By seventh grade, your child is more independent around the kitchen and more vocal about what they will or won’t eat. Your tween should know by now what goes into a healthy snack and meal, and should be able to assemble their own snacks. As your child gets older and is more influenced by their peers and spends less time at home, you may have a harder time keeping them on a healthy diet. While their body and bones are still growing, it is important to provide healthy options at home.
Try to continue involving your child in food planning and preparation, and continue modeling a healthy diet yourself. Your 12-year-old son may have an increased appetite as his body prepares for the growth spurt associated with puberty. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), girls’ appetites increase around age 10, so you may have already noticed this in your daughter.
Proper nutrition is extremely important to your child’s overall health ,and your child should be consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Half of the food on their plate at mealtime should be fruits and vegetables. 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 boys are generally bigger than girls and they need more food to support their larger 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 a great source of many nutrients important to proper body function. They pack a lot of nutrients in a low-calorie food, making them a crucial part of a balanced diet. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body create new cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is especially important for girls who have gone through puberty, as their bodies lose iron during menstruation. To help your daughter’s body absorb iron from vegetables, serve with food rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits or broccoli, because vitamin C helps the body absorb plant-based irons. Vegetables like potatoes, leafy greens, and beans contain potassium. Potassium helps the body maintain water balance, helps muscles 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 seventh-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? Half a raw acorn squash, one large sweet potato, or about three large spears of broccoli all are about the equivalent of a cup. In general, it takes 2 cups of leafy greens to equal 1 cup of vegetables.
Fruits provide many health benefits through their high content of nutrients and antioxidants, which have a protective effect on the body. Among other nutrients, whole fruits contain fiber, which aids in the body’s digestion and also makes you feel full. Fruit juice is stripped of fiber, making even 100% juice a less-healthy option than simply eating a piece of fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting your teen’s juice consumption to 8 to 12 ounces each day.
Fruits: How many?
Your seventh grader should be eating about 1½ cups of fruits each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, 1 large banana or 32 seedless grapes are all equivalent to 1 cup.
Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage. Many protein-rich foods are also rich in iron, which helps the blood move oxygen throughout the body. Iron is especially important for girls who have gone through puberty, as their bodies lose iron during menstruation. While iron can be found in vegetables, the type of iron found in lean meats, poultry, and fish is easier for the body to absorb.
Research shows that most Americans consume more than enough protein, so it is important to focus on the type of proteins your child eats. Keeping calories and fat consumption low will help prevent an increased risk for obesity, which can lead to heart disease. When choosing ground meat, our experts suggest picking one that is lean, and if possible at least 93% lean. Choosing poultry without the skin and meats with fat trimmed are other ways to cut down on extra fat consumption. Fish, beans, and nuts are also great sources of protein.
Protein: How much?
Your seventh-grader should be eating about 5 ounces of protein each day. The ounces should be split between meals and snacks. What is an ounce? Twelve almonds, ¼ cup cooked black beans, or one egg all count as one ounce of protein. One ounce of meat is about the size of a golf ball. In general, 3 ounces of meat, more than half the recommended serving at this age, is about the size of a deck of cards.
According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains, but few consume enough whole grains. Whole grains are unprocessed grains that retain more of their natural fiber content and a spectrum of nutrients. Whole grains have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure in adults, which is important in reducing the risk of heart disease. By serving your child whole grains now, you’re teaching their the building blocks of a healthy adult diet as well. The fiber in grains helps maintain a healthy digestive system while the B vitamins in grains aid in nervous system function. Many grains also contain iron, or are enriched with iron, which is a particularly important mineral for girls. Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and quinoa, among others. Processed grains like white rice and the flour used in white bread are not whole grains.
Grains: How many?
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? One regular slice of bread, five whole wheat crackers, or ½ cup cooked oatmeal or pasta all count as 1 ounce of grains.
Calcium is crucial for bone development and density, especially at this age. Your child’s bones grow and absorb calcium throughout their childhood, with most children done growing by the age of 18. This means your child only has the first 18 years to deposit enough calcium to build strong bones. Calcium is found in many dairy products, and many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. It is important in the diary group to choose low-fat dairy, so your child continues to get the necessary nutrients, without too many calories or fat. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children over the age of 2 consume only low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milks. While 2% isn’t recommended, it is a better choice than whole milk, which is about 3% fat. Lactose-free dairy milk and soy milk are good alternatives for children with lactose intolerance.
Dairy: How much?
Your seventh-grader should be getting about 3 cups of low-fat dairy each day. What counts as a cup? Eight ounces of low-fat milk or other non-dairy fortified low-sugar milk, such as soy milk or almond milk, is the same as one cup. The size of a school milk carton is generally 8 ounces. Two slices of hard low-fat cheese is also equivalent to 1 cup.
Oils & fats
Not all fat is bad. In fact, your child’s growing body needs some fat for brain growth and continued sensory development. Fats also help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. But not all fats are created equal. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil, are healthier than fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter or lard. Too much fat in the diet can increase your child’s risk for obesity and heart disease, so limiting fat intake is important.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your child will most likely get the healthy fats from the foods they are already eating, like avocados and almonds or walnuts. You should try to limit your teen’s intake of unhealthy fats and total fats should be limited to 5 teaspoons for 13-year-old boys and girls, 6 teaspoons for 14-year-old boys, and 5 teaspoons for 14-year-old girls. How much is a teaspoon of fat in foods? For example, in one quarter pound cheeseburger from a fast food chain, there can be 26 to 42 grams (about 7 to 11 teaspoons) of fat, which is over the daily limit for both boys and girls. In contrast, half an avocado and 23 almonds have 3 teaspoons of healthy fats each. To visualize, one dice is about the same as one teaspoon. Keep that in mind when using butter, margarine, or other spreads.
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, but too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease. Studies show that American children consume twice the recommended amount 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 increase the shelf life of processed products. Chips, crackers, canned goods, and cured meats are just a few examples of high-sodium foods. Our experts say the best strategy you can use to reduce sodium is to eat out less and prepare most of your meals at home.
Sodium & salt: How much?
It is hard to track how much sodium your teen consumes, but knowing how much is too much can be helpful. According to the American Heart Association, you should limit your child’s intake of sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams per day. How much is that? In an average small French fry from a fast food chain, there are on average 420 milligrams of sodium. Add in the average quarter pound cheeseburger (1,233 milligrams), and your teen will have consumed more than their daily limit in one meal.
Found in many cereals, sweetened beverages, desserts, and candy, added sugars have no nutritional value and lots of calories. Added sugars are unhealthy choices for your child, and too much added sugar in your child’s diet can lead to obesity, which puts their at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 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?
It is important to limit the amount of sugar your child consumes. The USDA recommends limiting your child’s added sugar to no more than half of their daily empty calories. Empty calories are calories which offer no nutritional value. This means your son should consume no more than 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams) of added sugar each day, and your daughter is allowed only 3¾ teaspoons (or 11 grams). How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one 12-ounce can of soda, there can be 9¾ teaspoons of sugar, (or 39 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average chocolate chip cookie, there are 2½ teaspoons (or 11 grams) of sugar.
Sodas, sports drinks, juices, and energy drinks all fall into the sugar-sweetened beverages category. Research shows as many as 88% of children consume sugar-sweetened beverages every day. These beverages offer little to no nutritional value and are often high in calories. Consuming them can put your child at an increased risk of obesity. Be careful not to let these beverages replace milk and water in your child’s diet.
What about diet drinks?
Some sugar-sweetened beverages also offer a “diet” or “lite” version of their products. These are usually made sweeter by adding artificial sweeteners. There hasn’t been much research done on the effects of artificial sweeteners on children, and therefore the AAP doesn’t have a recommendation on their use. Our experts recommend that your children stick with water, milk, and small amounts of 100% juice when drinking. Even “diet” or “lite” versions offer little to no nutritional benefits for your growing child.
What about sports drinks?
Even if your child is involved in athletics, your child most likely does not need to consume sports drinks unless they have been perspiring heavily. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children rehydrate with water during and after exercise. If your child is involved in particularly strenuous activity for extended periods of time, like an all-day meet or hours of practice in hot weather, sports drinks may be appropriate. Sports drinks are intended for consumption during and immediately after strenuous exercise. But for the majority of young athletes, following a well-balanced diet and drinking six to eight glasses of water each day will provide all the nutrition and hydration needed.
Water is one of the most important elements to your child’s life and health. It helps transport nutrients throughout the body, eliminates waste, and regulates body temperature. Water can also help energize muscles, and even keep skin looking healthy. Studies have shown children and adolescents consume fewer calories on days when they drink water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, which can help prevent obesity and other health conditions.
Water: How much?
To stay adequately hydrated, the Institute of Medicine recommends that your 7th grade daughter drink about 7 cups of fluid each day, while your seventh-grade son should drink about 8 cups each day. These cups include beverages like water as well as milk. As a general rule, our experts recommend at least half of your child’s water intake come from drinking plain water. That’s about 4 cups each. If your child is still thirsty, let their drink as much plain water as their thirst dictates.
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. Not skipping breakfast can also help to keep your child at a healthy weight.
It may be hard to get your child to eat breakfast on school days. Your child may not get up early enough to make breakfast, or they may just not be hungry yet. In these cases, try to offer something portable that your child can take with their on their way to school.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What are examples of a healthy breakfast? An egg, fresh fruit, and whole grain toast is one option for a healthy breakfast and covers three of the food groups in one meal – protein, fruit, and whole grain. A doughnut or pastry and juice drink, which is full of added sugars, has virtually no nutritional value, many calories, and is not a good breakfast option.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our seventh 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; Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates.