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A balanced diet for young adults: How to keep your student eating healthy

Many teens don’t make healthy choices when they’re on their own, but these benchmarks can keep them on track.
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When your kids are out on their own, there isn't much you can do about what they are or are not eating. Hopefully you've set them up with a good nutritional foundation from their years of living at home, and they’re ready to make healthy choices for themselves. But many teens simply don’t make those choices when they're on their own; there’s a reason the "Freshman 15" is a term. For a true balanced diet, they should be filling half their plate with fruits and vegetables. A gentle reminder of what constitutes a balanced diet may be just the thing they need to help guide them.

The following recommendations are based on the USDA's MyPlate unless noted. They’re based on young adults who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity each day, so individual needs may vary.


Vegetables and fruits aren’t just for vegetarians

They aren’t called “powerhouse foods” for nothing. Vegetables and fruits are nutrient-packed, low-calorie, and can help protect from some diseases, like cancer and heart disease. Women ages 19-30 should eat 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits each day. Men the same age should eat three cups of vegetables and two cups of fruits every day.

What counts as a cup? Less than you might think. One large sweet potato, one large whole tomato, or two large stalks of celery all count as a cup. Two cups of raw leafy vegetables are the same as 1 cup of other vegetables. One large peach or eight large strawberries are also about the size of a cup. So one large salad for a meal can get you pretty close to your daily requirement.

Eat the right kinds of grains

According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains, but most do not consume enough whole grains. What’s the difference? Whole grains aren’t processed, so they keep much more of their nutritional value. Grains are full of fiber, B vitamins, and are often enriched with iron – all nutrients your body needs. Brown rice and whole wheat bread are whole grains, while white rice and white bread are processed. And keep in mind – “multi-grain” is not the same as whole grain. Multi-grain just means that there are more than one type of grain; they could still all be refined grains.

Women ages 19-30 should eat 6 ounces of grains, while men need 8 ounces. At least half of all grains eaten should be whole grains. So what counts as an ounce? One small tortilla (6 inches across), ½ cup of cooked whole wheat pasta or brown rice, and one pancake (4 inches across) all count as one ounce of grains.

Protein is more than bacon

It’s the building block for muscles, skin, and blood. Research shows that most Americans eat enough protein, so your teen probably is fine here. But the focus should be on the kinds of protein. Leaner meats, like seafood and skinless chicken, are lower in “bad” fat and higher in “healthy” fat than red meat (beef). But protein doesn’t have to come just from meats. Beans, eggs, nuts and legumes are all protein-packed healthy choices.

Women ages 19-30 should eat 5 ½ ounces of protein every day, and men the same age should eat 6 ½ ounces. The amounts should be eaten throughout the day between meals and snacks. What counts as an ounce? One egg, 24 pistachios, 1/4 cup of cooked black beans are each the same as one ounce. One small chicken breast half is the same as 3 ounces. A good rule of thumb is to think of a deck of cards as about the size of three ounces, and one ounce is about the size of a golf ball.

Dairy is still important

We often associate dairy with young kids, but the calcium in dairy helps build bone density throughout the first 18 to 20 years of life. So it’s still a great time to pack in the calcium, as after this age, your ability to store calcium slows and over time bones can lose that strength. As a rule of thumb, lower fat dairy is better than full-fat dairy. And for young adults with lactose intolerance, calcium-fortified almond, soy, and coconut dairy products can help increase calcium intake.

Women and men ages 18 to 30 should consume three cups of dairy every day. How much is that? Eight ounces of low-fat milk or calcium-fortified soy milk is the same as a cup. Eight ounces is the size of a milk container from school, or half of a standard size (16 ounce) water bottle. One regular carton of low-fat yogurt (eight ounces) counts as one cup. One-and-a-half ounces of hard cheese (like Swiss or cheddar) is the same as one cup. That’s about the size of your middle and index finger.

Added sugars, sodium, empty calories

Also known as staples in many young adults’ diets, or “junk” food. Pizza, pre-packaged foods, soda, cookies, and alcohol are all examples of foods high in added sugars, sodium or empty calories. It’s unrealistic to think that no one is going to eat them, especially since they are engineered to taste so good. But limiting these types of foods and drink can help your teen lead a healthier lifestyle. And if they don’t want to hear “Are you eating your vegetables?” or “Try not to eat so many chips,” from afar, you can always try tapping into their rebellious streak by pointing out all the marketing that goes into selling less healthy foods to kids. In one study, it helped teenagers make healthier choices.

Physical activity

Oils: Not a food group, not all bad

Oils provide some key nutrients, even though they’re not a food group. They come in many different foods like avocados, fish and nuts. They’re also found on their own as olive, canola, and sesame oils, among others. The USDA has a recommended intake for oils daily, with an emphasis on swapping less healthy (solid) fats (like butter) for oils.

The daily allowance for oils is 6 teaspoons for women aged 18-30 and 7 teaspoons for men of the same age. But it’s very easy to go over that. For example, in a double cheeseburger from a fast food chain, there is on average 51 grams (or about 13 teaspoons) of fats, with an average 23 grams (or about six teaspoons) of saturated fats. Saturated fats are the ones that tend to be solid, and that should be swapped out for healthier oils. In contrast, a 6-inch vegetable sub sandwich has on average 6 grams (or 1 ½ teaspoons) of total fats, with one gram (or 1/4 teaspoon) of saturated fats.

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.