During the teenage years, your child is making the transition to adulthood. In terms of their nutrition and diet, it is likely they have more autonomy over their food choices and many of their tastes have been developed. They're also more independent – eating at restaurants with friends, stopping at convenience stores or vending machines on their way to and from school. You're less likely to be able to monitor everything they're eating, but proper nutrition is important, especially as your child is going through puberty and growing quickly. According to the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most adolescents fall short of their daily quotas of calcium, iron, and zinc - all of which are important minerals for a healthy growing body. If your child's diet is full of a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, your child should be consuming all the nutrients and calories your child needs to fully support their body's growth.
The following serving suggestions are based on the USDA's MyPlate nutrition guidelines, unless otherwise noted. The recommendations are for children who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity each day. At this age, your child may be more involved in sports or other physical activities and may therefore need more calories than a sedentary child. Depending on the level of activity, some athletes may need as many as 2,000 extra calories each day. You'll notice the recommendations allow more food for boys. This is because boys tend to grow faster and gain more lean muscle than girls. Girls also need more iron and calcium than boys. The guidelines and tips here are intended as a resource for parents, and not 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, try to 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 13-year-old daughter should eat about 2 cups of vegetables each day, while your 13-year-old son should eat about 2½ cups. Your 14-year-old daughter should eat about 2½ cups, while your 14-year-old son should eat about 3 cups of vegetables each day. What counts as a cup? One large red pepper or 12 baby carrots each count as a cup.
Fruits offer many health benefits by providing nutrients and antioxidants, which have a protective effect on the body. 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 13-year-old daughter and son should both eat about 1½ cups of fruits each day. At 14, your child should increase their fruit intake to about 2 cups each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, one medium grapefruit and 1 large peach all equal 1 cup.
According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains, but few consume enough whole grains. Whole grains are unprocessed grains that retain more fiber and nutrient content. 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 giving them the building blocks to 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 grain products are enriched with iron, a particularly important mineral for girls. Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and quinoa among others. Processed grains like white bread and white rice are not whole grains.
Grains: How much?
At 13, your child should consume about 5 ounces of grains each day and at 14, your child should eat about 6 ounces each day. At any age, at least half of your child's daily grain intake should be from whole grains. What is an ounce? One regular slice of bread, five whole wheat crackers, or ½ cup cooked oatmeal all count as 1 ounce of grains.
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 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 13-year-old daughter or son should both consume about 5 ounces of protein each day. At age 14, your child should eat about 6½ ounces of protein each day, while your child stays at 5 ounces. 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.
Calcium is crucial for bone development, especially in children. Your child’s bones grow and absorb calcium throughout their childhood. Most children finish growing by the age of 18. During the first 18 years, the bones grow in both size and density, making this the best time to invest in bone health. 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 to choose low-fat dairy products to help your child get the necessary nutrients, without too many calories or fat. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 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%. If your child is lactose-intolerant, non-lactose dairy milk and fortified soy milk are good substitutes.
Dairy: How much?
Your eighth-grader should consume about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? Two slices of hard low-fat cheese, 8 ounces of low-fat milk or calcium-fortified soy milk are examples of a cup of dairy. Eight ounces is the size of a standard school milk carton.
Oils & fats
Not all fat is bad. In fact, your child’s growing body needs some fat, especially for brain and nerve 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 can lead to increased risk of obesity and high cholesterol, so it is important your child doesn't consume too much fat.
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 three 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. 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. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children consume most of their salt from processed foods and foods eaten outside the home, like pizza, French fries and chicken dishes. 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, but 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 them at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other health risks. 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 child’s added sugar to less than half their daily empty calories, or the number of extra calories your child eats each day beyond their nutritional needs. This means your 13-year-old son should consume no more than 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams) of added sugars each day. At 14, your child should eat no more than about 8 teaspoons (or 33 grams). Your 13-year-old daughter shouldn’t have more than about 4 teaspoons (or 11 grams), and at 14 your child shouldn’t have more than 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams).
How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one 12-ounce can of soda, there can be about 10 teaspoons of sugar, (or 39 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in one regular size Snickers candy bar there are over 7 teaspoons of sugar (or 30 grams).
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 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 teen.
What about sports drinks?
Even if your child is involved in athletics, your child may not need to consume sports drinks. 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. Another way to replenish electrolytes lost during exercise is to have your child take an orange to practice to eat during a break.
Water is one of the most important elements in your child’s life and health. Water can account for up to 75% of your child’s weight. It helps transport nutrients throughout the body, eliminates waste, and regulates body temperature. Water can also help energize muscles, and keep skin looking healthy. Studies have shown that 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?
According to the Institute of Medicine, your 13-year-old daughter should drink about 7 cups of fluids each day. At 14, your child should drink 8 cups. Your 13-year-old son should drink 8 cups of fluids, and your 14-year-old son should drink 11 cups.These recommendations account for drinking water as well as other beverages like milk. Our experts suggest your child drink at least half of the recommended fluids from plain drinking water. If your child is still thirsty, let them drink as much plain water as your child wishes.
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 have whole grains, protein, and are low in added sugars are good ways to keep your child full and focused throughout the day. It may be hard to get your teenager to eat breakfast, as your child may be short on time in the morning, or simply not hungry yet, but there are still ways to make sure your child gets some nutrition in. Try packing a breakfast your child can take with them to eat when your child does get hungry or make a smoothie in the morning that your child can carry in a travel mug.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What are examples of a healthy breakfast? The combination of 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. A smoothie, or a combination of dried fruits, almonds, and low-sugar cereal work well for children who are short on time. If your child eats breakfast at school, encourage them to choose healthy options like whole fruit and whole grains. 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 eighth 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.