Nutrition for children: Guidelines for a healthy diet

You want your child to eat healthy foods, but do you know what nutrients they need and in what amounts? Here is a quick overview.

By Mayo Clinic staff

Introduction

Nutrition for children is based on the same ideas as nutrition for adults. Everyone needs the same kinds of things, like vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These are called nutrients. Children need different amounts of specific nutrients at different ages.

The best feeding pattern for a child’s growth and development takes into account the child’s age, activity level, and other characteristics. Check out these nutrition basics for kids, based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Nutrient-dense foods, without sugar or with added sugar, saturated fat, or salt, are considered nutrient-dense. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods helps kids get the nutrients they need while limiting total calories.

Consider these nutrient-dense foods:

  • Protein. Choose seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Fruit Encourage your child to eat a variety of fresh, canned, frozen, or dried fruits. Look for canned fruit that says it’s light or packed in its own juice. This means that it is low in added sugar. Keep in mind that 1/4 cup of dried fruit counts as one serving of fruit.
  • Vegetables. Serve a variety of fresh, canned, frozen, or dried vegetables. Choose peas or beans, along with colorful vegetables each week. When choosing canned or frozen vegetables, look for those with less sodium.
  • grain Choose whole grains, such as whole wheat bread or pasta, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, or brown or wild rice.
  • dairy products Encourage your child to eat and drink fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Fortified soy beverages also count as dairy products.

Try to limit your child’s calories from:

  • Added sugar. Natural sugars, like those in fruit and milk, are not added sugars. Examples of added sugars include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, and honey. To avoid added sugar, check Nutrition Facts labels. Choose cereals with minimal added sugars. Avoid sodas and other drinks with added sugars. Limit servings of juice. If your child drinks juice, make sure it’s 100% juice with no added sugars.
  • Saturated fats. Saturated fats come primarily from animal food sources, such as red meat, sausage, poultry, butter, and other full-fat dairy products. Pizza, sandwiches, burgers, and burritos are common sources of saturated fat. Desserts like cake and ice cream are another common source of saturated fat. When cooking, look for ways to replace saturated fats with vegetable and nut oils, which provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
  • Salt. Most children in the United States have too much salt in their daily diets. Another name for salt is sodium. Salt can hide in sandwiches, where sodium from bread, meat, condiments, and dressings adds up. Processed foods, such as pizza, pasta dishes, and soups, are often high in salt. Encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables instead of chips and cookies. Check Nutrition Facts labels and look for low-sodium products.

If you have questions about nutrition for children or specific concerns about your child’s diet, talk to your child’s health care provider or a registered dietitian.

Ages 2-4: Daily Guidelines for Girls
calories 1,000 to 1,400, depending on growth and activity level
protein 2 to 4 ounces
Fruit 1 to 1.5 cups
Vegetables 1 to 1.5 cups
grain 3 to 5 ounces
dairy products 2 to 2.5 cups
Ages 2-4: Daily Guidelines for Children
calories 1,000 to 1,600, depending on growth and activity level
protein 2 to 5 ounces
Fruit 1 to 1.5 cups
Vegetables 1 to 2 cups
grain 3 to 5 ounces
dairy products 2 to 2.5 cups
Ages 5-8: Daily Guidelines for Girls
calories 1,200 to 1,800, depending on growth and activity level
protein 3 to 5 ounces
Fruit 1 to 1.5 cups
Vegetables 1.5 to 2.5 cups
grain 4 to 6 ounces
dairy products 2.5 cups
Ages 5-8: Daily Guidelines for Children
calories 1,200 to 2,000, depending on growth and activity level
protein 3 to 5.5 ounces
Fruit 1 to 2 cups
Vegetables 1.5 to 2.5 cups
grain 4 to 6 ounces
dairy products 2.5 cups
Ages 9-13: Daily Guidelines for Girls
calories 1,400 to 2,200, depending on growth and activity level
protein 4 to 6 ounces
Fruit 1.5 to 2 cups
Vegetables 1.5 to 3 cups
grain 5 to 7 ounces
dairy products 3 cups
Ages 9-13: Daily Guidelines for Kids
calories 1,600 to 2,600, depending on growth and activity level
protein 5 to 6.5 ounces
Fruit 1.5 to 2 cups
Vegetables 2 to 3.5 cups
grain 5 to 9 ounces
dairy products 3 cups
Ages 14-18: Daily Guidelines for Girls
calories 1,800 to 2,400, depending on growth and activity level
protein 5 to 6.5 ounces
Fruit 1.5 to 2 cups
Vegetables 2.5 to 3 cups
grain 6 to 8 ounces
dairy products 3 cups
Ages 14-18: Daily Guidelines for Kids
calories 2,000 to 3,200, depending on growth and activity level
protein 5.5 to 7 ounces
Fruit 2 to 2.5 cups
Vegetables 2.5 to 4 cups
grain 6 to 10 ounces
dairy products 3 cups

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