Healthy Diet for Children Ages 2-11
A Guide for Parents and Caregivers
During early childhood, every day is full of exploration and discovery. Food provides children with the calories they need to be active and the nutrients they need for proper growth and development. Here you will find information on your child’s nutritional needs and practical suggestions for a healthier diet.
Key Components of a Healthy Diet for Children
How many calories your child needs depends on age, sex, and activity level. You don’t usually need to worry about tracking calories with children as they are pretty good at self-regulating how much they need to eat. However, it is up to you to provide them with healthy food options and an adequate amount of food. Here are some tips on making sure your child gets the amount of calories :
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your child. About 45%-65% of their calories should come from carbohydrates. In general, try to choose healthy carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. Limit foods that are high in refined flour or added sugar, such as white bread, non-whole grain crackers, cookies, juice, and soda.
Your child needs protein for growth and repair and to build muscle. About 5%-20% of your young child’s calories should come from protein. An older child should aim for 10%-30% of protein. Good sources of protein include poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.
Very young children need a little more fat than older children and adults. Children aged 2-3 should consume about 30%-40% of calories as fat, while those aged four and older should consume 25%-35% of calories as fat. Dietary fat provides essential fatty acids, which are especially important for proper growth and brain development in children. Your child’s fat intake should come mostly from healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils like canola and olive oil. Try nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish as well. Some fish with good fats include salmon, sardines, and tuna.
Vitamins & Minerals
Eating a variety of foods from each of the food groups will help ensure that your child gets all the vitamins and minerals that are needed for proper nutrition. If you feel your child’s diet is not as balanced as it could be, ask the pediatrician about multivitamin supplementation. One way to help ensure picky eaters get all of their vitamins and minerals is to buy fortified breakfast cereal.
While all vitamins and minerals are important, here are a few that are particularly important during childhood:
Diets high in fiber tend to be lower in total calories, fat, and cholesterol than diets that are low in fiber. What’s more, research shows that a high fiber intake may help prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Fiber can also prevent constipation and increase fullness following a meal. To be sure your child is getting enough fiber make sure whole grains make up half of the daily grain intake. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of fiber with multiple nutritional benefits.
While it may not be a nutrient, physical activity is a key component of any healthy diet. Structured exercise is usually not necessary at this age, but see to it that your kids spend at least one hour actively playing every day. Keep TV viewing to a minimum and limit the amount of time spent doing other sedentary activities, such as sitting in front of the computer or playing video games. When possible, get moving with your kids—whether it’s a walk around the block together or throwing a ball back and forth. All movement counts, and you are your child's number one role model.
Eating Guide for Children
This eating guide is based on the United States Department of Agriculture'sChoose My Plate. It lists the main food groups, examples of the recommended daily amount for different ages, as well as suggestions about which foods to choose in each group. The recommended daily amount varies based on your child’s age, weight, sex, and activity level. Use the daily amounts below as a starting guide, then go to the Choose My Plate or SuperTracker websites for more individualized recommendations.
Healthy Eating Ideas
Always start the day off with breakfast. Studies show that kids learn better when fueled with breakfast. Try to include a serving from the grain, milk, and fruit group at each breakfast. Here are some healthy breakfast ideas:
Most children need 2-3 snacks a day: a mid-morning snack, an afternoon snack, and perhaps an evening snack. While it may sometimes be necessary to eat snacks on-the-go , do not get in the habit of feeding your child snacks throughout the day. And like with meal times, keep the TV off during snack time, this will help your child focus on eating and make him less likely to overeat. Here are some healthy snack ideas:
Try to include most of the food groups at lunch. If your child is school-aged, pack balanced lunches. To keep lunch interesting for your child and to help you stay organized , get your child’s input and then set up a rotating lunch schedule. That way you will always know what to pack.
If your child buys lunch, make sure that it is a balanced, healthy meal. The National School Lunch Program is required to provide meals that meet nutritional requirements. In fact, children who participate in the school lunch program tend to eat more vegetables, milk products, and lean proteins, and fewer soft drinks than those who do not. It is when kids purchase food à la carte that lunches are least likely to be healthy.
Ideally, your child should eat dinner with you. Rather than having special meals for your kids, or having your children eat before you, try to eat the same dinner together. Research shows that children who eat dinner with their families tend to have higher quality diets than those who do not. A healthy dinner includes whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and sometimes dessert. Providing fruit for dessert is a good way to get this food group included as well.
On selecting and preparing food:
On helping your child establish a positive relationship with food:
On creating good habits that lead to better nutrition:
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate
Dietitians of Canada
Health Canada Food and Nutrition
Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med . 2000;9(3):235-240.
Health and nutrition information for preschoolers. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers.html . Accessed February 15, 2013.
Nicklas TA, Hayes D, American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: nutrition guidance for healthy children ages 2 to 11 years. J Am Diet Assoc . 2008;108(6):1038-1044.
Nutrition (pediatric preventive care). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what . Updated February 7, 2013. Accessed February 15, 2013.
Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Active children and adolescents. US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter3.aspx . Updated October 6, 2008. Accessed February 15, 2013.
Last reviewed June 2013 by Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN