Confused about what to feed your kids? Here's everything you need to know about which foods kids should be eating every day (or as often as they'll accept them) for optimal growth and development, according to a dietitian.
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It's hard enough figuring out what to eat for yourself, but feeding your kids can be even more confusing. As a working parent myself and registered dietitian, I can relate to the struggles of keeping up with cooking and making sure your kids are getting the healthy meals they need. The good news is, nutrition recommendations for kids are somewhat similar those for adults. After all, kids and adults need the same nutrients to stay healthy and thrive each day. The key difference lies in the amount of nutrients that kids need. Kids are always growing, and their bodies need to be properly fueled to support growth and development—especially during those growth spurts!

Portrait of cheerful girl with food plate in kitchen
Credit: Getty Images / The Good Brigade

Because kids' appetites can change day-to-day (something that's totally normal), it can make you wonder if they're getting what they need. The bottom line is that if they're growing well, then they're getting what they need. And offering them a variety of foods from the categories below can help ensure that. Keep reading for my go-to basics on how to make sure your kids are getting key nutrients for healthy growth and development, plus easy kid-approved recipes that will make doing so delicious.

1. Lean protein sources

Slow-Cooker Chicken Parmesan Meatballs

Our bodies, and our kids' bodies, are built with protein. So whether they're growing muscles, their brains or any other tissue, eating sufficient protein is essential for their health. Generally, kids do well with protein at lunch and dinnertime, but it is often missing at snacks and breakfast. Consider serving Greek yogurt or eggs at breakfast in order to boost protein in the morning, and include protein-rich foods such as nuts, nut butters, hummus or other bean dips with snacks to keep the protein supply up throughout the day. Lean meats, poultry and fish are wonderful sources of protein, and plant-based sources, such as tofu, beans and peas, deliver fiber too.

2. Vitamin D- and calcium-rich foods

Bone health is something many people don't pay attention to until later in life. However, the rate at which kids grow means they need vitamin D and calcium to support healthy bone growth. Unfortunately, most Americans (both children and adults) do not eat sufficient vitamin D or calcium. Though we can make our own vitamin D from the sun, we can't solely rely on that, so it's important to find ways to incorporate vitamin D into our diets. Good sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, fortified nondairy milks (e.g., soy or almond milks) and some oily fish such as salmon. Calcium is widespread in our food supply; good sources include milk and milk products, fortified nondairy milks and green leafy vegetables, like kale.

3. Healthy fats

Peanut Butter-Banana Cinnamon Toast

Fats caught a bad rap when we were growing up. Who remembers all the fat-free and low-fat snacks from the '90s? But fats are an important part of a healthy diet, for both kids and adults. Healthy fats provide energy for activity, growth and to maintain proper cellular form and function. Good sources of healthy unsaturated fats include avocados, nuts, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, herring) and olive oil. Including some of these sources every day can help keep kids energized and feeling good!

And to clear up any confusion—the problems we see related to childhood obesity and youth-onset type 2 diabetes can often be traced back to certain types of fats and the food sources they're found in, namely the sweet and processed foods that are often high in saturated fat (the kind that can do harm when we eat too much) and low in other nutrients. These foods can most definitely be part of a healthy diet for kids, and not completely restricting them can set kids up to have healthier eating habits later in life. But prioritizing healthy whole foods more often ensures your little ones will get the key nutrients they need.

4. Whole grains

No-Sugar-Added Oatmeal Cookies

Speaking of energy, our bodies' primary and preferred source of energy is carbohydrates. However, not all sources of carbs are created equal. Whole grains, for example, are rich sources of carbohydrates that also pack a nutritious punch of fiber, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iron and many other beneficial nutrients.

Whole grains are exactly what they sound like—the grain is still intact, including the bran (where you'll find fiber), germ (where you'll find protein, vitamins and minerals) and the endosperm (where you'll find the carbohydrates). Refined grains are more shelf-stable because they have been stripped of the bran and germ (and many of their nutrients), leaving only the endosperm behind. Without the fiber to blunt the impact, refined grains in large portions can lead to blood sugar spikes. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making at least half of your grains whole grains, so you can certainly still serve white pasta, white bread and white rice, too.

Good sources of whole grains include rolled or steel-cut oats, whole-wheat bread and pasta, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat and barley, among others. Serving these alongside legumes like black or red beans can also create a complete protein source.

5. Fruit and vegetables

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No guide to kids' nutrition would be complete without fruits and veggies. These are the foundation upon which the rest of our kids' diets should be built. Both fruit and veggies are wonderful sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carbohydrates and fiber. They also can add diversity in terms of color, flavor and texture to our kids' diets to keep them interested and to help expand their culinary horizons.

Throughout much of the U.S., fruits and veggies are available year-round in grocery stores. Both fresh and frozen are great options. My favorite way to shop for produce—and get my kids interested in fruits and veggies—is to visit the local farmers' market, where we can meet and support the people who grow the food and where we can get the freshest, most in-season produce available (read: extra flavorful). Bringing your kids to the farmers' market is a great way to introduce them to all sorts of new fruits and veggies and have them buy into trying a wide variety.

In the fall and winter, some great in-season fruits and veggies include apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit, grapes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, butternut squash, acorn squash, turnips, rutabaga, sweet potatoes and yams. Kids' taste buds may be more drawn to eat "sweeter" fruits and veggies, so include those in your offerings to up their intake.

Fruits and veggies help us to eat the rainbow, which in turn provides the widest variety of nutrients and antioxidants to keep us feeling our best and keep our kids growing toward their potential.

Bottom Line

Feeding your kids can feel daunting at times. Just remember to focus as much as you can on offering a variety of healthy and delicious foods. Appetites and preferences can wax and wane over time, and that's OK! Stick with it and you may be pleasantly surprised by the adventurous eaters you can raise.