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Author Maciej Grzymkowski
Maciej Grzymkowski
Updated on Apr 9th, 2024
Fact checked by Emma Vince

Childhood Nutrition: Guidelines for a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet affects everything from brain development and physical health to academic performance and emotional wellbeing. But according to UNICEF, 2 in 3 children under the age of two lack proper nutrition. This can affect children at higher weights just as much as those at lower weights.

Addressing the issue of poor nutrition is quite tricky, though. While many foods are rich in calories, carbohydrates, and fat, they often lack the nutritional value children need to grow strong and healthy. 

However, overemphasis on healthy eating can have a significant effect on kids’ relationship with food, which can last long after they leave the family home. 

So, how can you help kids learn to develop healthy eating habits? What foods should you prioritize and which should you avoid? What are the differences in nutritional needs for children of different ages? We cover all of this, and more, in this comprehensive childhood nutrition guide.   

Section 1: How to Talk about Health and Nutrition with Your Children

Getting your children to eat more healthily isn’t only about feeding them fruits and vegetables. 

Talking to your child about food and diet is a crucial part of the healthy eating journey. If children understand why nutrition and eating habits are important, it can make it easier to get on board with your meal plans. 

However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Parents need to be careful when discussing food, nutrition, and diet with their children. These conversations have the potential to affect a child’s relationship with food for years to come; possibly even for the rest of their lives. 

When addressing a child’s eating habits, it’s important to steer away from discussing weight and weight gain as something positive or negative. 

Thinness is not equivalent to healthiness and encouraging this type of thinking can cause a child to fixate on food and dieting. These ideas and the eating habits they drive will likely stick with children into adulthood and have the potential to lead kids to develop eating disorders. 

Instead of focusing on weight, it’s best to frame the discussion about nutritious foods around the benefits they can provide. 

For example, spinach contains a lot of iron, which promotes muscle growth. Telling your child that eating it will give them strong muscles is an incentive your child will easily understand. It will likely also be far more effective at encouraging them to eat spinach than merely “being healthy” or keeping a “good” weight. 

Section 2: How Nutrition Affects Children   

 The negative effects of a poor diet in children are well documented and the studies don’t exactly paint a pretty picture.

Children need to eat a combination of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients for healthy growth and development. Eating enough whole foods, lean proteins, and a variety of fruits and vegetables will help them maintain a healthy weight and retain high energy levels. 

Childhood nutrition (as well as your own!) should be approached holistically. This is because different nutrients and vitamins affect different aspects of your health. For example:

  • Vitamin A: Protects you from infection, as well as helping to maintain good eye and skin health. 

  • Potassium: Keeps your blood pressure at healthy levels and is crucial for proper brain function. 

  • Iron: Used by your body to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, which carry oxygen to your organs and muscles.

If you’d like more information about various nutrients and their benefits, we’ve included a full breakdown of nutrient, vitamin, and mineral information in Section 3. 

With that said, parents should also consider the role food plays in their kids’ social lives. Birthday parties and sleepovers, for example, are occasions where children can get some leeway in their diet. 

There is a time and place for enjoying foods that are less healthy. Balance is key and kids should know that snacks and fast food are “special occasion” foods – not to be eaten on a daily basis.

Physical Health Impacts of Diet

Eating too many sugary and processed foods without taking in necessary nutrients can put kids at risk for developing many chronic conditions and diseases.  

Maintaining a healthy diet, on the other hand, can not only reduce the risks for these issues, but can also help ensure that your child reaches the peak of their physical, mental, and emotional capabilities (FAO). 

Health Conditions Caused by a Poor Diet

Condition

Causes

Effects

Type 2 diabetes

A high-sugar and -fat diet and sedentary lifestyle are the two leading causes of insulin resistance.  

Once prediabetic, a person can develop type 2 diabetes within 5 years. If left untreated, this condition can lead to stroke, vision problems, and kidney issues, among others. 

High cholesterol

Diets high in saturated fats and trans fats have been found to increase the likelihood of developing various types of heart disease, especially high cholesterol. 

High cholesterol can also be caused by genetics. A healthy diet helps mitigate the risk of developing it, but can’t prevent it with 100% certainty, if a person is already at risk. 

Complications of high cholesterol levels include increased risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as frequent chest pains. 

High blood pressure

Excessive sodium intake and consuming too many high-fat and high-cholesterol foods, raises blood pressure. 

High blood pressure can also be caused by genetics. A healthy diet helps mitigate the risk of developing it, but can’t prevent it with 100% certainty, if a person is already at risk. 

Unchecked high blood pressure can lead to the development of chronic kidney disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

Osteoporosis 

Calcium, vitamin D, and protein deficiencies increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis weakens the bones, leading to heightened risk of fracture even due to mild stresses, such as bending over or coughing. 

Cognitive Health Impacts of Diet

Mental health and academic performance are directly linked to diet. 

Children with iron deficiency were found to score poorly on vocabulary, reading, and other tests. Similarly, those with lowest protein levels in their diets fared significantly worse at school than kids who followed a protein-rich diet (Children’s Defense Fund). 

A healthy, balanced diet combined with regular exercise helps the body to create more neurons. The more neurons and connections between them in the brain, the greater its capacity for learning. 

Our mental health is also influenced by what we eat. Depression and anxiety, for example, have been linked with gut microbiome changes. Achieving balance in the gut microbiome by consuming foods high in probiotics and fiber can help alleviate and manage these conditions. 

What we eat is just as important as when we eat it. Although every meal plays a role in creating a healthy diet, studies show that breakfast is critical. 

The first meal of the day plays a crucial role in regulating our energy levels throughout the day. Opting for low-nutrient choices or skipping the meal altogether is connected to lower cognitive function and reduced efficiency (BMC Public Health). 

How diet affects the mind

Emotional and Social Impacts of Diet 

Poor dietary habits instilled early in a child’s life are also associated with an increased risk for anxiety and depression as they age (American Journal of Public Health). As a result, maintaining a healthy diet is an important factor for lowering the risk of developing these conditions. 

Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies are linked to the worsening of one’s emotional state, as well as increased stress levels. This is true for both adults and children. Plus, foods that are known to cause sudden blood sugar spikes can also affect mood. 

Eating processed foods on a regular basis also carries the risk of inflammation in the gut. Our gut health is linked to our emotional state; the gut is responsible for producing a wide variety of neurochemicals, including 95% of the body’s serotonin (i.e. the “feel good” chemical). 

Gut imbalance and inflammation can reduce the amount of serotonin that the brain produces, leading to a deterioration of one’s emotional state.

A poor mood can cause us to reach for processed foods, as they are highly gratifying and require little to no preparation. This can lead to a vicious cycle where a person’s poor emotional state pushes them to eat more of the items that contributed toward it in the first place. 

How vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect mental health

Aside from having to eat food to survive, it also plays an important role in our social lives. For example, sharing meals increases feelings of social bonding and helps people feel happier and more satisfied with their lives. 

As you think about your childrens’ dietary habits, it’s critical to keep the importance that meals have on kids’ emotional health in mind.

Section 3: General Dietary Guidelines 

With the right guidelines, implementing healthy eating habits for your child becomes much easier. 

The following section will help you understand the basic principles of a balanced diet, complete with examples of foods that you should try to eat more of and those you should eat less of. 

The Components of a Balanced Diet 

A nutritious, balanced diet should consist of the five food groups: 

  • Dairy 

  • Fruits & vegetables

  • Carbohydrates 

  • Proteins 

  • Fats

Keeping a healthy diet is not as easy as simply incorporating these five groups into our daily meals, though. While all foods contain nutrients, some are far more effective as nutrient sources than others. This is particularly true for fats and sugars.

Our body needs fats and sugars from the right sources. When eating fatty foods, you should differentiate between healthy (unsaturated) and unhealthy (saturated and trans) fats. 

Avocados and lean meats are a great source of healthy fats. Processed, fatty, and red meats, on the other hand, contain a lot of trans and saturated fats. These have been found to cause heart disease and other health issues. 

When it comes to sugars, some of the best sources include honey, fruits, and even milk (lactose is a sugar). Some dairy products, such as ice cream or processed cheese, are both much higher in fat and sugars than plain yogurt or milk. 

Carbohydrates (often just called “carbs”), found in breads and other grains, are also classified as sugars, and are an essential part of any diet. But many products – such as white bread or rice – are produced using refined grains, which contain added sugars and less fiber than non-refined grains.  

Remember that both fats and sugars need to be eaten in moderation, even when sourced from healthy products. 

Good and bad foods containing protein, dairy, and grains

We all need to consume nutrients found in each of these groups on a daily basis in order to cover our nutritional bases. However, it’s important to be mindful of the right proportions. 

Guidelines such as MyPlate or the UK National Health Service’s Eatwell Plate are a great place to start. Although they have different names and sources, their recommendations are similar. 

The eatwell plate

Balance is key when it comes to keeping a healthy diet and that includes understanding the safe amount of highly processed food – which usually contain a lot of sugar and fat – one can eat. Although they are included in the Eatwell Plate to highlight that diets can be flexible, these foods should account for a maximum of 8% of your daily caloric intake. 

The Crucial Elements of Any Diet 

All diets, regardless of their specificities, need to contain certain vital elements that keep our bodies functioning properly. 

Dietary component

Function

Sources

B vitamins

Including B6, B2, B3, B6, and B12 , B vitamins help with energy and red blood cell production, metabolic function, as well as maintaining a healthy circulatory and nervous system.

Nuts, fish, eggs, meat, chicken, cheese, beans, and soybeans.

Calcium

Strengthens bones and teeth.

Milk, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified foods.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars that are a primary energy source for the brain and body.

Whole grains, sweet potatoes, fruits, legumes.

Iron

Facilitates the transport of oxygen in the blood.

Eggs, spinach, lentils, tofu, lean red meat, leafy green vegetables.

Fat

Keeps the body warm, protects organs, is a major source of energy, crucial for learning and memory. 

Olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish.

Fiber

Helps to maintain bowel health, regulate blood sugars,  and lower cholesterol levels.

Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes.

Folate

Important for red blood cell formation as well as healthy cell growth and formation in all organs.

Eggs, liver, leafy green vegetables, nuts.

Magnesium

Important for energy production, helps with protein synthesis, regeneration, enzymatic activity, and cell growth.

Spinach, avocados, tofu, nuts, dark chocolate.

Protein

Helps to build and repair muscle tissue and bones.

Eggs, yogurt, legumes, fish, chicken, pork, red meat.

Vitamin A

Important for organ function, vision, the immune system, reproduction, and growth and development.

Carrots, butternut squash, spinach, mangoes, beef liver, eggs, tuna.

Vitamin C

Helps with the absorption of iron and boosts the immune system.

Bell peppers, citrus fruits, spinach, strawberries, broccoli.

Vitamin D

Important for strong bones, muscles, and overall health.

Eggs, fatty fish, liver, yogurt, fortified milk and cereals. 

Vitamin E

An antioxidant that’s important for vision, reproduction, as well as blood, brain and skin health.

Plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, red bell peppers, mangoes, avocados.

Vitamin K

Supports the production of various proteins needed for blood clotting and bone building.

Blueberries, leafy greens, broccoli, pumpkin, eggs.

Zinc

Helps with growth and development, as well as immune function.

Eggs, legumes, nuts, shellfish, red meat, mushrooms.

Why Are Some Foods Less Nutritionally Rich?

Foods that are considered “unhealthy” are low in nutrients, usually have very high levels of sodium and carbohydrates, and are high in saturated and trans fats, among other things. 

They also “trick” our bodies. Due to the low nutritional value of ultra-processed foods, our brains tell us that we need to eat more of them to satiate our hunger. This, with the low levels of essential nutrients, results in an increased intake of “empty” calories from foods high in processed carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and sodium.

Eating like this on a regular basis can lead to malnutrition and a whole host of health risks. 

What Foods to Limit in Your Diet and Why

Highly processed foods 

These food items are low in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients. On top of that, they contain excessive amounts of refined grains, sugar, and salt. 

Foods high in trans fats

Trans fats increase the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. They can also contribute to excessive weight gain. 

Foods high in saturated fat

Just like trans fats, saturated fats increase cholesterol levels. As a result, they can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with indulging in unhealthy foods every now and then. After all, some processed or fatty foods, like pizza, ice cream, or fast food are a big part of socializing with others, especially for children. The problem lies in eating them on a daily or regular basis.

Nutrient-Dense Foods 

Nutrient-dense foods, sometimes known as “superfoods,” have higher-than-usual counts of important nutrients and microelements. Incorporating them in your child’s diet can make the task of keeping them well-nourished a lot easier. 

It’s important to note here that these foods are not an easy fix for a poor diet. They can help to cover your child’s nutritional bases, but they’re not a replacement for balanced, well-rounded meals. The “superfood” label is also often exploited by marketers to raise the price of certain branded items. 

Introduce These Nutrient Dense Foods to Your Child’s Diet

Food

Rich in 

Berries

Fiber and antioxidants 

Fish 

Protein and omega-3 fatty acids* 

Legumes

Fiber, folate, and protein 

Leafy greens 

Vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium

Nuts and seeds

Fiber, healthy fats, and plant protein 

Whole grains 

Fiber 

Olive oil 

Vitamin E, unsaturated fatty acids 

Tomatoes 

Vitamin C 

Yogurt 

Calcium, probiotics, protein 

Ginger 

Antioxidants 

Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli)

Folate, vitamin K

*Some fish can contain high levels of mercury. This is particularly harmful for young children and pregnant/nursing mothers. If you’re unsure of what fish to give to your child, consult the FDA guidelines.

Section 4: Dietary Guidelines for Kids by Age 

Children have different dietary needs depending on their age. Being aware of these differences will help your child get the nutrition they need. 

This section of our guide will take you through the dietary guidelines for children from infancy all the way to the late teenage years. 

Infants: 0–6 Months

Nutritional Needs at 0–6 Months 

Key Nutrients

Vitamin D 

Daily vitamin D drops are recommended for babies who are exclusively breastfed. Parents who feed their babies with formula can opt for the widely available formula milk fortified with vitamin D. 

Doctors generally recommend breastfeeding up to 12 months, but this isn’t always possible. Moms may encounter challenges like not producing enough breast milk, their baby not latching, pain from blocked milk ducts or cracked nipples, among a variety of other issues. 

In addition to these common problems, women who work may be separated from their babies for long periods and may not be able to express milk.

In cases like these, formula is a viable alternative and contains all of the nutrients a newborn baby needs. While specially formulated food is a perfectly safe substitute for breast milk, animal milks, nut milks, grain milks or lactose-free milk alternatives are not acceptable. 

These products contain too many proteins and minerals for an infant’s kidneys to handle. Consuming them from zero to six months could potentially lead to intestinal bleeding. 

When breastfeeding, make sure to feed your child at least every three hours. For formula, you’ll need to increase the amount as your baby grows and gains weight. You can use the table below for quick reference.

Recommended Servings of Formula and Breastmilk

Age

Feedings per 24 hours 

Required volume of formula per feeding 

1 month

6–8 times 

2–4 oz. 

2 months 

5–6 times 

5–6 oz. 

3–6 months 

5–6 times

6–7 oz. 

Source: Hopkins Medicine

If you use formula, remember that tap water may not be an appropriate dilution agent. Immuno-compromised children may need to have formula made with tap water that’s been brought to a boil before being mixed with formula powder and cooled to body temperature before feeding.

Infants that aren’t receiving the right nutrients in their diet can quickly become malnourished. Some signs and symptoms include insufficient growth in line with developmental milestones; sleeping too much yet still being tired; excessive crying; dry, patchy or irritable skin; and bleeding gums. 

Babies: 7–12 Months 

Nutritional Needs at 7–12 Months 

Key Nutrients

  • Vitamin D    

  • Omega-3 fatty acids        

  • Zinc

  • Iron 

  • Other vitamins 

From six to 12 months, you should start introducing solid foods into your baby’s diet. Babies still rely on breastmilk or formula at this age and new foods should be introduced gradually. 

A variety of solid foods is recommended, but keep in mind that the same doesn’t apply to beverages. Before their first birthday, your baby should drink only water and breastmilk or formula. 

As you wean your baby off of breastmilk or formula, start with one serving of solid food per day. As time goes by, gradually add more meals in place of breast milk or formula. 

There are a few signs that you can look out for to tell whether your baby is ready to eat solid foods: 

  • They can sit up on their own 

  • They reach for things and put them in their mouth 

  • They react to food coming toward them by opening their mouth 

  • They don’t spit food out 

  • They can turn their head away to signal that they don’t want something

Remember, even if your child exhibits all of the above signs, you should still consult a  pediatrician to confirm whether or not you can start introducing solid foods to your baby’s diet. 

A baby over six months of age can eat a wide range of foods. When they reach this age, start feeding them different types of unseasoned, pureed fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats. six-to-12-month-olds are capable of eating mashed foods with soft lumps.

It’s important to be patient when introducing a child to new food, as it can often take 10 to 20 tries for them to get used to new textures and flavors. Try preparing meals in different ways and allowing your child to handle food with their own hands. This will familiarize them with various food textures. 

A breakdown of how to feed your baby their first foods and what to feed them

When introducing new foods to a baby’s diet, you’ll need to rule out any allergies. Wait three to five days between introducing new foods to make sure your child doesn’t show any symptoms. Some signs to look out for include: 

  • Blocked or runny nose 

  • Watery, itchy, or red eyes 

  • Coughing and wheezing 

  • Itchy, red rashes 

  • Sneezing

  • Stomach cramps and hives

  • Changes in stool consistency 

These symptoms usually occur within a few minutes of feeding. If you notice them for the first time, schedule a visit with your pediatrician. Allergies often don’t fully develop until the second or third introduction of a new food, so stay vigilant the first few times you feed your child something new. 

Toddlers: 1–2 Years

Nutritional Needs at 1–2 Years

Recommended Daily Servings

Dairy

2 cups 

Vegetables 

1 cup 

Fruits 

1 cup

Grains 

3 oz. 

Protein-rich foods 

2 oz. 

It’s time to introduce your child to a routine of three meals per day (plus healthy snacks), with foods from the five essential groups. By this stage, children should be eating mostly solid foods and breastmilk or formula should only serve as a supplement.

The best and worst foods for toddlers

At this age, toddlers are ready to start eating most foods, as long as they’re thoroughly cooked.

Start by giving them bite-sized pieces of fruit and lumpy (not mashed) meals. Keep in mind that some foods like grapes, hot dogs, or cherry tomatoes should be cut into smaller pieces; otherwise, they can be a choking hazard.

Young children: 3–4 Years

Nutritional Needs at 3–4 Years

Recommended Daily Servings 

Dairy

2–2.5 cups 

Vegetables 

1–2 cups 

Fruits 

1–1.5 cups 

Grains 

3–5 oz. 

Protein-rich foods 

2–5 oz. 

According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 18% to 33% of children aged one to four “consumed no distinct servings of vegetables on a typical day.” 

It’s a worrying trend, especially since the study also points out that early childhood is the “optimal window” for developing healthy eating habits as children’s preferences during this time are shaped mainly by familiarity, accessibility, and parental modeling. 

Fruits and vegetables are important sources of crucial vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, E, magnesium, zinc, or fiber. Not eating enough of them can lead to serious deficiencies, which can negatively affect their overall health. 

Following the 5-a-day rule, which states that children should eat five portions of fruits and vegetables per day, can make things a bit easier. Measure out the portions so that they fulfill the nutritional needs listed in the table above. 

Here’s a sample meal plan that follows the 5-a-day rule: 

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with a portion of your child’s favorite berries 

  • Mid-day snack: Baby carrots 

  • Lunch: Grilled chicken with a side salad with iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and cucumber

  • Afternoon snack: Sliced apple 

  • Dinner: Baked salmon with a side of asparagus 

You can start following this rule as soon as your child is accustomed to most solid foods. 

Experiment with seasoning your child’s food to make vegetables more appealing. Try adding new herbs and spices into their meals, but remember not to add too much salt, butter, or oils. 

For quick snacks or when you don’t have the time to precisely measure out the ingredients, UK’s NHS advice is to give your child roughly the amount of fruits or veggies that can fit into their palm.  

Children: 5–8 Years 

Nutritional Needs at 5–8 Years

Recommended Daily Servings 

Dairy

2.5 cups 

Vegetables 

1.5–2.5 cups 

Fruits 

1–2 cups 

Grains 

4–6 oz. 

Protein-rich foods 

3–5.5 oz. 

Once your child starts going to school, they’ll need to stay sharp and full of energy throughout the day. For that, their diet needs to contain the following nutrients and vitamins:

  • Protein: Provides essential amino acids and supports healthy growth and development

  • Healthy fats: Facilitate brain development, help absorb fat-soluble vitamins

  • Vitamins A, C & D: Help keep your child’s body cells healthy and protected from infections

  • Calcium: Important for strong bone development

  • Zinc: Important for the developing smell and taste, immune function, and healing wounds

  • Iron: Keeps your child’s blood healthy and helps with muscle formation and function

  • Magnesium: Important for energy production, helps with protein synthesis, regeneration, enzymatic activity, and cell growth

Pre-teens: 9–13 Years

Nutritional Needs at 9–13 Years

Recommended Daily Servings

Dairy

3 cups 

Vegetables 

2–3.5 cups 

Fruits 

1.5–2 cups 

Grains 

5–9 oz. 

Protein-rich foods 

4–6.5 oz. 

Key Nutrient Info

At this age range, many girls begin menstruating. Increasing their intake of vitamin C, iron, and magnesium will help their bodies to replenish lost blood and improve oxygen transport to their organs.

Pre-teens undergo a lot of cognitive development. Their critical thinking, problem solving skills, and understanding of abstract concepts are all beginning to improve at a fast pace. 

To support their developing brains, incorporate more foods that promote cognitive function into their diet. These include: 

  • Fatty fish: Fish like salmon, trout, or herring contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which are the building blocks of brain and nerve cells, and crucial for memory and learning. 

  • Broccoli: Contains plenty of antioxidants, which can help protect the brain against damage. Broccoli is also rich in vitamin K, which is linked to improved cognitive and memory function. 

  • Dark chocolate: Flavonoids in dark chocolate promote the memory and learning functions of our brains. On top of that, dark chocolate is a known mood booster. 

  • Walnuts: While most nuts are good for the brain, walnuts are particularly beneficial, as they contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Pumpkin seeds: Rich in zinc, copper, magnesium, and iron, all of which are vital for maintaining good brain health.

  • Oranges: A rich and tasty source of vitamin C, which helps prevent mental decline and improves brain function related to tasks that require attention, focus, memory, and fast decision-making.

At around 11 years old, when they enter early stages of puberty, your child may start experiencing mood swings. While these are a normal, inseparable part of growing up, they can be managed with proper nutrition. 

As we’ve already mentioned, the gut microbiome has a huge effect on our mood and emotions. Incorporating plenty of foods that are high in fiber and probiotics (e.g. fermented vegetables, yogurt, or whole grains) into your child’s diet can help stabilize their mood. 

Growth spurts are another thing to take note at this stage of your child’s development. They’ll need the right nutrition to fuel their growing bodies. It’s essential to provide them with foods from the five food groups, but the three elements below require additional attention: 

  • Calcium: Increase your teen’s intake of calcium to ensure that their growing bones are strong enough. A calcium-rich diet can also help to prevent osteoporosis later in life. 

  • Iron: Additional iron helps fuel teens’ growth. It’s particularly important for girls, as an increased intake of iron will help counteract blood loss from menstruation. 

  • Whole grains: These should serve as a key source of fiber in your pre-teen’s diet. Make sure to avoid refined grains (also marketed as “enriched”), as they have a lot of fiber and nutrients taken out of them during processing.

Children who are more physically active will require more calories than those who don’t. Adjust your meal plans accordingly with your child’s activities.

Caloric needs of physically active children

Most importantly, accommodate their needs. Calorie counting isn’t really an accurate way to assess whether or not a child’s energy requirements are being met on a day-to-day basis, but can serve as a useful reference for parents who want to prepare meals in advance. 

If your child feels like they need more food during the day, make sure to stock up on healthy options so they’re always at hand. 

Teenagers: 14–18 Years

Nutritional Needs at 14–18 Years

Recommended Daily Servings 

Dairy

3 cups 

Vegetables 

2.5–4 cups 

Fruits 

2–2.5 cups 

Grains 

6–10 oz. 

Protein-rich foods 

5–7 oz. 

Key Nutrient Info

To meet their growth and energy demands, teenagers need more carbohydrates and fiber

Throughout their high school years, teenagers’ eating habits will constantly evolve and are affected by a number of factors. 

Hormones are the primary driver of emotional and physical changes in teenagers. As their bodies change, your children will become more aware of them, on top of being more focused on their peers’ opinions. 

Another important factor at this age is the media and its influence on teenage minds. Different portrayals of what’s considered “positive” or “negative” in terms of body image can have a major impact on how teenagers perceive their own physique.

With all of this going on, there’s little point in trying to control your teen’s eating choices. Encouraging regular family dinners and frequent open discussion about the merits of healthy eating are the way to go at this age. 

Make sure to also provide your children with open access to healthy foods from the five essential groups. This will allow them to reach for additional snacks or meals whenever they feel hungry, without resorting to junk food. 

By the time they turn 18, most teenagers will reach full height. This is because their growth plates – areas of cartilage (that’s the stuff that forms our noses and ears) located at the end of long bones – solidify into bone at this age.

This is possibly the best time to encourage them to incorporate movement into their daily lives. As children, most of your teen’s exercise will have come from play. However, as play falls away, they can start exercising more intentionally.  

Some activities might include body weight exercises, running regularly, or engaging in team sports. The latter, in particular, comes with a number of benefits that go beyond physical health, such as confidence-building or honing social skills.

Healthy Meals for School-Going Children

Regardless of which grade they’re in, your school-going child will need balanced meals throughout their day in order to continue developing healthily and meet their nutritional needs.

The Role of a Healthy Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day; after the night’s fast, it helps jumpstart the body. School-aged children especially need to eat a breakfast that can sustain them until lunch.

Studies show that eating breakfast before school has an impact on a child’s academic performance. Children who ate breakfast every day have scored higher on math and reading standardized tests than those who didn’t.

Serving breakfasts that are rich in protein, healthy fats, and fiber can also keep hunger at bay for longer. This can help to discourage children from reaching for unhealthy snacks before lunchtime.

The basics of a healthy breakfast

The Lunch Question 

As a child enters elementary school, they usually become more independent in choosing what to eat. This is where all the work you’ve put into cultivating healthy eating habits should start to pay off. 

If possible, opt for sending your kid to school with a home-packed lunch. It will allow you to easily provide your child with all the nutrients they need. Plus, it will help to ensure they are at least offered enough nutritious foods to sustain them throughout the day. 

An example of the perfect packed lunch

Your child’s packed lunch should ideally contain foods from all of the five healthy food groups outlined in Section 3. If something is missing from their main meals, you can supplement it with an additional midday snack.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. For some families, it can be hard to find the time to plan and make meals. And for others, packed lunches are a luxury that can be hard to justify when schools offer free or subsidized reduced lunches. 

Free school lunches are a valuable aid for parents who cannot afford to send their kids to school with a packed lunch. If your child relies on the school’s lunches, it’s okay. While school lunches have a bad reputation for being unhealthy, many schools offer children a choice of what to eat. 

Giving your kids nutritious food at home and equipping them to make healthy choices from a young age may prepare them to make better choices in the school lunch line. For example, encouraging your child to opt for a bowl of fruit instead of chocolate pudding for dessert can go a long way in keeping them well-fed while still making use of free school lunches.

There are also low-cost, nutritious food items you can give your children to supplement their lunches. A handful of baby carrots or an apple as mid-day snacks are two good examples. 

If you’re looking for advice on how to keep your child well-fed on a budget, we have plenty of advice on that front in Section 8 of this guide. 

Section 5: The Best Healthy Food Habits for Kids

The Basics: 8 Simple Habits That Are Easy to Instill

Habit-building is one of the most effective ways to ensure that your child follows a balanced, nutritious diet on a regular basis.

Some habits may take a while to kick in, but there are quite a few that can be quickly incorporated into your child’s life. A lot of them, such as making healthy snacks easily accessible and involving children in grocery shopping require an effort on the parent’s part, but are relatively easy to adapt to for the kids.

It’s also important to make healthy food interesting, so that children are encouraged to eat it. This is where preparing plates with foods in at least five different colors comes in. Involving your children in the cooking process also works well in this regard. Kids will be more likely to eagerly eat healthy meals if they help to prepare them.

All of these healthy habits will be easier to instill if you lead by example. Children tend to imitate the behavior of adults.

Cooking and Eating Together

Regular family meals can go a long way when it comes to cultivating healthy habits in your children. Homemade food is healthier than fast food and takeout, and cooking with and around children helps them understand the value of developing cooking skills. 

Cook and eat together as a family whenever possible and encourage them to talk about their day. This will help your kids to slowly build appreciation for mealtimes and eating slowly to savor the moment. 

Here are some things you can do to cultivate healthy food habits: 

  • Involve children in meal preparation 

  • Sit down for family dinners every day 

  • Provide kids with a number of options to choose from 

  • Set a routine for meals and snacks 

  • Make the dining table a screen-free zone 

Snacking Sensibly 

Snacking is an essential part of your child’s diet if you hope to meet their daily energy requirements, but reaching for healthy snacks is a habit that needs to be taught. 

By frequently presenting your children with healthy alternatives to processed products, you cultivate the routine of reaching for them later in life. 

Healthy alternative foods to junk foods

Section 6: Special Dietary Needs

Food allergies and sensitivities are common. According to the CDC, 5.8% of children in the US suffer from at least one food allergy. 

Kids with special dietary needs still require the same nutrients and calories as their “healthy” peers. However, your approach needs to be revised to accommodate these needs. 

Allergies, Sensitivities, and How to Deal with Them 

Food sensitivities and allergies both cause our bodies to have a negative reaction to certain ingredients. The key difference between the two lies in the fact that allergies trigger a reaction from the body’s immune system, whereas sensitivities arise in the digestive system. 

Sensitivities can cause a myriad of unpleasant symptoms, such as stomach cramps, gas, bloating, or diarrhea. Reactions to allergies include hives, itching, or swelling, but also anaphylaxis, a severe response that can potentially turn fatal. 

Interestingly, this small group of foods causes 90% of all allergies:

  • Eggs

  • Wheat

  • Milk

  • Soy

  • Tree nuts

  • Peanuts

  • Shellfish

  • Fish

Food allergies often force parents to cut ingredients from their kids’ diet, making it difficult to maintain a healthy balance. Many of these foods contain vital nutrients that are core parts of a balanced diet.

Thankfully, alternative products on the market have made managing allergies and sensitivities easier. In this guide, we’ll take you through some easily available foods that can replace the most common allergens.  

food allergy replacement foods

Lactose Intolerance and Dairy Allergies 

Since kids with lactose intolerance and dairy allergies can’t consume most dairy products, their parents need to keep a tight check on their intake of a number of key nutrients, including calcium, protein, healthy fats, as well as vitamins D and B12.

You can easily replace most of these with a variety of products:

  • Protein and vitamin B12: Meat and eggs, legumes, and soy products

  • Healthy fats: Avocado, nuts, and seeds

  • Vitamin D: Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines

People with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies need to be sure to get enough calcium in their diet. Dietary supplements are an option, but sourcing calcium from food helps the body absorb and use it. 

Alternative calcium sources to milk

A lot of these alternatives aren’t particularly attractive to kids. In fact, they might flat-out refuse to eat them! So, you can disguise these foods to make them more appealing. 

Try blending greens into flavored dairy-free smoothies or veggie-rich sauces for pastas. You could also mince and crumb sardines, tuna, or salmon to make fish sticks. These should be baked in the oven rather than fried, of course.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is a food sensitivity, and as such can cause reactions that arise from the digestive system, such as diarrhea or bloating. 

Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder, which makes a person’s immune system damage their small intestine after consuming foods that contain gluten. Untreated celiac disease can be deadly.

If your child has celiac disease or gluten intolerance, finding the right replacements can prove difficult.

There are many gluten-free products on the market that resemble traditional bread, crackers, and other food items that contain gluten. However, as most of them are heavily processed, these aren’t exactly the healthiest available alternatives.

Thankfully, there are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods, allowing you to maintain variety in your kid’s diet.

Naturally gluten-free foods

Healthy Eating for Neurodivergent Kids

Neurodivergence is the term used for people whose brains process, learn, or behave differently from what’s considered typical. 

Autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are some of the most widely recognized forms of neurodivergence.

In some instances, neurodivergence may be accompanied by medical issues or conditions, but this isn’t necessarily the case. However, following a balanced, varied diet can be difficult for neurodivergent children for a number of reasons. Some of the most common challenges include: 

  • Hyper-sensitivity: Aversion to certain flavors and textures and preference for others 

  • Desire for familiarity: Finding comfort in familiar foods or becoming overwhelmed or distressed with new, unfamiliar foods

  • Need for stimulation: Some neurodivergent people seek out bold, complex, and intense flavors, and may refuse to eat “boring” conventional foods

Children living with autism, in particular, are more prone to gastrointestinal issues when they don’t get enough of the following nutrients and vitamins: 

  • Vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12, and K

  • Calcium 

  • Iron 

  • Zinc 

  • Folic acid 

  • Fiber 

  • Magnesium

Addressing these deficiencies can pose a challenge. Knowing the right ingredients to incorporate into your child’s diet, as well as awareness of which ones to avoid, can help.

Neurodivergent friendly foods

Parents of neurodivergent children may need to get creative with meals. For example, you might try blending certain veggies into smoothies or experimenting with flavor combinations to introduce more nutritious foods into your child’s diet. 

Aside from addressing nutrient deficiencies, you may also try giving your neurodivergent child certain foods that can help them deal better with the sensitivities caused by their condition: 

  • Probiotics: Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, aid digestion and improved gut health. This is particularly important for children on the autism spectrum, who often struggle with gastrointestinal issues

  • Fiber-rich foods: Fiber is an essential part of anyone’s diet, and can also help regulate the body’s sugar absorption. It is also particularly helpful for balancing blood sugar, which is often a problem for neurodivergent children.

  • Omega-3 fats: Many neurodivergent people suffer from an enzymatic defect that leaves their brain cells deprived of essential fats. Thus, a higher intake of those fats can help improve your child’s sociability, hyperactivity, concentration, and aggression.

Section 7: Childhood Weight Problems  

Issues with weight in childhood are usually driven by poor diet. Consuming too many foods that are high in refined grains, sugars, and unhealthy fats can lead to excessive weight gain as well as malnutrition. 

In this section, we’ll dive into the causes and risks of weight problems in childhood, as well as provide some tips on how to approach this issue from a nutritional perspective.   

Guidelines for Addressing Excess Weight Gain in Children and Keeping a Healthy Diet

The leading cause of excessive weight gain in children is the overabundance of sugar in the “Western pattern diet”, combined with a sedentary lifestyle. Encouraging physical activity (e.g. bike riding or after-school sports classes) is as important as adopting the right diet.

Important factors that contribute to unhealthy weight gain include:

  • Poor diet consisting of empty calories

  • Lack of quality sleep

  • Lack of regular exercise

  • Genetics

When discussing your child’s weight problems, you need to find the right approach in order to avoid creating body image and self-esteem issues.

Be careful when talking about this issue with a child and never focus on appearance. Instead, highlight the importance of overall well-being and the ability to participate in fun physical activities.

Healthy Weight Indicators

At two years old, your pediatrician will go over your child’s weight, height and body mass index (BMI).

Although BMI can be a good starting point for assessing whether your child is the right weight for their age and height, it isn’t a great health indicator. This is because it doesn’t take into account a child’s actual body composition.

Body fat percentage is a better indicator of health in relation to weight. Due to higher bone density, muscle mass, and a myriad of other factors, some children will be heavier than others, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re at an unhealthy weight.

Body fat percentage takes these factors into account by taking note of how much fat makes up your child’s weight.

Healthy and unhealthy body fat percentages for children

Know Which Foods to Avoid 

Preventing your child from gaining excess weight requires adjusting their diet to cut out foods full of unhealthy fats and sugars. Empty calories are a major issue – more than 25% of an American child’s diet is full of calories with little to no nutritional value. The main culprits are usually:

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks

  • Refined grains, such as white bread and white rice

  • Deli meats

  • Trans and saturated fats (always check labels for those!)

Thankfully, there are plenty of foods that are low in calories but rich in nutrients.

Nutrient-rich and low-calorie foods

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Some practices that are very common among parents can actually increase their children’s risk of unhealthy weight gain. The two most prevalent are:

  • Food rewards: This reinforces unhealthy behaviors that can lead children to perceive unhealthy food as coveted trophies, which can contribute to kids developing detrimental eating patterns into adulthood.

  • Eating out: While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional family dinner at a restaurant, making it a regular occurrence can increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain. According to one study, “children who eat restaurant food more than once per week have a 38% higher prevalence of obesity than their peers who never ate out.”

Guidelines for Underweight Children

Unhealthy weight gain is not the only weight issue that children and teenagers face. Being underweight can be equally as dangerous. 

How Do I Know If My Child Is Underweight? 

One of the best metrics to see if your child is within the healthy weight range is by measuring their body fat percentage. A child or teenager is considered underweight if their body fat percentage is lower than 15% (girls) or 11% (boys). 

You can purchase a scale to measure body fat on your own. However, when it comes to assessing your child’s body fat in relation to their overall health, it is advised to do it under the guidance of a pediatrician. That way, you’ll ensure accurate results, and gain a better understanding of what’s causing your child’s weight issues.

The underlying causes of children being underweight include: 

  • Poor nutrition: Children who live in poverty may not get enough food to maintain a healthy weight, whereas many families who are better-off may lack the nutritional knowledge to make the right eating choices. Undernutrition is a major issue – it’s estimated to cause about 45% of child deaths around the world

  • High metabolism: Children with a high metabolism might have trouble gaining weight even if they consume a lot of high energy foods. 

  • Mental health issues: Conditions like depression, OCD, anxiety, and eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can all affect your child’s ability to eat and keep a healthy weight. 

  • Physical health issues: Certain illnesses, such as gastrointestinal issues, cancers, or parasites, can prevent a child from gaining weight.

  • Genetics: For some people, low body weight runs in the family – your child may be naturally inclined to carry less fat. 

What Foods to Give Your Underweight Children

The focus of a dietary plan for an underweight child is to steadily gain weight. Prepare calorie-rich meals with lots of healthy added fats. 

Weight gain is the focus here, but it’s important to remember that your underweight child still needs to follow a balanced diet that incorporates foods from all the five major groups: dairy, protein, fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates.

Here are some high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods with plenty of healthy fats you can use to create meals:

Foods to promote healthy weight gain in children

You can also encourage frequent snacking to increase your child’s calorie intake. Larger portion sizes may help, too, but be sure to increase them gradually to get your kid used to larger meals.

While processed snacks and fast food meals are high in calories and can make your child gain weight, they’re low on important nutrients. Consuming too many of these foods may lead your child to become malnourished and develop poor dietary habits, despite gaining weight.

Minimize the amount of these products in your child’s diet:

  • Potato chips 

  • French fries 

  • Candy bars 

  • Bacon (turkey bacon is a healthier, more protein-rich alternative)

  • Sausages (opt for lean or low-fat sausages if possible)

Dos and Don’ts of Helping Your Child Gain Weight 

Do

Don’t

Increase portions of starchy carbohydrates in their meals. 

Don’t use unhealthy snacks and fast food for weight gain. 

Include children in meal preparation and eat together regularly. 

Don’t give them snacks right before meals.

Give them healthy, high-calorie drinks such as homemade smoothies or milkshakes between meals.

Don’t force feed them or voice your frustration when they don’t finish their meal. This can distort their relationship with food.

Use more healthy fats to increase calories in each meal.

Don’t give your child foods with high trans and saturated fat content 

Section 8: Childhood Nutrition on a Budget

The scale of poverty in the US is staggering: millions of American households live below the poverty line. With the rising costs of living nowadays, even those who earn a fair bit above the threshold of $12,880 per year (for an individual) would struggle to survive.

You don’t necessarily have to face financial struggles to implement good food budgeting practices. Keeping your children well fed without breaking the bank can go a long way to help you effectively manage your household budget.

Budget-Friendly Nutrition

Saving money on groceries doesn’t have to mean settling for less nutritious or unhealthy food for your children. Here are a few tips to make the most of a tight food budget:

  • Buy seasonal fruit and vegetables: Produce bought seasonally is both cheaper and fresher than out-of-season, imported items.

  • Eat more vegetarian meals: Meat is one of the most expensive grocery list items, and it keeps going up in price. Plant-based eating will also help you to get more creative in the kitchen and incorporate more nutritious ingredients into every meal.

  • Incorporate more fibrous food into your meals: Foods rich in fiber are more filling and contain less fat and calories. Beans and lentils are good examples of cost-effective, fiber-rich foods that are also high in protein.

  • Cook meals from scratch: Pre-processed ingredients can save time in the kitchen, but they’re more expensive and less healthy. Opt for fresh produce and raw ingredients, and include your kids in the cooking process to spend some quality time with them as a bonus!

Grocery Shopping Strategies

Planning your meals in advance and making use of all available offers can save you a lot of money when shopping for necessities. There are also plenty of other money-saving practices you can implement into your life to eat healthy on a budget.

Budget-friendly grocery shopping tips

Make the Most of What You Have

In addition to capitalizing on sales and buying the right groceries at the right time, you can stretch out your grocery haul to last longer in other ways. 

The most crucial aspect of this is planning out your meals. Look up the seasonality of fruits and veggies in your region so that you can plan your shopping in accordance with what’s in season each month.

Calculate exactly how much food you need for each meal. Then, when shopping, pay attention to the weight of the produce and other food items you’re buying and purchase only what you need. This will help you to spend less and reduce leftover ingredients.

If you do end up with leftovers, getting creative with them will help you truly make the most of them. Here are a few examples of what you can do:

  • Blend any leftover fruits before they turn bad to make delicious smoothies

  • Pickle leftover vegetables or use them to make vegetable stock

  • Blend leftover starchy veggies to quickly whip up purees

Another strategy could be to incorporate meal prepping into your weekend routine. This will let you plan out exactly how long the food you’ve bought will last, as well as:

  • Saving time during the week

  • Reducing the stress of planning meals on a daily basis 

  • Contributing to a more balanced diet, as you’ll have more time to think meals through

  • Allowing you to retain the benefits of family cooking time as every meal is still home cooked

Examples of healthy and cheap recipes

If you have even a few square yards of land, starting a veggie garden can give you a cheap supply of your favorite vegetables. Plus, many herbs – such as basil, mint, parsely, and chives – can be grown in window boxes. 

Of course, this is easier said than done. Not everyone has the luxury of backyard space and hours of free time to tend to their plants. If you have the capacity to start a veggie garden, though, it’s well worth giving it a shot.

Assistance Programs: How Can They Help? 

Feeding a family on a very limited income is incredibly difficult. 

In the US, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a good way for low-income households to help meet their family’s nutritional requirements. In order to be eligible for SNAP, your monthly income must meet specific requirements. 

The threshold for gross monthly income starts at $1,473 ($1,133 net) or less for a single-person household, and increases by $512 ($394 net) for every additional household member.

Household size 

Gross monthly income

Net monthly income 

1

$1,473

$1,133

2

$1,984

$1,526

3

$2,495

$1,920

4

$3,007

$2,313

5

$3,518

$2,706

6

$4,029

$3,100

7

$4,541

$3,493

8

$5,052

$3,886

Each additional member

+$512

+$394

Source: USDA 

There are also additional requirements and deductions you can make from paychecks that are higher than those listed in the table above. For more detailed information on SNAP eligibility, visit the US Agriculture Department’s website.

Food banks and charitable organizations are another viable way to get help. This handy resource lists information for food banks across the US. You can use it to find the nearest food bank in your area. 

In the EU, the European Food Banks Federation is a good place to seek help. Plus, the UN World Food Programme is active in 120 countries around the world, reaching conflict zones and remote areas of the globe. 

The Bottom Line

Childhood nutrition is a wide, complex subject. With that said, developing the right habits and mealtime routines – and making the right choices at the grocery store – can make getting your child to eat healthier a lot easier.

When introducing healthy changes to your children’s diet, try not to over-optimize meals to the point of vilifying foods that don’t provide maximum nutritional value. Restricting a child’s diet too much can have a negative impact on their relationship with food in adulthood.

In the end, all parents want their children to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. Balance is the way to achieve that.

Focusing on a healthy diet on a day-to-day basis is important, but also remember that meals are often social events, and a child’s diet should be flexible enough for them to have fun and enjoy themselves with their friends.


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