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

Adequate Calories

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:
  • Serve small portion sizes. Serving too much food at one time encourages overeating, but always give your child more food if desired. Do not limit the number of servings.
  • Children have small stomachs and short attention spans, so spread food out over the course of the day. But rather than allowing your child to graze all day, try to have set eating times—three meals and two or three snacks per day usually works well.
  • Focus on providing your child with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the different food groups and limit foods that are high in added sugar or fat.
  • Serve juice occasionally, or never. Do not serve soda at all. These drinks are full of sugar, and it's easy to fill up on them.

Carbohydrates

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.

Protein

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.

Fat

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:
  • Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. Good sources include milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified cereal, and canned salmon.
  • Vitamin D is necessary for the body to use the calcium that is consumed. Good sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, salmon, and egg yolks. Exposure to sunlight will allow your body to make vitamin D, but should be limited due to the dangers of too much sun exposure.
  • Not getting enough of iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which can affect your child’s growth and ability to learn. Good sources of iron include lean meats and fortified breakfast cereals.

Fiber

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.

Physical Activity

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.

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