Healthy Kids Diet Guidelines
By EatingWell Editors
Make healthy shopping and cooking changes now—our simple nutrition guidelines get you started.
Teaching children to eat healthfully these days is, unfortunately, more complicated than just encouraging them to eat their Brussels sprouts. Studies suggest that many children often skip breakfast, and missing a morning meal has been linked with lower overall intakes of a variety of nutrients. Kids are also eating more foods prepared outside of the home (which often means bigger portions), drinking more sodas and consuming less dairy (which is important for growing strong bones).
What’s more, in the last 30 years the percentage of U.S. of children aged 6 to 11 who are overweight has nearly tripled. As childhood obesity becomes more common, diseases previously only seen in adults are becoming increasingly prevalent in children. For example, estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes at some point during their lives. Other research shows that plaque building up inside arteries—the most common cause of heart disease—can begin in childhood.
Bottom line: Adults need to teach children good eating habits that ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need—but not too many calories. To that end, the nutrition experts at EatingWell offer the following tips and guidelines.
Introduce a variety of produce
By learning to love fruits and vegetables while they are young, kids will develop food preferences that can help lower their risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers later in life. A produce-rich diet is also naturally lower in calories and fat and higher in vitamins and minerals. According to the latest recommendations from the USDA, kids ages 2 to 3 should have 1 cup each of fruit and vegetables each day. Kids ages 4 to 8 should have 1½ cups of fruit and 1½ cups of vegetables; and kids 9 to 12 need 1½ cups of fruit and 2 to 2½ cups of vegetables. What counts as a cup? Click here. Aim to serve a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week.
Balance calories with exercise.
Kids should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous play or physical activity each day. Limiting their “screen time” (i.e., watching TV, playing video games, e-mailing and instant-messaging) to two hours each day will help accomplish this goal. The number of “discretionary calories” (those spent on “extras” once nutrient needs are met) varies greatly between sedentary and active kids. Kids who are active have a discretionary-calorie allowance of about 200 to 500 calories a day, whereas sedentary kids only have 100 to 150—about the amount in an 8-ounce juice box or a handful of pretzels.
Keep fat low.
Children under 2 need a certain amount of fat in their diets to help the brain and nervous system develop correctly. Fat also aids in the absorption of some vitamins: vitamins A, D, E and K can only be absorbed if there's some fat in the diet. While toddlers can drink richer whole or 2% milk, older kids (2+) should drink low-fat or skim milk, along with the rest of the family. Additionally, children ages 2 to 3 should eat a varied diet with about 30 to 35 percent of calories coming from fat. For ages 4 to 18 years, the recommendations decrease to 25 to 35 percent of calories from fat.
Although eating adequate amounts of fat is an important part of a healthy diet, many kids today are eating too much of it, leading to weight gain. The major sources of saturated fat and cholesterol in children’s diets are full-fat milk and cheese and fatty meats. To keep your child’s fat intake in check, offer low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat in appropriate portion sizes, as well as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, which are naturally low in fat. Make an effort to choose healthy, unsaturated fats like canola, olive and other vegetable oils over butter and other solid fats.
Bone up on calcium.
During childhood and adolescence, the body uses calcium to build strong bones—a process that's all but complete by the end of the teen years. Getting enough calcium at a young age is important to prevent osteoporosis later on. Yet more than 85 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys aged 9 to 18 fail to get the recommended 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day (kids aged 4 to 8 years old need 800 mg; toddlers aged 1 to 2 years need 500 mg). The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 cups of low-fat or nonfat milk or dairy products per day for children 2 to 8 years old and 3 cups for children 9 years and older.
Choose whole grains.
Studies indicate that eating whole grains reduces your long-term risk of cancer and heart disease. On average, most school-age children need 6 to 8 ounces of grains a day and active teens may need as many as 9 or 10 ounces. (A slice of bread, a half-cup of cooked rice, pasta or oatmeal are examples of 1 ounce.) At least half of those servings should come from whole grains. The other half can come from enriched (e.g., refined or “white”) grains. Good whole-grain sources include whole-grain cereals, brown rice, whole-grain breads and whole-wheat pastas.
Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and foods.
A little sugar, particularly if it’s in a food that provides other important nutrients, is fine. For example, a tiny bit of added sugar on whole-grain cereal can enhance the taste and encourage kids to eat it. But the average teen consumes about twice as much sugar as recommended and sugary foods and beverages tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients. Instead of giving your child sugar-sweetened foods, offer healthier choices, such as fruit, which is naturally sweet. Sodas and other sweetened drinks, including fruit juices, also contribute significantly to total caloric intake and should be limited to an occasional treat. For kids of all ages, water and milk are the best drink choices.
The American Heart Association recommends everyone aim for two servings of fish each week. But you may wonder whether you should feed your kids fish because much of the seafood we consume contains mercury, an environmental toxin that’s especially dangerous for children’s smaller, still-developing nervous systems. Our advice is to serve fish regularly, but choose it wisely: the Food and Drug Administration (along with the Environmental Protection Agency) recommends some specific guides for safe seafood consumption for young children.
Children should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish—large “predatory” fish that tend to accumulate high levels of mercury. But kids can safely consume up to 12 ounces (two or three average meals) of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury; five of the most commonly eaten varieties of fish are low in mercury: shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock (commonly used in fish sticks) and catfish. However, no more than 6 ounces (1 medium can) should come from albacore (premium white) tuna each week.
It’s a good idea to limit fried fish, too: recent evidence suggests that commercially fried fish products may be low in omega-3 fatty acids and high in trans-fatty acids, and do not provide the same benefits as other sources of fish.
Eating right is just part of the equation for healthy kids. On average, American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend over six hours a day watching TV or playing video games—time that previous generations probably spent playing outdoors or in some type of physical activity. Encourage your children to make physical exercise part of their daily lives by doing physically active things together. Take a walk or bike ride, turn on the music and dance or play games that keep both you and the kids moving: try playing tag or jumping rope, Frisbee (both indoor or outdoor), or competitions like “Who can hop the fastest from here to there?” or “Race you to the streetlight!” Keeping your children active will improve their well-being and help them maintain a healthy weight, and doing activities together can create traditions and memories you’ll all treasure.