A Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids, Straight from a Pro

Sure, we all know to eat our fruits and veggies. But in practice, what does healthy eating for kids actually look like? Learn that (and more!) here.

Those first few years of your child’s life can be overwhelming as you try to figure out how to feed her what her body needs. (Here’s a handy guide to the baby food stages.) But what about when your little one is elementary-, middle- or high school-aged? What and how much should your kiddo be eating during these important years of development? How do you emphasize the importance of healthy eating when there’s much less supervision? We’ll delve into these topics—and more—in this guide to healthy eating for kids.

What is a balanced diet for a child?

Balanced eating for school-aged kids actually doesn’t look much different than for an adult. The concepts and proportions are pretty similar, but the amounts are different, as you can imagine.

Harvard’s School of Public Health offers the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate for adults and a counterpart for children called the Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate. Both illustrate each meal and snack plate being made up of half fruit and veggies, a quarter whole grains and a quarter of healthy protein. Both also emphasize integrating healthy oils and lots of water into the diet—as well as staying active. The big difference is that on the kid’s plate there is a small glass of milk to signify the need for some dairy every day. Here’s a closer look into each of these food groups:

Vegetables

If your kids love veggies, let them have as much as they want. There’s no need to stick to a half or quarter of the plate! The more variety of colors the better—each color represents a different vitamin or mineral. Starchy veggies, like potatoes, don’t count here as they provide nutrition more similar to a grain than a vegetable. Try these great veggie sides this week.

Fruits

Similar to vegetables, fruits are a great food for your kid to eat lots of, and of all different varieties. Offer your child whole fruit as opposed to fruit juice as it provides fiber and less sugar. Try to limit juice to one glass daily. We love these healthy and refreshing fruit recipes.

Whole Grains

Whole, rather than refined, is really important when choosing grains to feed your kiddo as whole grains provide much more nutrition in the way of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Plus, there are lots of delicious options when it comes to choosing whole grains—brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, barley and quinoa are great places to start.

Healthy Proteins

Protein is so important for your child’s growth. Some healthy options include eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, peas, fish and poultry. Avoid red meats like lamb, pork and beef as well as processed meats like deli meats, bacon, brats and hot dogs as these foods can contribute to chronic illness down the line. Try these high-protein foods that aren’t meat!

Healthy Oils

The right type of fats are really important to integrate into your kiddo’s diet to help reduce inflammation and absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Heart-healthy fats often tend to be liquid at room temperature like canola, olive, sunflower and safflower seed oils. Avocado is also an incredible source of healthy fat. Try to limit unhealthy options like butter, fatty meat and excessive amounts of cheese.

Dairy

Credible research is still underway on what the right amount of dairy is for a child. But seeing as dairy is such a good source of calcium and vitamin D, offering some to your kid every day is a good idea. One to two servings daily should be plenty. Yogurt, milk and small amounts of cheese are great options. If your child doesn’t eat any dairy at all, speak to your pediatrician about whether he or she may need calcium and vitamin D supplements. Wondering if plant-based milks are healthy for kids? We found out.

How much should my child eat?

Once your child is out of the toddler phase, it’s hard to nail down the exact amount of calories he or she should eat. After all, there’s so much variation in kids’ size and activity level. A great rule of thumb is to offer your kids three balanced meals and snacks daily and let them tell you if they’re full or still hungry. Kids tend to be much more in tune with their body’s satiety signals, so this should be a reliable indicator of whether they’re eating enough. I would recommend seeking the advice of a dietitian or pediatrician on specific calorie levels only if your child isn’t gaining enough weight or seems to be gaining too much weight for his age.

You can feel good about serving these tasty treats and snacks.

How do you explain healthy eating to a child?

Maybe most importantly, how do you illustrate the importance of making healthy food choices to your kiddos? As they get older they’re away from you much more and likely surrounded by unhealthy food options. One great tactic is to focus on whatever your child’s passion is, whether it be sports, creative endeavors or something else. Eating healthfully will enable their bodies and minds to perform at a peak level. You could also use the argument that healthy eating can help keep them from getting sick. Perhaps most importantly, model healthy eating habits.

The battle of trying to get your kiddo to eat healthy can seem incredibly daunting, but with creativity, knowledge and honesty, you can have a leg up in helping her make good choices. By offering healthy foods at home, packing healthy lunches and sending kids to activities with healthy snacks, you can help influence at least some of what they’re are eating. For more detailed information, always be sure to seek advice from your pediatrician or registered dietitian.

Looking for meals your kids will love? These kid-friendly dinners are perfect for weeknights.

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Christina Manian, RDN
Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Boulder, Colorado. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, she has been involved with the nutrition departments of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Mass General Hospital. She completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy and most recently practiced clinical nutrition at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. While her background has largely been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces and is shifting her focus towards wellness nutrition as the backbone to optimum health.