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Nutrition for Children and Teens

Easy Ways to Help Your Kids Eat Healthier

Nutrition for Children and Teens In This Article

Healthy eating can stabilize children’s energy, sharpen their minds, and even out their moods. While peer pressure and TV commercials for junk food can make getting kids to eat well seem impossible, there are steps parents can take to instill healthy eating habits without turning mealtimes into a battle zone. By encouraging healthy eating habits now, you can make a huge impact on your children’s lifelong relationship with food and give them the best opportunity to grow into healthy, confident adults.

Developing healthy eating habits

Children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most, so the challenge is to make healthy choices appealing. You can do that by disguising the taste of healthy foods—adding vegetables to a beef stew, for example, or mashing carrots up with mashed potato, or adding a sweet dip to slices of apple. Of course, no matter how good your intentions, it’s always going to be difficult to convince your eight-year-old that an apple is as sweet a treat as a cookie.

The childhood impulse to imitate is strong, so it’s important you act as a role model for your kids. It’s no good asking your child to eat fruit and vegetables while you gorge on potato chips and soda.

Top tips to promote healthy childhood eating

  • Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. To promote a lifelong healthy relationship with food, kids should be eating whole, minimally processed, nutritious food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible.
  • Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal.
  • Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family.  It sets a great example for kids about the importance of food and can bring a family together—even moody teenagers love to eat tasty, home-cooked meals! Restaurant and takeout meals tend to have a lot more unhealthy fat, sugar, and salt so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health. And if you make large batches, cooking just once or twice can be enough to feed your family for the whole week.
  • Get kids involved. Children enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It's also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels.
  • Make a variety of healthy snacks available instead of empty calorie snacks. Keep plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) around and easily accessible so kids become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of empty calorie snacks like soda, chips, or cookies.
  • Limit portion sizes. Don’t insist your child cleans the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe.

Start your child's day off right

Many different studies show that kids who enjoy breakfast every day have better memories, more stable moods and energy, score higher on tests, and miss fewer days from school. They are also less likely to experience problems with their weight.

  • Eating a breakfast high in quality protein—from enriched cereal, yoghurt, milk, cheese, eggs, meat, or fish—can help overweight teenagers eat fewer calories throughout the rest of the day and lose weight.
  • The ideal breakfast features plenty of “good” carbs (fruit, whole grain toast or cereal, for example) as well as high-quality protein.
  • Breakfast on a weekday needn’t be time consuming. Boil some eggs at the beginning of the week and offer them to your kids each morning along with a low-sugar, high-protein cereal and whole milk, and an apple to go.
  • An egg sandwich, a pot of Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese, or peanut butter on wholegrain toast can be eaten in the car on the way to school.
  • You can make breakfast burritos filled with scrambled eggs, cheese, chicken, or beef on a Sunday and freeze them for your kids to eat during the week.

GMOS and pesticides: Keeping your kids safe

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are mainly engineered to make food crops resistant to toxic herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate). While the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” there is still some controversy over the level of health risks posed by the use of pesticides and eating genetically-engineered food.

Since children’s brains and nervous systems are still developing, they are more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides than adults. Their immature liver and kidneys are also less effective at removing any pesticides they’ve ingested. Eating organic produce has been shown to reduce pesticide levels in kids, but of course, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventionally grown produce. So how can you keep your kids safe, especially if you’re on a budget?

  • Feed your kids plenty of fruits and vegetables, whether they’re organic or conventionally grown—the benefits far outweigh any potential risks. 
  • When possible, go organic for fruits and vegetables that you don’t peel before eating, such as berries, lettuce, tomatoes, or apples and choose cheaper, conventional produce for thick-skinned fruit and veggies such as oranges, bananas, avocados, or pineapples.
  • Explore local farmers’ markets for less expensive organic produce.
  • It’s important to wash all fruits and vegetables, but try scrubbing conventionally grown produce vigorously with a brush under running water. No amount of washing will remove pesticides taken up by the roots and stem, but you can at least remove any pesticide residue.
  • When buying meat, choose organic, grass-fed whenever possible. Pesticides in animal feed tend to accumulate in the fatty tissue of the animal so trim the fat from non-organic meat before cooking. Or choose cheaper cuts of organic meat instead of prime cuts from industrially raised animals.

Dealing with picky eaters

While it can be frustrating trying to get a picky child to eat a wider variety of foods, picky eaters are going through a normal developmental stage, exerting control over their environment and expressing concern about trusting the unfamiliar. Many picky eaters also prefer a “separate compartmented plate,” where one type of food doesn’t touch another. Just as it takes numerous repetitions for advertising to convince an adult consumer to buy, it takes most children 8-10 presentations of a new food before they will openly accept it.
Rather than simply insist your child eat a new food, try the following:

  • Offer a new food only when your child is hungry and rested.
  • Present only one new food at a time.
  • Make it fun: present the food as a game, a play-filled experience. Or cut the food into unusual shapes.
  • Serve new foods with favorite foods to increase acceptance.
  • Eat the new food yourself; children love to imitate.
  • Have your child help to prepare foods. Often they will be more willing to try something when they helped to make it.
  • Limit beverages. Picky eaters often fill up on liquids instead.
  • Limit snacks to two per day.

Persuading children to eat more fruit and vegetables

Making mealtimes playful can mean healthier eating for your kids. Here are some fun, creative ways to add more fruit and vegetables to your child's diet:

  • Top a bowl of whole grain cereal with a smiley face: banana slices for eyes, raisins for nose, peach or apple slice for mouth.
  • Create a food collage. Use broccoli florets for trees, carrots and celery for flowers, cauliflower for clouds, and a yellow squash for a sun. Then eat your masterpiece!
  • Make frozen fruit kabobs for kids using pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries.
  • Go food shopping with your children. Let them see all the different fruits and vegetables and have them pick out new ones to try.
  • Try fruit smoothies for a quick healthy breakfast or afternoon snack.
  • Add vegetables and fruits to baked goods – blueberry pancakes, zucchini bread, carrot muffins.
  • Add extra veggies to soups, stews, and sauces, grated or shredded to make them blend in.
  • Adding a little tasty fat—such as butter—to cooked vegetables will not only improve the taste but can also help to fill your kids up.
  • Keep lots of fresh fruit and veggies washed and available as snacks. Apples, pears, bananas, grapes, figs, carrot and celery sticks are all easy to eat on the run. Add yogurt, nut butter, or tahini for extra protein.

Limit sugar in your child's diet

One of the biggest challenges for parents is to limit the amount of sugar in their children’s diets. A child’s body gets all it needs from sugar naturally occurring in food so all this added sugar just means a lot of empty calories that contribute to tooth decay, hyperactivity, mood disorders, and increase the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even suicidal behaviors in teenagers.

How to cut down on sugar

The American Heart Association recommends that sugar intake for children is limited to 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day. A 12-ounce soda contains up to 10 teaspoons or 40g of added sugar. Cutting back on soda, candy, and cookies is only part of the solution, though. Large amounts of added sugar can also be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, frozen dinners, ketchup, and fast food. In fact, about 75% of packaged food in the U.S. contains added sugar.

  • Don’t ban sweets entirely. Having a no sweets rule is an invitation for cravings and overindulging when given the chance.
  • Give recipes a makeover. Many recipes taste just as good with less sugar.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. One 12-oz soda has more than three times the daily recommended limit for children, while shakes and sweetened coffee drinks can be even worse. Instead, try adding a splash of fruit juice to sparkling water or blending whole milk with a banana or berries for a delicious smoothie.
  • Cut down on processed foods, such as white bread and cakes, which cause blood sugar to go up and down, and can leave kids tired and sapped of energy.
  • Don’t replace healthy sources of saturated fat with refined carbs or sugary snacks. It’s a mistake many of us make. Instead of letting our kids eat whole-fat yoghurt, for example, we offer them low- or no-fat versions, thinking they’re healthier but not realizing they’re often packed with added sugar to make up for the loss of taste. Or we’ve swapped breakfast eggs for a pastry or muffin. In other words, we’ve replaced fat with something that is much worse.
  • Create your own popsicles and frozen treats. Freeze 100% fruit juice in an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as popsicle handles. Or try freezing grapes, berries, banana pieces, or peach slices, then topping with a little chocolate sauce or whipped cream for an amazing treat.

Avoid foods that impair mood

Certain foods and drinks can make kids and teens more vulnerable to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

  • A recent study found that people who drank four or more cups of soda or sweetened fruit drinks a day—including diet versions—had a much higher risk for depression.
  • Excessive amounts of caffeine from soda, energy drinks, or coffee drinks can trigger anxiety in kids and teens and may also aggravate feelings of depression when the caffeine wears off.
  • A diet high in processed foods, such as fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks, refined flour and cereals, and processed meats, can increase a child or teen’s risk for anxiety and depression.

Healthy eating for toddlers and young children

Toddlers can be introduced to new tastes and textures as they transition from baby food to “real” food. Keep in mind that toddlers have very small stomachs. It may be better to feed them 5-6 small meals a day, rather than three large ones.

Depending on age, size, and activity level, your toddler needs between 1,000-1,400 calories a day. It is perfectly normal for your child to be ravenous one day and shun food the next. Don’t worry if your child’s diet isn’t up to par every day—as long as he or she seems satisfied and is getting a well-rounded diet.

Nutritional needs of toddlers and young children

An important part of a toddler’s diet is calcium (they need about 500 mg/day), and the best source of this nutrient is whole milk. If your kids are lactose intolerant or don’t like dairy, incorporate calcium-rich foods like fortified soy products, cereals, and orange juice into their diet.

Toddlers need 7mg a day to prevent iron deficiency, which can affect growth, learning, and behavior. In infancy, breast-milk has a readily absorbed type of iron, and baby formula and food is usually iron-fortified, so babies don’t need to worry about getting enough iron. After switching to “real” food, it's important to ensure that your child is eating good sources of iron like fortified cereals, red meat (like soft meatballs), or eggs.

Dietary guidelines for toddlers and young children

Fruits and vegetables

Two servings each per day. These may be given as snacks, such as apple or carrot slices. Also try adding veggies to soups.

Whole grains

Four daily servings. Can include buckwheat pancakes or multigrain toast for breakfast, a sandwich on wheat bread for lunch and brown rice or another whole grain as part of the evening meal.

Milk and dairy

Three servings, or one pint of whole milk per day. Cheeses, yogurt, and milk puddings are useful alternatives.

Protein

Two servings a day. Encourage your child to try a variety of proteins, such as turkey, eggs, fish, chicken, lamb, baked beans, and lentils, as well as red meat.

Vitamins and minerals

Check with your child's doctor to be certain their diet is adequately meeting the recommended nutritional needs for this age group

Healthy diets for school-age children

For kids aged 5-12, the key word is variety. Creative serving ideas will go a long way towards maintaining the healthy eating habits established in the first years of life.

Eating becomes a social activity in this stage of life. Your kids probably spend more time in school than they do at home; eat meals at friends’ houses; and adopt eating habits from their peers. It can be difficult to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition when you are not around to monitor their choices, so try to maintain regular family mealtimes.

Not only do family meals provide an opportunity to catch up on your kids’ daily lives, they also enable you to “teach by example.” Let your kids see you eating a wide variety of healthy foods while keeping your portions in check and limiting fried, junk, and processed foods. Refrain from obsessive calorie counting, though, or commenting on your own weight, so that kids don’t adopt negative associations with food.

Nutrition guidelines for school-age kids

As children develop, they require the same healthy foods adults eat, along with more vitamins and minerals to support growing bodies. This means whole grains (whole wheat, oats, barley, rice, millet, quinoa); a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables; calcium for growing bones (milk, yogurt, or substitutes if lactose intolerant); and healthy proteins (fish, eggs, poultry, grass-fed beef, pork, cheese, nuts, seeds, and non-GMO soy products).

Healthy fats are also important. They help to fill kids up, improve concentration, and prevent emotional health problems. Healthy fats for kids are:

  • Monounsaturated fats, from olive oil, avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
  • Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, or in flaxseed and walnuts.
  • Healthy saturated fats. While many health organizations maintain that eating saturated fat from any source poses a health risk, other nutrition experts believe that saturated fat from whole milk dairy, fish, poultry, and organic, grass-fed meat is healthy for both kids and adults (as opposed to unhealthy saturated fats from fried food, pizza, and processed meat products such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts). In fact, research shows that eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity.

Kids, like the rest of us, should limit:

  • Trans fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils, even if they claim to be trans fat-free.
Dietary guidelines for school age children

Vegetables

3-5 servings per day. A serving might be one cup of raw leafy vegetables, 3/4 cup of vegetable juice, or 1/2 cup of other vegetables, raw or cooked.

Fruits

2-4 servings per day. A serving may consist of 1/2 cup of sliced fruit, 3/4 cup of fruit juice, or a medium-size whole fruit, such as an apple, banana or pear.

Whole Grains

6-11 servings per day. Each serving should equal one slice of whole grain bread, 1/2 cup of brown rice or 1 ounce of unsweetened cereal.

Protein

2-3 servings of 2-3 ounces of cooked  meat, poultry, or fish per day. A serving in this group may also consist of 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, one egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for each ounce of meat.

Dairy products

2-3 servings (cups) per day of milk or yogurt, or natural (unprocessed) cheese.

Zinc

Studies indicate that zinc may improve memory and school performance, especially in boys. Good sources of zinc are oysters, beef, pork, liver, dried beans and peas, whole grains, fortified cereals, nuts, milk, cocoa, and poultry.

The special nutritional needs of teenagers

This is growth spurt time: kids gain about 20% of adult height and 50% of adult weight during adolescence. Because growth and change is so rapid during this period, the requirements for all nutrients increase. This is especially true of calcium and iron.

Eating disorders in teens

Adolescents and teens are at a high risk of developing anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

Eating habits, however, are pretty well set by now, and if your child's choices are less than ideal, it can be a challenging time for a course correction. The best way to make teen dietary changes is to present information about short-term consequences of a poor diet: appearance, athletic ability, energy, and enjoyment of life. These are more important to most teens than long-term health. For example, “Calcium will help you grow taller.”  “Iron will help you do better on tests and stay up later.”

Special nutritional needs for teens

Calories

Due to all the growth and activity, adolescent boys need 2,500-2,800 per day, while girls need around 2,200 per day. It’s best to get these calories from high-quality protein, dairy, whole grains, and fruits and veggies.

Protein

In order for the body to grow and maintain muscle, teens need 45-60 grams per day. Most teenagers easily meet this need from eating meat, fish, and dairy, but vegetarians may need to increase their protein intake from non-animal sources like non-GMO soy foods, beans, and nuts.

Calcium

Many teens do not get sufficient amounts of calcium, leading to weak bones and osteoporosis later in life. Encourage teens to cut back on soda and other overly-sugary foods, which suck calcium from bones. The 1,200 mg of calcium needed per day should come from dairy, calcium-fortified juice and unsweetened cereal, and other calcium-rich foods such as sesame seeds and leafy greens like spinach.

Iron

Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, fatigue, and weakness. Boys need 12 mg each day, and teen girls, who often lose iron during menstruation, need 15 mg. Iron-rich foods include grass-fed red meat, free-range chicken, beans, nuts, enriched whole grains, and leafy greens like spinach and kale.

A “weighty” problem: children, weight and self esteem

Children who are substantially overweight or obese are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and poor self-esteem, as well as long-term health problems in adulthood. While childhood obesity doesn’t always lead to obesity in adulthood, it does raise the risks dramatically. The majority of children who are overweight during preschool or elementary school are still overweight as they enter their teens. Most kids do not outgrow the problem.

Addressing weight problems in children requires a coordinated plan of physical activity and healthy nutrition. Unless directed by your child’s doctor, though, the treatment for childhood obesity is not weight loss. The goal should be to slow or halt weight gain, thereby allowing your child to grow into his or her ideal weight.

Think of exercise as a food group in your kid’s diet

Add physical activity to your child’s day, just as you would add fruit or veggies. To encourage physical activity, play with your kids - throw around a football; go cycling, skating, or swimming; take family walks and hikes; and help your kids find activities they enjoy by showing them different possibilities. The benefits of lifelong exercise are abundant and regular exercise can even help motivate your kids to make healthy food choices.

Kids and junk food

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for kids to follow a healthy diet if they’re regularly eating at fast food restaurants. The food is typically high in unhealthy fat, sugar, sodium, and calories while at the same time often low in nutrients and almost totally lacking in fruits and vegetables. Still, no matter how well parents promote healthy eating, it can be difficult for any kid to avoid the temptation of junk food. Instead of eliminating junk food entirely, which tends to increase cravings even more, try to simply cut back on the times your kids eat fast food and, on the times that they do, substitute some healthier alternatives.

Kid-friendly junk food alternatives
Instead of… Try…
  • French fries
  • Ice cream
  • Fried chicken
  • Doughnuts or pastries
  • Chocolate-chip cookies
  • Potato chips
  • “Baked fries” grilled in the oven and salted lightly
  • Yogurt; sorbet; fresh fruit smoothies
  • Baked or grilled chicken
  • Bagels; English muffins; home baked goods with less sugar
  • Graham crackers, fig bars, vanilla wafers, fruit and caramel dip
  • Baked vegetable chips or, for older children, nuts

Eating out with kids: fast food and restaurant nutrition for children

It might be challenging to persuade your youngster to order a salad instead of a cheeseburger, but you can steer them towards healthier options. Some important tips to remember about fast food and restaurant dining for kids:

  • Avoid sodas, shakes, or sweetened coffee drinks – They’re packed with sugar (and caffeine). Switching to diet soda isn’t the answer, either, as the artificial sweetener it contains can trigger sugar cravings that contribute to weight gain. Encourage your kids to drink water or milk instead.
  • Skip the fries – Consider taking along a bag of mini carrots, grapes, or other fruits and vegetables to have instead. This will add vitamins and fiber to the meal.
  • Watch portion size. Stick to the children’s menu or go for the smallest size when it comes to sandwiches, burgers, and sides. Order pizza by the slice—it will satisfy your child’s craving without tempting overindulgence.
  • Order the kid's meal with some substitutions – Children often love the kid's meal more for the fun box and toys than for the food. Ask to substitute healthier choices for the soda and the fries.
  • Avoid fried and breaded items, such as crispy chicken sandwiches or chicken nuggets. Choose grilled chicken breast instead.
  • Opt for chicken and vegetables or spaghetti with tomato sauce in a sit-down restaurant, rather than a big plate of macaroni and cheese.
  • Be wise about sides. Watch menu items that come with one or more side dishes. Sides that can quickly send calories soaring include fries, chips, rice, noodles, onion rings, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and biscuits. Better bets are grilled vegetables, side salads, baked potato, fresh fruit cups, corn on the cob, or apple slices.

Related HelpGuide articles

Resources and references

General information on nutrition for children

The Food Guide Pyramid Becomes a Plate – Article aimed at kids explains exactly how much of each food group children need to eat to stay healthy. (Kids Health)

20 Tips for Picky Eaters – Practical tips to avoid mealtime battles. (Mayo Clinic)

The Stay-Trim Family Diet – This article talks about common eating pitfalls and what you can do to help your family avoid them. (Delicious Living magazine)

Healthy eating for toddlers and young children

Healthy Eating, Part II and Healthy Eating, Part III – How to differentiate healthy from unhealthy choices for children, and the five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods. (DrGreene.com)

Eating Tips for Children: Young Toddlers – Parental concerns and unique challenges of feeding toddlers. (Better Health/Victoria, Australia)

Eating Tips for Children: Older Toddlers – Tips to get finicky eaters on the right track. (Better Health/Victoria, Australia)

Nutrition for school-age kids

Eating Tips for Children: Primary School – The importance of breakfast, dealing with peer pressure around food, exercise and snack ideas. (Better Health/Victoria, Australia)

Early Childhood and School Age – Very detailed information on nutritional needs of children. (George Mateljan Foundation)

Nutrition for Kids: Guidelines for a Healthy Diet – Offers exact nutritional needs for different age groups and genders. (Mayo Clinic)

School Lunches– Suggestions for helping kids make better cafeteria choices; ideas for packed lunches that satisfy and taste and nutrition concerns. (Nemours Foundation)

Healthy eating for preteens and teenagers

What’s the Right Weight for Me? – A child’s guide to understanding body type, calories, exercise, and how to maintain optimal weight. (Kids Health)

Healthy Eating For Teens – Good summary of nutritional needs of teenagers, including a chart of recommended servings of different food groups. (Nutrition.com.sg)

Kids and junk food

Junk Food vs. Healthy Nutrition for Children – How to help your child maintain a healthy diet, regardless of adverse influences. (MedicineNet)

GMOs and pesticides

GMO Facts – Frequently asked questions on the use and safety of GMOs. (Non GMO Project)

Where GMOs hide in your food – Details tests that found GMOs in many packaged foods—including those labeled 'natural.' (Consumer Reports)

The Problem with Pesticides – Examines some of the potential health effects of pesticides. (Toxics Action Center)

Authors: Maya W. Paul and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: April 2016.