For many parents of kindergartners, this is the first time your child is in school for a full day every day, and you may not have as much control over what they eat. Packing healthy meals for lunch and snacks throughout the day will help keep them eating healthily. Teaching your child about healthy foods will empower them to make good choices when at school. At home, keep in mind their servings should be less than yours, but their plate should look largely the same – with half of the plate full of fruits and vegetables, and the rest consisting of whole grains and lean proteins, with a side of low-fat dairy. The best way you can help your growing child is to feed them nutrient-rich foods that will promote their development. Proper nutrition supports your child’s growth and lays the foundation for lifelong health.
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, your child may be able to eat more healthy foods. 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 powerhouse foods — they pack a lot of nutrients per calorie, so the body gets health benefits at a low calorie cost. Vegetables are very important to support your child’s growth. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body make new healthy cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Potassium is another important vitamin found in many vegetables like tomatoes, leafy greens, and beans. It controls the water balance in the body and it helps muscles do their work.
Vegetables: How many?
Your kindergartner should be eating about 1½ cups of vegetables every day. What counts as a cup? Two medium carrots or two large stalks of celery both count as a cup. As a general rule, a cup of vegetables is the same size as a baseball.
Fruits, like vegetables, are full of nutrients that will support your child’s growth and development. Potassium, which is integral to the water balance in the body and promotes proper muscle function, is found in many fruits, like bananas and apricots. To get the most nutrients out of fruit, it is best to eat whole fruit. If your child has a hard time with whole fruits, cut them up for easier handling. Fruit juice is very popular with kids and parents alike, but juices are less nutritious than whole fruits. The fiber in whole fruits will help your child feel fuller longer, and that fiber gets lost in juice form. Juice also trains your child’s palate to prefer sweetened beverages, which is not ideal for long-term health. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that your child not drink more than 4 to 6 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day (about the size of one juice box).
Fruits: How many?
Your kindergartner should be eating about one to 1½ cups of fruits every day. What counts as a cup? Half of one large apple, or one small wedge (one inch thick) of watermelon, equals 1 cup of fruit. One small orange, or 16 grapes, equals half a cup of fruit.
Meats, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds provide essential nutrients for your child’s muscle, skin, bones, and blood. Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage. Iron carries oxygen in the blood, a vital job for maintaining overall health, and many foods in this group, like red meats, are high in iron. It is important to focus on the type of protein your kindergartner eats and not so much the amount of protein, as most children get enough protein in their diet. Lower-fat options like skinless poultry, fish, and lean ground meats are all lower-fat choices. Beans, nuts, seeds, and eggs are also good sources of protein. Too much fat can contribute to more empty calories and increase your child’s risk for weight gain, obesity, and heart disease.
Protein: How much?
Your kindergartner should get about 4 ounces of protein every day, split between meals and snacks. What’s an ounce? Lean meats the size of a deck of cards count for 3 ounces. One-fourth cup of cooked beans and one egg are each one ounce of protein. One tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter is the same as one ounce of protein. How much is a tablespoon? The size of a ping pong ball is 2 tablespoons, so half a ping pong ball is one tablespoon.
Grains offer nutrients such as fiber that aid in your child’s digestion, and they are a good source of B vitamins, which help the body release energy from other foods and contribute to a healthy nervous system. Serve your kindergartner plenty of whole grains and limit the amount of processed grain in their diet. Refined grains have been processed and some of the fiber is removed. White rice, pasta, and white bread are all refined grains. Whole grains, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta, have not been processed and maintain their fiber content. Fiber is important to your child’s bowel function and also helps your child feel full without eating too many additional calories.
Grains: How much?
Your kindergartner should eat about 5 ounces of grains each day. Half of those should be whole grains. How much is an ounce? Generally, one slice of whole grain bread, 1 cup of cereal or ½ cup cooked brown rice is the same as an ounce. A total of five whole wheat crackers are the same as 1 ounce.
At this age, your child’s bones are growing, and getting bone building nutrients like calcium from dairy products is extremely important for long term bone health. Calcium helps strengthen teeth and maintain bone mass. Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Together, vitamin D and calcium can help your child reach their full growth potential – during a time when their bone mass is developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children over the age of two drink nonfat (skim) and low-fat (1%) milk. Although 2% is not recommended, it is a healthier choice than whole milk, which is about 3%.
Dairy: How much?
Your kindergartner should be consuming about 2½ cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk is the same as one cup. Milk cartons at school are usually one cup, or 8 ounces. One-and-a-half ounces of low-fat cheese counts as one cup of dairy – that’s about the size of your index and middle finger. For children with lactose intolerance, good alternatives can be lactose-free cow’s milk, fortified soy milk, and low-sugar calcium fortified almond milk.
Oils & fats
Your child’s growing body needs fats for brain growth and the continued development of their sensory system. Fat also helps aid the absorption of some key vitamins like A, D, E, and K. However, not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats are those that are solid at room temperature, like butter or lard. Those fats increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and increase your child’s risk of developing obesity, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil and canola oil, are healthier. Those oils do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood and contain some fatty acids that are essential for health. Too much fat in your child’s diet can put them at an increased risk of weight gain and obesity. While it may be hard to keep track of, you should try to limit your child’s fat intake.
Oils & fats: How much?
Your kindergartner should only eat about 4 teaspoons of oil or fat each day. It is likely your child will already get all the healthy fats your child needs from foods they are already eating like fish, nuts, and avocado. For example, in half an avocado, there are 3 tablespoons of healthy fat. But in one small ice cream blended with cookies there can over 4 teaspoons (18 grams) of fats, which is the limit for entire day. And almost half of the fats in that dessert are unhealthy fats.
Sodium & salts
Sodium and salt is often used in foods to enhance flavor. In processed foods, salt increases the amount of time an item can last on a store shelf. Higher sodium content is often found in packaged foods such as chips, crackers, and canned soups, in addition to cured meats like sausage and salami. Your child’s body does need some sodium to maintain the right amount of fluids in the body and keep nerves and muscles functioning. However, too much sodium contributes to health complications, primarily high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Sodium & salt: How much?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s intake of sodium to less than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day. It can be hard to track the amount of sodium your child consumes, but having an idea of how much is too much can be helpful.
How much is 1500 milligrams of sodium? One can of chicken noodle soup can have as much as 744 milligrams of sodium, more than half of the daily limit. Sodium can add up quickly so make sure you read the label and try to choose low-sodium options whenever possible.
Sugar that is added to foods and beverages doesn’t contain any health benefits and leads to empty calories – no nutrients beyond the calories. Studies show that children this age consume as much as 16% of their total calories from added sugars. That means a 5-year-old can eat 13 teaspoons of added sugar, or 208 extra calories, each day. Added sugars are found in sweetened beverages like soda, juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, desserts, and candy.
Too much sugar in your child’s diet can also lead to chronic diseases like obesity, which puts children at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children today have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes over the course of their lifetime. For Hispanic children, the risk is one in two. Luckily, developing healthy eating habits can help prevent obesity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Added sugars: What about diet drinks?
Some beverages offer a “diet” or “lite” version which usually means the drink is not sweetened with sugar, but with artificial sweeteners. While this does cut down the amount of sugar and calories, there hasn’t been much research done on the effects of artificial sweeteners in children. Our experts recommend giving your child water, low-fat or nonfat milk, or small amounts of 100% juice instead of beverages with added sugars or artificial sweeteners.
Added sugars: How much?
Try to limit your kindergartner’s added sugars to less than 4 teaspoons (or 16 grams) of sugar each day. It can be hard to keep track of the amount of sugar, but still is important to keep in mind. For example, in one toaster breakfast pastry there can be almost 3 teaspoons (11 grams) of added sugars. In 1 cup of strawberry flavored nonfat milk, there can be more than the entire day’s limit of added sugars (over 4½ teaspoons, or almost 19 grams).
Water is the most important nutrient for your child’s body, as it is used for almost every major function in the body. It is a main ingredient in blood, urine, and sweat. Keeping the proper amount of water in your child is important in order to keep them in optimal health.
Water: How much?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that your kindergartner drink about 5 cups of fluids each day. This can come from water, milk, and other beverages. Two-and-a-half cups should be from plain water. How much is a cup? A cup is the same as 8 ounces, which is the same as a standard milk carton at school or about half a standard size water bottle.
You may have heard the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and it still rings true. Research shows children who eat breakfast in the morning are more focused in school, better able to learn, have better academic performance, and are less likely to be absent. By serving your child a nutritious breakfast, you are helping them succeed academically as well as promoting their physical development and overall health. Make sure breakfast has fiber and protein and is low in sugar; this will keep your child full longer and prevent a sugar crash midday.
Breakfast: Healthy choices
What are examples of a healthy breakfast versus an unhealthy breakfast? Oatmeal made with low-fat milk and topped with fruits and nuts is a great option for your child and has many of the food groups. A doughnut, 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 kindergarten 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.