in addition to beverages like milk and soy milk. A balanced diet with many fruits and vegetables and adequate consumption of drinking water will help your child maintain the right amount of water in the body.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your fourth-grade daughter drink about 7 cups of fluids each day, while your son should drink about 8 cups of fluids each day. Those numbers include water and milk. About half of your child’s fluid intake should come from plain water, which means about 3 to 4 cups for your child and four cups for your son. How much is that? For example, one 16-ounce water bottle contains 2 cups of water. If your child is still thirsty, let them drink as much plain water as they 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. Eating breakfast can also help keep your child at a healthy weight. By serving your child a nutritious breakfast, you are helping them succeed academically as well as promoting their physical development and overall health. As with like 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. A doughnut, which is full of added sugars and has virtually no nutritional value, is not a good breakfast option.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our fourth 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.