You can help children build healthy eating habits when they’re young
Eating nutritious food helps kids maintain a healthy body weight and reduces the risk of developing chronic health problems
Follow the USDA Dietary Guidelines by serving a variety of lean, low-fat, or fat-free foods from the five major food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and dairy
Limit added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium in children’s diets
Whether you’ve got a picky eater or an adventurous foodie in the family, nourishing your children and teens with healthy foods helps them grow and develop normally. Plus, offering kids nutritious food instead of junk food instills healthy habits that (hopefully) will last a lifetime. But it can be challenging (and sometimes confusing) choosing which foods will deliver all the vitamins and minerals they need—and figuring out how to get them to eat them.
Good foods for kids of all ages starts with a balanced, healthy diet. But what does this mean, exactly? If you follow guidance from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, a balanced, healthy diet means plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low- or no-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy fats. Beyond highlighting what to eat, the guidelines also recommend what not to eat (or at least what to eat less of), including foods and beverages with less added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
But what specific healthy food for children should you add to your grocery list? And why is a balanced diet important for kids? Let’s dig into what the research says about giving your kids a healthy start.
Why Is A Balanced Diet Important For Kids?
Before digging into what specific healthy foods to buy, it helps to understand the why behind the what. Why is it so important that kids eat a balanced, healthy diet?
Building healthy eating habits early in life sets the foundation for kids to continue these behaviors throughout their life. Kids and teens with unhealthy dietary patterns (and inadequate physical activity) face a greater risk of being overweight and obese and at an unhealthy weight and may negatively affect their health. Eating healthy, on the other hand, helps maintain a healthy body weight and puts kids on the path to good health and lifelong habits for overall wellness.
What Is A Healthy Meal For A Child?
Regardless of age, everyone needs to consume the same types of nutrients for the human body to grow, develop, and function properly. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, water and even fat. However, kids need different amounts of calories and specific vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients depending on their age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity. (Tip: Refer to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans to find age-appropriate nutrition recommendations for your child.)
To fuel your child's healthy growth and development, let’s unpack the USDA guidelines for more specific examples of nutritious foods for kids. Children should eat a variety of foods from the five major food groups below, and this includes meals and snacks.
Fruits. Aim for 2-4 servings per day. Whole fruit is the healthiest option (more dietary fiber, no added sugar), but any fruit counts, including fresh, frozen, canned, dried/dehydrated, and 100% fruit juice. You can serve fruit whole, raw, cooked, pureed, or cut up in small pieces. Naturally low in fat, sodium, and calories, fruits provide an important source of key nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and folate.
Other fruit (apples, apricots, bananas, cherries, grapes, guava, mangoes, papaya, peaches, pineapple, plums)
Vegetables. Aim for 3-5 servings per day. Aim for whole vegetables, as they’re the healthiest option (more dietary fiber, no added sodium). But any vegetable counts, including fresh, frozen, canned, dried/dehydrated, and 100% vegetable juice. You can serve vegetables whole, raw, cooked, mashed, or cut up in small pieces. Naturally low in fat and calories, vegetables provide an important source of key nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin A and vitamin C.
Red and orange (acorn squash, butternut squash, carrots, pumpkin, red and orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes)
Legumes (beans such as black, garbanzo, kidney, navy, pinto; peas such as pigeon, split; and lentils) Note: Many legumes are also part of the protein group because of their unique nutritional content.
Starchy (cassava, corn, green lima beans, green peas, jicama, parsnips, plantains, water chestnuts, white potatoes, yam)
Other vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, avocado, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, green peppers, green beans, leeks, mushrooms, okra, onions, radishes, rutabaga, snow peas, turnips, zucchini)
Whole Grains. Aim for 6-11 servings per day. At least half of the grains that children eat should be whole grains. Grains provide an important source of key nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and minerals.
Whole grains (amaranth, barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, oats, popcorn, quinoa, wild rice) Note: This also includes foods made from 100% whole grains, such as whole grain barley, whole rye bread, whole wheat pasta, etc.
Lean Proteins. Aim for 2-3 servings per day. Choose a wide variety of protein-rich foods to make sure you get the variety of nutrients your body needs. Besides providing protein, many foods in this group also provide B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Note: Children and teens who follow a vegetarian diet can get their protein needs met in the Protein Foods Group with nuts, seeds, legumes, and soy products.
Meat (beef, goat, ham, lamb, pork) Note: Choose lean or low-fat meats, such as pork loin, 93% lean ground beef or lean deli meat.
Poultry (chicken, Cornish hen, duck, goose, quail, turkey) Note: Choose lean or low-fat options, such as skinless chicken breasts.
Seafood (anchovy, black sea bass, clam, cod, flounder, haddock, herring, oyster, salmon, scallop, shrimp, trout, and albacore/white tuna) Note: Choose seafood that contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of methylmercury.
Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, chia seeds, flax seeds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, as well as peanut butter and other butters made from nuts or seeds)
Low-fat or fat-free dairy. Aim for 2-3 servings per day. Dairy foods provide an important source of key nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D (in fortified foods), protein, potassium, zinc, choline, magnesium, and selenium.
Milk (including fortified soy milk)
Yogurt and kefir (including soy-based alternatives)
While fats are not a separate category in the USDA guidelines, it’s important to know that kids of all ages need healthy fats (a.k.a. unsaturated fats) for normal growth and development. Healthy fats from the above food groups includes nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, fatty fish (think tuna, salmon, and sardines), vegetable oils (like canola oil and olive oil), avocados, legumes, soy, skinless chicken, seafood, and lean meats.
Foods Children Should Avoid
To nourish your kids with healthy foods, it also helps to know what foods to avoid or limit. Limit children’s intake of foods (especially processed foods) that contain the following ingredients.[4,11,12]
Added sugar. Some foods (like fruit and milk) contain naturally occurring sugars, and they’re okay. But limit foods with added sugars (such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, and honey) as they provide empty calories. Empty calories are found in high-calorie foods that don’t contain many nutrients. Check nutrition labels, especially for foods kids often consume, such as breakfast cereals and drinks. Sodas, sports drinks, and fruit juices are some of the leading causes of childhood obesity. Instead of soda, offer water or low-fat milk. Choose 100% fruit juice with no added sugar, and limit servings. Limit sweets such as candy, cookies, and cake.
Saturated and trans fats. Healthy fats are called unsaturated fats. Limit the unhealthy fats: saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats primarily come from animal sources, such as red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. Trans fats come from foods that primarily contain partially hydrogenated oil. Avoid fried foods. Use healthier cooking methods, including baking, broiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming. The general rule of thumb is that all fats should make up no more than 30% of the calories in a child’s diet.
Sodium. Most children in the U.S. have too much sodium in their daily diets. Encourage snacking on fruits and vegetables instead of chips and cookies. Check nutrition labels and look for products low in sodium.
The Bottom Line
Give children a healthy start in life by building good eating habits when they’re young. Eating healthy foods helps maintain a healthy body weight and reduces the risk of developing chronic conditions. Serve a variety of food from the five major food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and dairy, opting for lean, low-fat, or fat-free foods whenever possible. Limit added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium in children’s diets.
Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.
Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
Lynn is a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) and is a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team at Pharmavite. She has over 20 years of experience in integrative and functional nutrition and has given lectures to health professionals and consumers on nutrition, dietary supplements and related health issues. Lynn frequently conducts employee trainings on various nutrition topics in addition to educating retail partners on vitamins, minerals and supplements. Lynn has previous clinical dietitian expertise in both acute and long-term care, as well as nutrition counseling for weight management, diabetes, and sports nutrition. Lynn earned a bachelor’s of science in Nutrition with a minor in Kinesiology/Exercise Science from The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a M.S. degree in Human Nutrition from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Lynn is an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Sports Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists, Dietitians in Functional Medicine, and holds a certification in Integrative and Functional Nutrition through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.