What to Feed Kids Every Day

Strike a balance between what your child should be eating and what he's actually eating. Our take-your-pick menu planner gives you plenty of wiggle room.

grains Gemma Comas

Not everything on your kid's plate has to be a superfood. But children need at least a couple of servings daily from each of the five main food groups: grains, healthy fats, fruits and veggies, dairy, and protein. Find out exactly how much your child needs based on her age, see what counts as a portion, and learn why you should bother.

    GRAINS

    At least half of your kids' grain servings should be the unrefined type -- like whole wheat or oats -- because they pack more vitamin E, magnesium, and fiber than their processed counterparts. These "whole" grains may also reduce your kids' risk of asthma, diabetes, and, later in life, heart disease. If your family is having trouble making the transition, look for breads and pastas made with a mix of whole and refined grains. Your kids may not notice the difference. Still, it's okay for kids to have regular pasta or white bread sometimes.

      HOW MANY SERVINGS EACH DAY

      Toddlers (age 2): 3

      Preschoolers (ages 3-4): 3-5

      School-age Kids (ages 5-8): 5

        WHAT'S IN A SERVING

        1/2 cup cooked whole-grain pasta

        3 cups popcorn (for kids 4 and up)

        1/2 cup cooked brown rice

        1 6" whole-wheat or corn tortilla

        50 whole-grain goldfish crackers

        1 cup whole-grain cereal

        1 slice whole-grain bread

        1 mini whole-grain bagel

        1 packet instant oatmeal

          Healthy Fats

          Healthy Fats Gemma Comas

          All kinds of fats help kids grow, transport vitamins through the body, and provide vitamin E. But the unsaturated type, such as the kind in olive oil and peanuts, protects kids' hearts by keeping their cholesterol level low while the saturated kind (think butter) sends it through the roof. Crazy as it sounds, a government report found that 1 in 5 children has high cholesterol!

            HOW MANY SERVINGS EACH DAY

            Toddlers (age 2): 1 of oil per day (Nuts and peanut butter are choking hazards for kids under 4.)

            Preschoolers (ages 3-4): 1 of oil per day; 1-4 of nuts/seeds per week

            School-age Kids (ages 5-8): 1-2 of oil per day; 2-4 of nuts/seeds per week

              WHAT'S IN A SERVING

              1 Tbs. peanut butter

              1/2 medium avocado

              1/2 ounce sunflower seeds

              1/2 ounce nuts (like 16 peanuts or 12 almonds)

              2 Tbs. salad dressing

              1 Tbs. olive, canola, peanut, or flaxseed oil

              4 large olives, sliced

                Fruits and Vegetables

                Fruits and Vegetables Gemma Comas

                Ideally, you'll divide the servings fairly equally between the two. But if you have a picky eater, set this minimum goal: at least one serving of dark-green or orange veggies daily. They have unique disease-preventing compounds. And take comfort in the fact that tomato sauce, salsa, and baked fries count toward your child's veggie servings too.

                  HOW MANY SERVINGS EACH DAY

                  Toddlers (age 2): 2 (Slice whole fruits, even grapes.)

                  Preschoolers (ages 3-4): 2-3

                  School-age Kids (ages 5-8): 2-4

                    WHAT'S IN A SERVING

                    1 cup corn

                    8 large strawberries

                    32 seedless grapes

                    1 cup broccoli

                    1 cup diced cantaloupe

                    1 cup any fresh fruit or veggie

                    10 baked fries

                    12 baby carrots

                      Dairy and Added Calcium

                      Dairy and Added Calcium Gemma Comas

                      If your kid is a milk lover, it'll be no sweat for her to get the 800 milligrams of calcium she needs daily for strong bones and teeth (or just 500mg, if she's between 1 and 3). Otherwise, focus on low-fat yogurt, cheese, and up to 6 ounces of fortified fruit juice. Look for brands that contain vitamin D, which, among many other things, helps kids absorb calcium.

                        HOW MANY SERVINGS EACH DAY

                        Toddlers (age 2): 2

                        Preschoolers (ages 3-4): 2 to 2-1/2

                        School-age Kids (ages 5-8): 2-1/2

                          WHAT'S IN A SERVING

                          1/3 cup shredded cheese

                          3/4 cup fortified orange juice

                          1 cup plain yogurt

                          1 piece string cheese

                          1 cup milk

                          1 cup fortified soy milk

                          1-1/2 ounce part-skim mozzarella or cheddar cheese

                            Lean Protein

                            Lean Protein Gemma Comas

                            Protein-rich foods help build and repair every tissue in the body that kids need to grow. They also contain must-have nutrients -- like iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Shop for the leanest meats (such as skinless chicken, turkey, or a cut of beef with "loin" or "round" in its name) to get protein minus the unhealthy fats. At least once a week, kids should also eat fish and beans, which have nutrients that are not found in meat. Look for seafood such as shrimp, cod, and wild salmon that is low in mercury and is sustainably caught.

                              HOW MANY SERVINGS EACH DAY

                              Toddlers (age 2): 2

                              Preschoolers (ages 3-4): 2-5

                              School-age Kids (ages 5-8): 3-5

                                WHAT'S IN A SERVING

                                1/4 cup tofu

                                1/4 cup kidney beans

                                6 shrimp

                                2 Tbs. hummus

                                1/2 piece grilled chicken

                                1 egg

                                1 slice deli meat

                                1/2 cup black bean soup

                                1/2 small turkey or beef burger

                                  Sample Menus

                                  A Terrific Toddler Menu

                                  Breakfast

                                  1/2 hard-boiled egg

                                  1 piece whole-grain toast

                                  1/2 cup berries

                                  3/4 cup milk

                                  Snack

                                  1 piece string cheese (Slice it to reduce the risk of choking.)

                                  Water

                                  Lunch

                                  1/2 cup mini pasta tossed with 2 tsp. olive oil and 1/2 cup broccoli

                                  3/4 cup milk

                                  Snack

                                  1 small banana (slice it first)

                                  Water

                                  Dinner

                                  1/2 cod filet (sauteed in a little oil)

                                  1/2 cup cooked brown rice

                                  1/2 cup cooked squash

                                  Water

                                  YOU CAN ADD

                                  A 50- to 70-calorie treat like a cookie, ice pop, or mini piece of chocolate

                                    A Day Plan for Preschoolers

                                    Breakfast

                                    Mini whole-grain bagel with 1 Tbs. peanut butter

                                    5 large sliced strawberries

                                    3/4 cup milk

                                    Snack

                                    6 baby carrots and 1/2 cup broccoli with 2 Tbs. low-fat ranch dip

                                    Water

                                    Lunch

                                    Turkey-and-cheese sandwich on whole-grain bread

                                    1/2 cup apple slices

                                    Water

                                    Snack

                                    2 Tbs. hummus

                                    5 whole-grain crackers

                                    Water

                                    Dinner

                                    1/2 small piece (2 ounces) grilled chicken

                                    10 sweet-potato fries

                                    Dinner roll

                                    1/2 cup grapes

                                    3/4 cup milk

                                    YOU CAN ADD

                                    A 50- to 70-calorie treat such as a cookie, ice pop, or mini piece of chocolate

                                      Meals for School Kids

                                      Breakfast

                                      1 cup whole-grain cereal

                                      3/4 cup milk

                                      1 slice cantaloupe

                                      Snack

                                      8 tortilla chips with 1/4 cup each tomato salsa and black beans

                                      Water

                                      Lunch

                                      1-1/2 cups chicken vegetable soup with 5 saltines

                                      1/4 cup raisins

                                      1/2 cup berries

                                      3/4 cup milk

                                      Snack

                                      3 cups oil-popped popcorn sprinkled with 2 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese

                                      Water

                                      Dinner

                                      Turkey burger on a roll

                                      1/2 cup green beans with almond slivers and 2 tsp. olive oil

                                      Orange

                                      3/4 cup milk

                                      YOU CAN ADD

                                      A 50- to 70-calorie treat like a cookie, ice pop, or mini piece of chocolate

                                      Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

                                      Updated December 2012

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