A healthy, balanced diet is vital for your children.
Food is a vital source of essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals that your kids need to grow and stay healthy.
In this article, we’ll walk you through what your kids should be eating to make sure they’re getting all of the nutrients they need.
We’ll look at food groups, calorie needs, tips on how to incorporate healthy foods, and how to make food part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
Let’s jump in.
What Should My Kids Eat?
Assuming your kids don’t have a medical reason for not eating certain foods, there is a huge choice of foods you can buy and prepare for them.
- Fruit and vegetables
- Carbohydrates like potatoes and rice
- Healthy fats sources like nuts and avocados
- Milk as a great source of calcium
…are all key parts of a balanced diet.
However, as most parents are already aware of, knowing what foods your kids should be eating is one thing. Actually getting them to eat those healthy foods is another.
Later in this article, we’ll provide a few recommendations on how to build healthy eating habits for your kids.
How Many Calories Do Your Kids Need?
It’s important that your kids get the right amount of calories per day.
Too few, and they won’t have enough energy for their lifestyle.
Too many, and they’ll be a risk of putting on unnecessary weight.
Daily Calorie Needs for Girls
|Age||Not Active||Somewhat Active||Very Active|
|2-3 Years||1,000 calories||1,000-1,200 calories||1,000-1,400 calories|
|4-8 years||1,200-1,400 calories||1,400-1,600 calories||1,400-1,800 calories|
|9,13 years||1,400-1,600 calories||1,600-2,000 calories||1,800-2,200 calories|
|14-18 years||1,800 calories||2,000 calories||2,400 calories|
Daily Calorie Needs for Boys
|Age||Not Active||Somewhat Active||Very Active|
|2-3 Years||1,000-1,200 calories||1,000-1,400 calories||1,000-1,400 calories|
|4-8 years||1,200-1,400 calories||1,400-1,600 calories||1,600-2,000 calories|
|9-13 years||1,600-2,000 calories||1,800-2,200 calories||2,000-2,600 calories|
|14-18 years||2,000-2,400 calories||2,400-2,800 calories||2,800-3,200 calories|
Foods Your Kids Need as Part of a Balanced Diet
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are a major source of essential vitamins, so you should be encouraging your kids to eat them.
Studies have even found that childhood fruit consumption can have a long-lasting protective effect on cancer risk.
The USDA recommends five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
Most fruits are naturally sweet, so you shouldn’t have a hard time encouraging kids to eat them.
For example, oranges are a great source of Vitamin C and are a perfect alternative to an unhealthy snack bar or bag of sweets.
Bananas are a source of potassium, and high in Vitamin B6.
One thing you do need to watch out for is that kids don’t snack on dried fruits like raisins or dates all day. Due to the drying process, the sugar in them will be more concentrated compared to the fresh alternative, which can harm their dental health.
Vegetables, on the other hand, can be a little more tricky.
We’d recommend ensuring you start preparing them for your kids from a young age so they get used to them and enjoy them as part of their diet.
Fresh, frozen, and tinned vegetables contain nutrients like dietary fiber, Vitamin A, C, K, magnesium, folate, and many more essential ingredients of a balanced diet.
If your child doesn’t jump for joy at the thought of eating their veggies, you can try to serve some vegetables, like carrots, raw. They’ll feel more like a snack, and it never hurts to try!
Carbohydrates and Grains
Carbohydrates are a key source of energy, so it’s vital that you incorporate them into your child’s diet.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbs make up approximately half of your kids’ total daily calories, with at least half of that being from whole grains.
The key is to focus on providing food made up of complex carbohydrates and starches, rather than simple carbohydrates, which is essentially just sugar.
Complex carbs are recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with some of the food recommendations including bread, rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and wholegrain pasta. They also recommend that approximately half of your grain intake should be whole grains, rather than refined grains.
Whole grains have nutrients like iron, zinc, manganese, magnesium, niacin, and many more that all play a key part in a balanced diet.
However, it’s not recommended to give whole-grain foods to under-2s. Humans don’t produce amylase until they are anywhere from 6 months to 2 years old, and it’s required to digest grains.
Milk and Dairy Products
Dairy products are a key part of any child’s diet. Unless they have a medical reason for not
consuming dairy, we’d recommend you include them in your child’s diet.
It’s recommended that children aged 2-3 years have 2 cup-equivalents of dairy per day, 4-8-year-olds have 2.5 cups, and adolescents between 9-18 years old have 3 cup-equivalents per day.
Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese contain nutrients like calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, riboflavin, and more.
If your child is lactose intolerant, you can provide lactose-free alternatives. These usually have the same amounts of calcium and Vitamin D, and may be fortified with other vitamins and nutrients.
If your child doesn’t like dairy products on their own, consider incorporating them in other ways. Add milk to their cereal, or make a fruit smooth with milk.
Sources of Protein
Protein is essential for growth and repair, and a key part of a balanced diet.
For children who need 2,000 calories per day, the Dietary Guidelines recommend 5.5 ounce-equivalents of protein foods per day.
Foods rich in protein include:
- Nuts and seeds
All protein sources have different amounts of nutrients in them. For example, meats provide more zinc than eggs, eggs provide the most choline, and nuts and seeds provide the most vitamin E.
For a balanced, healthy diet, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends alternating between protein sources throughout the week.
It’s also important that your protein sources don’t contain too much salt (like salted nuts), and if you’re serving meat, make sure your choice is something in lean form.
Healthy Fats and Oils
Your kids need a source of fats as part of a healthy diet, help them stay full throughout the day, and have been linked to increased cognitive scores in children.
Oils, in particular, are recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans because they contain essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and α-linolenic acid) and Vitamin E.
Fats are also needed to help our bodies absorb vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Healthy sources of fats include foods and oils like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish.
It’s important to avoid excessive intakes of trans fats, common in partially hydrogenated oils found in margarines, as they are linked to cardiovascular disease.
Tips for Cutting Down on Your Kids Sugar Intake
It’s well-known that excess sugar isn’t healthy. Sugar can damage your kids’ teeth, and many foods high in added sugars don’t contain many other nutrients, making them an unhealthy but calorie-rich option.
The American Heart Association recommends that sugar intake for children is limited to 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day.
Unfortunately, many kids get the majority of their sugars from snacks, sweets, and sugary drinks.
Sugary, carbonated drinks are one of the worst culprits, and you should limit your kids’ consumption of these to reduce the risk of future cardiometabolic risk.
Sugar is found naturally in many sweet fruits, and you can add sugars to nutrient-rich foods like breakfast cereals or yogurt to encourage your children to eat them, which have more nutritional value than sweets or snacks.
Healthy Alternatives to Junk Food
Most kids love to get their hands on sugary, salty foods, and it’s hard to blame them – sugary and salty foods can taste great, even if they’re extremely unhealthy.
However, if you stop your kids from eating things that appear unhealthy, they may just end up wanting them more.
We’d recommend finding some delicious homemade alternatives to junk food. These will satisfy your kids’ cravings, but still be a healthy option that you can pack with good ingredients.
Here are some options:
- Homemade sweet potato fries, baked in the oven
- Homemade ice cream using frozen yogurt
- Homemade cookies with less sugar than store-bought cookies
- Burgers with lean meat and salad toppings
One of the best ways to keep your children’s diet healthy is to cook at home as much as possible and substitute typically unhealthy options for alternatives made with better ingredients.
If the whole family is involved in encouraging healthy dietary behaviors in children, it can improve their nutritional habits for life.
Healthy Food as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
Food can only go so far in keeping your kids healthy.
To keep them healthy, encourage them to stay active, spend time outside, and take part in sports that they enjoy.
If you’re wondering what your kids should be eating to stay healthy, you’re not alone.
It takes effort, and ensuring your kids eat well is harder than grabbing a pre-made meal or fast food.
However, it’s worth it.
Your kids need to eat healthy when they’re young to help them grow, have energy, boost their cognitive function, and reduce their chances of future health complications.
You should make sure you’re providing meals that are balanced and include ingredients from all of the recommended food groups.
An easy way to do this is to set aside an hour to create weekly meal plans. You’ll get a clear picture of what your kids will be eating, and if their diet is as healthy as it should be.