Fifth grade can be a big year for your child. They may be finishing up elementary school, or even starting middle school. You may notice their appetite increasing, as their body prepares for the growth spurt associated with puberty. According to the Academy of Pediatrics, you may notice this appetite increase around the age of 10 for your child and 12 for your son. During these “tween” years, your child may also become even more influenced by their peers, and if their friends eat poorly, your child may mimic their habits in the school cafeteria as well as after school. Proper nutrition is important at any age, and by continuing to model a healthy diet you can help your child make healthy choices for themselves. Your child’s diet should still contain many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy to support their growing body.
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, or involved in sports, your child may be able to eat more healthy foods. You may notice some guidelines are different for girls and boys. This is because generally boys are bigger and add more lean muscle mass than girls, and they need more food to support their growing 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.
Vegetables are important to overall health for a variety of reasons. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body create new cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Vegetables like potatoes, leafy greens, and beans also have potassium, which helps control water balance in the body, helps muscle function, and helps maintain a healthy blood pressure. Beans and greens also contain calcium, which is a crucial mineral for bone health and development.
Vegetables: How many?
Your fifth-grade son should be eating about 2½ cups of vegetables each day, while your daughter should eat about 2 cups each day. What counts as a cup? Two stalks of celery, 12 baby carrots, or one large pepper are about a cup.
Fruits contain many important nutrients, such as potassium and vitamins A and C. These essential vitamins support the immune system and eye health and promote healthy skin. Encourage your child to eat fruit rather than drink juice. Fruit juice isn't as healthy as eating whole fruit, because the fiber is stripped out, and the natural sugar from fruit is concentrated and increases calories. One can of 100% fruit juice can contain more calories from sugar than a can of soda. If your child likes orange juice with breakfast, stick with 100% juice and limit how much your child drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends juice be limited to 8 to 12 ounces each day.
Fruits: How many?
Your fifth-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, an adult female fist is about the size of 1 cup.
Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage, while iron, which is found in many protein-rich foods, helps the blood move oxygen. Research shows that most American children consume more than enough protein in their diet, so it is important for you to focus on the kinds of protein your child is consuming. It’s best to choose poultry without the skin, meats with fat trimmed, and when choosing ground meat, one that is at least 93% lean. Fish, beans, legumes, and nuts are also great sources of protein. Keeping your child's intake of fats and extra calories down will help prevent increased risk for obesity, which can lead to heart disease.
Protein: How much?
Your fifth-grader should be eating about 5 ounces of protein each day. The ounces should be split 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 are a good source of fiber, which aids in the body's digestion, and B vitamins, which aid in nervous system function. Most Americans consume enough grains, but few consume enough whole grains, according to the USDA. Whole grains have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure in adults, so if your child can learn to choose whole grains, they are learning to make choices to help their long-term health. Brown rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and quinoa are examples of whole grains, while processed grains like white bread and white rice are not whole grains.
Grains: How much?
Your daughter should be eating 5 ounces of grains, while your son should be eating 6 ounces of grains each day, with at least half being whole grains. What is an ounce? Half a cup of cooked rice is the same as 1 ounce. One English muffin is the same as 2 ounces. One large tortilla (12 inch diameter) is the same as 4 ounces.
Dairy products contain calcium, which is essential for your child's bone growth. Many are fortified with vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of calcium. Your child's bones will continue to grow until about age 18, which means it is important to make sure they're consuming adequate calcium and vitamin D. Dairy products other than milk may or may not be fortified with calcium and vitamin D –so make sure you check the label. Try to stick with low (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk for your child in order to limit the amount of fat your child consumes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends after age 2, only low or nonfat milk. While 2% milk is not recommended, it is still a better option than whole milk, which is about 3%. If your child is lactose-intolerant, fortified low-sugar soy milk and lactose-free dairy milk are good substitutions.
Dairy: How much?
Your fifth-grader should be getting about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One small container (6 ounces) of yogurt is about the same as one cup. One low-fat string cheese is the same as half a cup. Eight ounces of milk is the same as a cup.
Oils & fats
Your child's growing body needs some fats for brain growth and continued sensory development. Fats also help the body absorb other vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. But not all fats are the same. There are healthier fats, like olive oil, and unhealthy fats, like lard and butter. Generally, fats that are liquid at room temperature are healthier than fats that are solid at room temperature.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your fifth-grader should only have about 5 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. She is likely to get enough healthy fats from foods they are already eating, like avocados and almonds. For example, half an avocado and 23 almonds have 3 teaspoons of healthy fats each. In one quarter pound cheeseburger from a fast food chain, there can be 26 to 42 grams (about seven to 11 teaspoons) of fat, which is over the daily limit. And of those fats, about 14 to 15 grams (about 8 teaspoons) are unhealthy fats. 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.
Sodium & salt
Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably when talking about food. Salt is actually the combination of sodium and chloride, with sodium being the unhealthy part of salt. Too much sodium can increase your child’s risk for high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. While the body does need some sodium to maintain proper water balance, research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that children in the United States consume twice the recommended amount of sodium.
Sodium is added to foods to increase shelf life and flavor. Examples of foods that are high in sodium are frozen dinners, canned foods like soup, and fried foods. According to the CDC, most children consume a lot of sodium from processed foods and when eating outside the home. Our experts recommend making as many meals as possible at home and avoiding the salt shaker to keep sodium intake down.
Sodium & salt: How much?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams per day. How much is that? For example, an average store-bought frozen supreme pizza can have as many as 900 milligrams of sodium per serving – which is about 1½ slices. If your child eats more than that, that’s even more sodium. Remember to try to check the labels on foods. More than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving is considered high.
Added sugars are found in cereals, sweetened beverages, desserts, and candy. They have no nutritional value and a lot of calories, making them an unhealthy choice for your child. Too much added sugar in your child's diet can lead to obesity, which puts a child at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease. According to the CDC, children today have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. For Hispanic children, that number is one in two.
Added sugars: How much?
The USDA recommends limiting your son’s added sugars to less than 5 teaspoons (20 grams) and your daughter’s to less than 4 teaspoons (15 grams). How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one can of soda, there are about 8 teaspoons of sugar, (or 33 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average chocolate chip cookie, there are 2 ½ teaspoons (or 11 grams) of sugar.
Research shows that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars and calories for American children, with as many as 88% of children consuming sugar-sweetened beverages every day. Sodas, sports drinks, juices, and energy drinks all fall under the sugar-sweetened beverage category. Offering little to no nutritional value and many empty calories, these beverages can put your child at an increased risk of obesity. Be careful not to let drinks with no nutritional value push out nutrient-rich beverages like milk from your child’s diet.
What about diet drinks?
Products labeled “diet” or “lite” often have fewer calories and no sugar, because they are sweetened with artificial sweeteners. These products also have limited to no nutritional benefits for your child, and it’s important to keep them from replacing water and milk in the diet. There hasn’t been much research on artificial sweeteners and consumption in children, therefore the American Academy of Pediatrics does not issue a recommendation on their use. Our experts say the best choices for your child’s beverages are water, milk, and limited amounts of 100% fruit juice.
What about sports drinks?
Your child may be more involved in athletics at this age, but sports drinks still may not be necessary. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends children rehydrate with water during and after exercise. If your child is involved in very strenuous activity for longer than 60 minutes, sports drinks may be appropriate. Most youth athletes can get all the hydration, carbohydrates, and protein needed by following a well-balanced diet, getting all recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, and drinking six to eight glasses of water each day. Another way to replace electrolytes is for your child to eat an orange during or immediately after practice.
One of the most-needed nutrients for survival, water is crucial for your child's health and can make up as much as 75% of their body weight. Water helps transport nutrients throughout the body and regulates body temperature. While you should encourage your child to drink water, water is also found in fruits and vegetables and other liquids.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your fifth-grade daughter drink about 7 cups of fluid each day, and that your fifth-grade son drink about 8 cups. This recommendation includes all beverages, including plain water and milk. Our experts recommend that about half of your child’s fluid intake come from plain water, meaning about 3 to 4 cups for your child and 4 cups for your son. If your child is still thirsty, let their drink as much plain water as your child likes.
For decades, studies have shown the positive impact of breakfast on academic performance. Children who have breakfast in the morning are more focused, better able to learn, and less likely to be absent from school. Healthy breakfast choices that include whole grains and protein and are low in added sugars are good ways to keep your child full and focused throughout the day. Eating breakfast can also help to keep your child at a healthy weight.
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 or pastry and juice drink, 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 fifth grade nutrition tips page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including 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.