Make healthy shopping and cooking changes now—our simple nutrition guidelines get you started.
Teaching children to eat healthfully these days is, unfortunately, more complicated than just encouraging them to eat their
Brussels sprouts. Studies suggest that many children often skip breakfast, and missing a morning meal has been linked with
lower overall intakes of a variety of nutrients. Kids are also eating more foods prepared outside of the home (which often
means bigger portions), drinking more sodas and consuming less dairy (which is important for growing strong bones).
What’s more, in the last 30 years the percentage of U.S. children aged 6 to 11 who are overweight has nearly tripled. As
childhood obesity becomes more common, diseases previously only seen in adults are becoming increasingly prevalent in
children. For example, estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that one in three American
children born in 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes at some point during their lives. Other research shows that plaque
building up inside arteries—the most common cause of heart disease—can begin in childhood.
Bottom line: Adults need to teach children good eating habits that ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need—but not too
many calories. To that end, the nutrition experts at EatingWell offer the following tips and guidelines.
Introduce a variety of produce
By learning to love fruits and vegetables while they are young, kids will develop food preferences that can help lower their
risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers later in life. A produce-rich diet is also naturally lower in calories and
fat and higher in vitamins and minerals. According to the latest recommendations from the USDA, kids ages 2 to 3 should have
1 cup each of fruit and vegetables each day. Kids ages 4 to 8 should have 1½ cups of fruit and 1½ cups of vegetables; and
kids 9 to 12 need 1½ cups of fruit and 2 to 2½ cups of vegetables. What counts as a cup? Click here. Aim to serve a colorful
variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week.
Balance calories with exercise.
Kids should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous play or physical activity each day. Limiting their “screen time” (i.e.,
watching TV, playing video games, e-mailing and instant-messaging) to two hours each day will help accomplish this goal. The
number of “discretionary calories” (those spent on “extras” once nutrient needs are met) varies greatly between sedentary and
active kids. Kids who are active have a discretionary-calorie allowance of about 200 to 500 calories a day, whereas sedentary
kids only have 100 to 150—about the amount in an 8-ounce juice box or a handful of pretzels.
Keep fat low.
Children under 2 need a certain amount of fat in their diets to help the brain and nervous system develop correctly. Fat also
aids in the absorption of some vitamins: vitamins A, D, E and K can only be absorbed if there's some fat in the diet. While
toddlers can drink richer whole or 2% milk, older kids (2+) should drink low-fat or skim milk, along with the rest of the
family. Additionally, children ages 2 to 3 should eat a varied diet with about 30 to 35 percent of calories coming from fat.
For ages 4 to 18 years, the recommendations decrease to 25 to 35 percent of calories from fat.
Although eating adequate amounts of fat is an important part of a healthy diet, many kids today are eating too much of it,
leading to weight gain. The major sources of saturated fat and cholesterol in children’s diets are full-fat milk and cheese
and fatty meats. To keep your child’s fat intake in check, offer low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat in appropriate portion
sizes, as well as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, which are naturally low in fat. Make an effort to choose healthy,
unsaturated fats like canola, olive and other vegetable oils over butter and other solid fats.
Bone up on calcium.
During childhood and adolescence, the body uses calcium to build strong bones—a process that's all but complete by the end of
the teen years. Getting enough calcium at a young age is important to prevent osteoporosis later on. Yet more than 85 percent
of girls and 60 percent of boys aged 9 to 18 fail to get the recommended 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day (kids aged 4 to
8 years old need 800 mg; toddlers aged 1 to 2 years need 500 mg). The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 cups of low-fat or
nonfat milk or dairy products per day for children 2 to 8 years old and 3 cups for children 9 years and older.
Choose whole grains.
Studies indicate that eating whole grains reduces your long-term risk of cancer and heart disease. On average, most
school-age children need 6 to 8 ounces of grains a day and active teens may need as many as 9 or 10 ounces. (A slice of
bread, a half-cup of cooked rice, pasta or oatmeal are examples of 1 ounce.) At least half of those servings should come from
whole grains. The other half can come from enriched (e.g., refined or “white”) grains. Good whole-grain sources include
whole-grain cereals, brown rice, whole-grain breads and whole-wheat pastas.
Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and foods.
A little sugar, particularly if it’s in a food that provides other important nutrients, is fine. For example, a tiny bit of
added sugar on whole-grain cereal can enhance the taste and encourage kids to eat it. But the average teen consumes about
twice as much sugar as recommended and sugary foods and beverages tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients. Instead
of giving your child sugar-sweetened foods, offer healthier choices, such as fruit, which is naturally sweet. Sodas and other
sweetened drinks, including fruit juices, also contribute significantly to total caloric intake and should be limited to an
occasional treat. For kids of all ages, water and milk are the best drink choices.
The American Heart Association recommends everyone aim for two servings of fish each week. But you may wonder whether you
should feed your kids fish because much of the seafood we consume contains mercury, an environmental toxin that’s especially
dangerous for children’s smaller, still-developing nervous systems. Our advice is to serve fish regularly, but choose it
wisely: the Food and Drug Administration (along with the Environmental Protection Agency) recommends some specific guides for
safe seafood consumption for young children.
Children should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish—large “predatory” fish that tend to accumulate high
levels of mercury. But kids can safely consume up to 12 ounces (two or three average meals) of fish and shellfish that are
lower in mercury; five of the most commonly eaten varieties of fish are low in mercury: shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon,
pollock (commonly used in fish sticks) and catfish. However, no more than 6 ounces (1 medium can) should come from albacore
(premium white) tuna each week.
It’s a good idea to limit fried fish, too: recent evidence suggests that commercially fried fish products may be low in
omega-3 fatty acids and high in trans-fatty acids, and do not provide the same benefits as other sources of fish.
Eating right is just part of the equation for healthy kids. On average, American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend over
six hours a day watching TV or playing video games—time that previous generations probably spent playing outdoors or in some
type of physical activity. Encourage your children to make physical exercise part of their daily lives by doing physically
active things together. Take a walk or bike ride, turn on the music and dance or play games that keep both you and the kids
moving: try playing tag or jumping rope, Frisbee (both indoor or outdoor), or competitions like “Who can hop the fastest from
here to there?” or “Race you to the streetlight!” Keeping your children active will improve their well-being and help them
maintain a healthy weight, and doing activities together can create traditions and memories you’ll all treasure.