Ninth grade can be difficult for children as they transition into high school, but also an exciting time as they transition into young adulthood. In terms of your child's nutrition and diet, at this point they have even more autonomy over their food choices and many of their preferences have been developed. They're more independent – your child may go to restaurants with friends, or stop at convenience stores and vending machines on the way to and from school. While you are less likely to be able to monitor everything they're eating, you may notice your teen making healthy choices thanks to the groundwork you’ve laid with them over the years. Proper nutrition is still important at this age as your teenager is preparing the foundation for life-long health. Your child is also at a stage of life where iron consumption is especially important. 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 have all the nutrients and calories your child needs to 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. Depending on your child’s activity level, they may require even more healthy food. If your child is involved in athletics, they will require more calories from healthy foods. To determine how much, it is best to talk with your teen’s health care provider. The recommendations allow for more food for boys. This is because girls tend to add more body fat and grow more slowly than boys, while boys tend to add more lean body mass. 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.
As a high-nutrient and low-calorie food group, vegetables are powerhouse foods. They are full of phytonutrients, which have a protective effect on the body, and fiber which contributes to feeling full. Green leafy vegetables are high in iron, which carries oxygen within the blood. Iron is particularly important for girls going through puberty, as their body loses iron during menstruation. To aid the body's absorption of plant-based iron, serve high iron foods with foods high in vitamin C like oranges or strawberries. Beans and greens also contain calcium, which is important for your child's still-growing bones.
Vegetables: How many?
Your daughter should eat about 2½ cups, while your child should eat about 3 cups of vegetables each day. What counts as a cup? 1 large red pepper or 12 baby carrots all count as a cup. Two cups of leafy vegetables like spinach or lettuce, counts as one cup of vegetables.
Fruits, like vegetables, are full of nutrients and are low in calories. Like vegetables, fruits also contain fiber, which aids in your child's digestion and helps their feel full. Fruits, like strawberries and watermelon, also contain iron – a mineral lacking in most adolescent diets. Potassium found in fruits helps the body regulate water in the body and can even help prevent high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. 100% juice can be a way for your teen to get some of the nutrition benefits of fruit, but juice does not have the fiber of whole fruits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting your teen’s 100% juice consumption to 8 to 12 ounces each day.
Fruits: How many?
Your daughter should eat about 1½ cups of fruits each day, while your son should eat about 2 cups each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, one medium grapefruit, and one large peach all equal one cup.
Whole grains are an important part of a balanced diet for teenagers. Most Americans consume enough grains, but few consume enough whole grains, according to the USDA. Whole grains are unprocessed and contain more fiber and nutrients than their processed counterparts. Brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread are a few examples. White rice and white bread are not whole grains. The fiber in whole grains helps your teenager feel fuller longer, and the B vitamins in whole grains aid in nervous system functions. Many grain foods contain iron, or are enriched with iron, a particularly important mineral for girls.
Grains: How much?
Your daughter should eat about 6 ounces each day, while your son should eat about 8 ounces per day. At any age, at least half of your child's daily grain intake should be from whole grains. What counts as an ounce? One packet of instant oatmeal, half of a whole wheat English muffin, and one piece of whole wheat bread all count as one ounce.
Protein is one of the main sources of energy for the body, and is key to muscle and bone development. Many protein sources like meats, beans, and nuts, are also high in zinc and iron, two nutrients teens often lack in their diets. Iron is particularly important for girls going through puberty, because they lose iron during menstruation. The type of iron found in meats is absorbed more easily than iron found in plant foods like vegetables and grains.
Although research shows that most Americans eat enough protein, many protein sources can also be high in fat, so it is important to focus on the type of protein. Choosing leaner meats, like fish or skinless chicken, or beans, instead of non-lean beef is a good way to keep saturated fat and calories down. Too much saturated fat in the diet can lead to risk factors for numerous chronic diseases, so it's important to help your teenager make healthy choices.
Protein: How much?
Your ninth-grade daughter should consume about 5 ounces of protein each day, while your son should eat about 6½ ounces of protein each day. Your teen should have protein at snacks and meals. What counts as an ounce? Twelve almonds, 1/4 cup of beans, or one sandwich slice of turkey is the same as an ounce.
From childhood to adolescence, your child's bones are absorbing calcium to keep them strong throughout adulthood. Around the age of 18, teens almost reach the point where bones are the strongest and densest. These first 18 years are crucial to long-term bone health, and after these years the ability of bones to absorb calcium decreases. If your teen’s body does not get enough calcium or vitamin D, this can lead to bone fractures as well as osteoporosis later in life. Most dairy products contain calcium, and many are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. While dairy is an important part of your teenager's diet, choosing low-fat dairy options is important to keep calorie and saturated fat intake down. After the age of two, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children consume low-fat (1%) or non-fat (skim) milks. While 2% is not recommended, it is still a better option than whole (which is about 3%).
Dairy: How much?
Your ninth-grader should consume about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? Eight ounces of milk or calcium-fortified soy milk is the same as a cup. One and a half ounces ounces (the size from the tip to the base of your thumb) of hard cheese, like cheddar or mozzarella, counts as one cup. Soy milk is an alternative to dairy milk and provides more calcium and less saturated (or “bad’) fat.
Oils & fats
Fat provides a source of energy for the body, helps the body store energy, and also aids in the absorption of key vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. But getting too much fat can put your teen at risk for obesity and heart disease. The type of fat your teenager consumes is also an important factor. Unhealthy fat, or saturated fats, are usually solid at room temperature. Examples of these are butter or shortening. Saturated fats are also found in red meats and whole milk. These unhealthy fats are linked to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. According to the American Heart Association, plaque buildup is already formed by the teen years, raising your teen’s risk of heart disease later in life. Fast foods, which can be particularly attractive to teens, contain a lot of saturated fats. Healthy fats, or unsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oils, are generally liquid at room temperature. Healthy fats are also found in nuts, avocados, and fish such as salmon and sardines. Unsaturated fats do not contribute to plaque buildup in the body.
Oils & fats: How much?
It is hard to track the amount of fat your teen consumes, and it is likely that they are getting all the healthy fats your child needs from foods they are already eating. For an idea of how much is too much, the USDA recommends that your teen limit the unhealthy types of fat, and limit overall fat intake to 5 teaspoons a day for girls and 6 teaspoons a day for boys. 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 7-11 teaspoons) of fat. In contrast, half a medium avocado contains 3 teaspoons of healthy fats, and a 3-ounce serving of salmon contains 10 grams (about 3 teaspoons) of fats.
Sodium & salt
When it comes to enhancing flavor in food, sodium and salt are often used interchangeably, but salt is actually a combination of sodium and chloride. Sodium contributes to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and other health concerns. While the body does need a small amount of sodium to maintain water balance, studies show that most American children consume twice the recommended amount of sodium.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers consume most of their salt from processed foods and foods which are eaten outside of the home. Examples of those foods include fries, chicken dishes, and pizza. While it may be hard to track the amount of sodium your teen consumes, our experts say the best strategy to limit sodium is to avoid the salt shaker 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? Some frozen dinners, even the ones labeled “healthy” can have up to 700 to 1,100 milligrams of sodium in one serving. An average store-bought frozen supreme pizza, while convenient and quick to make, can have as many as 900 milligrams of sodium per serving. If your teen has a large appetite and eats the entire pie, your child could consume up to 3,600 milligrams of sodium in one sitting.
The empty calories from added sugars offer no nutritional value, which is why they’re referred to as “empty.” They should be limited to very small amounts in the diet. Sweetened cereals, cookies, juices, candy, and soda are all foods which contain added sugars, and some are simply empty calories. Eating too much added sugar can increase your teen’s weight, and put their at a higher risk for obesity and other health concerns. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to keep your teen from eating any sugar, it’s important to talk to their about moderation and limiting added sugars.
Added sugars: How many?
The USDA recommends limiting your teen’s added sugar to no more than half of their allotted empty calories. Your daughter shouldn’t have more than 5 teaspoons (or 20 grams) of added sugars each day, and your child shouldn’t have more than about 8 teaspoons (or 33 grams) each day. Added sugars can really add up quickly. In one 20-ounce bottle of soda, there can be 16¼ teaspoons (or 65 grams) of added sugar. In one small package of fruit snacks there can be 3 ¼ teaspoons (or 13 grams) of sugar.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are popular among teens, and research shows that teenagers and young adults consume more sugar-sweetened drinks than any other age group. Soda, sweetened tea, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and juices are all sugar-sweetened beverages and they are all full of added sugars and calories and are of virtually no nutritional value. Consuming too many sugary beverages can put your teen at risk of being overweight or obese, which can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
What about diet drinks?
Some sugar-sweetened beverages offer a “diet” or “lite” version that is sweetened with artificial sweeteners. These items are lower in calories and sugar, but they also offer no nutritional value. There hasn’t been enough research done for the American Academy of Pediatrics to offer a recommendation on their use in children. Our experts emphasize water, milk, and limited amounts of 100% juice as the best options for your teen.
What about sports drinks?
Sports drinks are a popular sugar-sweetened beverage among teens. They are often marketed to teens as a way of replacing electrolytes lost during exercise. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sports drinks are not necessary for children to consume unless they are participating in extended, vigorous activity for more than one hour. In other cases, most teens will get the amount of nutrients and hydration needed from simply drinking plain water and eating a balanced diet.
What about energy drinks?
Energy drinks are another popular beverage among teens. The drinks often contain a combination of caffeine, sugar, sweeteners, and herbal supplements. According to a report published in the journal Pediatrics, the drinks can have serious side effects including seizures and sudden death. Studies show the drinks can be particularly harmful when mixed with alcohol. While the beverage industry largely states the products are safe, little research has been done on the effects of caffeine on children. Our experts recommend that your teen strictly limit or restrict consumption of these drinks.
Water is the most important nutrient for your teenager’s body and is necessary for almost every bodily function. It helps the body control temperature, cushions joints, and gets rid of waste. As much as 75% of your teenager’s body weight can be from water. Your teen loses water through sweating, breathing, and urinating and it’s important that your child stay hydrated. Having enough water can even keep your teen feeling energized.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your child drink between 8 and 11 cups of fluid each day. Those cups include plain water as well as other beverages like milk. Our experts suggest at least half your teen’s fluid come from plain water, so that means 4 cups of plain water for your child and about 5 to 6 cups of water for your son.
Your teenager is probably very sleepy at this age and not entirely interested in breakfast. Some teens choose to skip breakfast because they think it will help them lose weight, while others skip it because of a lack of time in the morning. Breakfast, however, is still a crucial meal for your ninth-grader. Breakfast has been shown to improve a student's classroom performance and attention. If you're short on time, breakfast can be made the night before, or grabbed on the way out the door. Skipping breakfast for weight concerns can lead to overeating later in the day.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What is a healthy breakfast? Meals with whole grains, fruit, and lean protein are best. For example, a hard-boiled egg with whole wheat toast and a banana are quick and healthy choices. Adding spinach or broccoli to an omelet is a good way to add vegetables in the morning. Short on time? Pack a bag with dried fruits, nuts, and low-sugar granola for on-the-go eating. Or pack a smoothie with low-fat yogurt, frozen berries, and even some spinach. What's not a healthy breakfast? Doughnuts and soft drinks, which are loaded with empty calories and added sugars. If your child eats at school, encourage their to choose healthy options like whole fruits and eggs, rather than bacon and pancakes.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our ninth 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.