Those first few years of your child’s life can be overwhelming as you try to figure out how to feed them what their body needs. But what about when your little one is elementary-, middle- or high school-aged? What and how much should your child be eating during these important years of development? How do you emphasize the importance of healthy eating when there’s much less supervision? We’ll delve into these topics—and more—in this guide to healthy eating for kids.
What is a balanced diet for a child?
Balanced eating for school-aged kids actually doesn’t look much different than for an adult. The concepts and proportions are pretty similar, but the amounts are different, as you can imagine.
Harvard’s School of Public Health offers the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate for adults and a counterpart for children called the Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate. Both illustrate each meal and snack plate being made up of half fruit and veggies, a quarter whole grains and a quarter of healthy protein. Both also emphasize integrating healthy oils and lots of water into the diet—as well as staying active. The big difference is that on the kid’s plate there is a small glass of milk to signify the need for some dairy every day. Here’s a closer look into each of these food groups:
If your kids love veggies, let them have as much as they want. There’s no need to stick to a half or quarter of the plate. The more variety of colours the better—each colour represents a different vitamin or mineral. Starchy veggies, like potatoes, don’t count here as they provide nutrition more similar to a grain than a vegetable. (Check out this list of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.)
Similar to vegetables, fruits are a great food for your kid to eat lots of, and of all different varieties. Offer your child whole fruit as opposed to fruit juice as it provides fibre and less sugar. Try to limit juice to one glass daily—or better yet, make one of these fruit smoothies.
Whole, rather than refined, is really important when choosing grains to feed your child as whole grains provide much more nutrition in the way of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Plus, there are lots of delicious options when it comes to choosing whole grains—brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, barley and quinoa are great places to start. Whole grains are foods that should always be in your kitchen—see other healthy pantry staples.
Protein is so important for your child’s growth. Some healthy protein options include eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, peas, fish and poultry. Avoid red meats like lamb, pork and beef as well as processed meats like deli meats, bacon, brats and hot dogs as these foods can contribute to chronic illness down the line.
The right type of fats are really important to integrate into your child’s diet to help reduce inflammation and absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Heart-healthy fats often tend to be liquid at room temperature like canola, olive, sunflower and safflower seed oils. Avocado is also an incredible source of healthy fat. Try to limit unhealthy options like butter, fatty meat and excessive amounts of cheese.
Credible research is still underway on what the right amount of dairy is for a child. But seeing as dairy is such a good source of calcium and vitamin D, offering some to your kid every day is a good idea. One to two servings daily should be plenty. Yogurt, milk and small amounts of cheese are great options. If your child doesn’t eat any dairy at all, speak to your pediatrician about whether he or she may need calcium and vitamin D supplements. (Your child may like one of these breakfast recipes featuring yogurt.)
How much should my child eat?
Once your child is out of the toddler phase, it’s hard to nail down the exact amount of calories he or she should eat. After all, there’s so much variation in kids’ size and activity level. A great rule of thumb is to offer your kids three balanced meals and healthy snacks daily and let them tell you if they’re full or still hungry. Kids tend to be much more in tune with their body’s satiety signals, so this should be a reliable indicator of whether they’re eating enough. Seek the advice of a dietitian or pediatrician on specific calorie levels only if your child isn’t gaining enough weight or seems to be gaining too much weight for his age.
How do you explain healthy eating to a child?
Maybe most importantly, how do you illustrate the importance of making healthy food choices to your kids? As they get older they’re away from you much more and likely surrounded by unhealthy food options. One great tactic is to focus on whatever your child’s passion is, whether it be sports, creative endeavors or something else. Eating healthfully will enable their bodies and minds to perform at a peak level. You could also use the argument that healthy eating can help keep them from getting sick. Perhaps most importantly, be a good role model and avoid make sure you avoid bad eating habits.
The battle of trying to get your child to eat healthy can seem incredibly daunting, but with creativity, knowledge and honesty, you can have a leg up in helping her make good choices. By offering healthy foods at home, packing healthy lunches and sending kids to activities with healthy snacks, you can help influence at least some of what they’re are eating. For more detailed information, always be sure to seek advice from your pediatrician or registered dietitian.
Next, check out the superfoods you should add to your kid’s diet.