We hear about how much of each key macronutrient we should consume and this advice varies depending on who you listen to. But what about your children? What does the research say makes up a balanced diet for kids? In this article, we will share the breakdown of how much of each food group your child should eat, and ideas for well-balanced snacks and meals.
According to a recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, there are key issues for school-age children when it comes to a well-balanced diet. Children today are not receiving enough fruits, vegetables, calcium, vitamin D, and fiber. They also found that children are overeating nutrient-poor snacks, sugar-sweetened foods, and sugary beverages. Let’s talk about what the research recommends. During mealtime, achieve a balanced meal by dividing your child’s plate into sections. 50% of your child’s plate should be carbs, 30% should be fat, 20% should be protein.
Aim to include whole grains rather than refined grains in your child’s diet. Examples of whole grains include whole or cracked wheat, oats or oatmeal, rye, barley, corn, brown or wild rice, and quinoa. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, plus several B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
Fruits and Vegetables
A colorful variety of fruits and vegetables should be offered each day. Researchers encourage the consumption of whole fruit rather than fruit juice. CDC recommendations range from 1-2 cups for fruit and 1-3 cups for vegetables per day. Strategies that parents can use to increase fruit and vegetable consumption include:
- Provide “hands on” experience with fruits and vegetables through gardening, grocery shopping, and cooking
- Cut fruits and vegetables into shapes that the child can dip
- See how colorful your child can make their plate
- Be a role model by eating fruits and vegetables for snacks and during meals
- Add vegetables to sandwiches, pasta, chili, soups, casseroles, and pizza
- Add fruit to cereal or pancakes
For children older than two years, a safe range of fiber intake equals the age (in years) plus 5 to 10 g per day (maximum 30 g per day). So if your child is 7 years old, they should get between 12-17g of fiber a day. This goal is best met by eating a variety of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, cereals, and whole-grain products. One-half cup of vegetables or one piece of fruit provides approximately 3 g of fiber.
Ways to include carbohydrates in your child’s diet:
- Carrot, cumber, capsicum, celery, snow pea veggie sticks
- Rolled oat porridge or oatmeal
- Roast potato, sweet potato or parsnip chips
- Whole grains such as wild rice, millet, quinoa and barley
- Brown rice crackers
We get heavy protein in our diets but many people believe we need more protein than we do. Contrary to this belief, 10% to 30% of your calorie intake should come from protein according to the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences.
- Children ages 4 to 9 need 19 grams of protein each day. Those between ages 9 and 13 need 34 grams.
- For adolescents, ages 14 to 18, it varies by gender: Boys need 52 grams and girls need 46 grams.
When choosing and preparing meat, poultry, and other high-protein foods, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency recommend that children eat one to two servings of fish/shellfish per week.
Animal products are not necessary to provide optimal protein, but most alternative sources from plants do not contain a full complement of essential amino acids. Therefore, more meal planning is required for diets without meat.
Overall, children should get enough protein every day, specifically two servings of lean protein, such as lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, Greek yogurt, or meat alternatives.
Ways to include protein in your child’s diet:
- Omelette or scrambled eggs
- Buckwheat pancakes
- Homemade baked beans on sourdough
- Greek yoghurt
- Tuna pasta salad
- Chicken casserole
- Roast with vegetables
- Spaghetti and meatballs
Within fats are oils, some vegetables, nuts and nut butter, and dairy. There are some foods that are packed with healthy fats and protein such as nuts, dairy products, and fish.
- For children 2-3 years-old, total fat intake should be between 30-40% of energy intake.
- For children 4-18 years-old, total fat intake should be between 25-35% of energy intake.
Most fats should come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids rather than trans or saturated fatty acids. To remove the confusion about what type of fat your child should consume, stick with natural forms of fat across the food groups and avoid fried foods and highly processed snack foods.
Ways to include fat in your child’s diet:
- Avocado on crackers or guacamole
- Greek or coconut yoghurt with nuts and seeds
- Hard cheeses
- Salmon with veggies
- Veggies drizzled with olive oil
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Egg muffins or frittata
- Smoothie with avocado or coconut milk
The AHA recommends that consumption of:
- Added sugars be avoided in children under 2 years of age
- Added sugars be limited to ≤25 g (approximately 100 kilocalories or 6 teaspoons) in children older than 2 years of age
To stay well hydrated, children ages 1-3 years need approximately 4 cups of beverages per day, including water or milk. This increases for older kids to around 5 cups for 4-8-year-olds, and 7-8 cups for older children.
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. Feeding the child. In: Pediatric Nutrition, 8th ed, Kleinman RE, Greer FR (Eds), American Academy of Pediatrics, Itasca, IL 2019. p.189.
Gidding et.al, Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents: a guide for practitioners: American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics Circulation. 2005;112(13):2061.