11 Must-Eat Nutrients for Your Child

Kids can be incredibly picky when it comes to eating, prompting parents to wonder if they’re getting enough nutrition. Here’s a breakdown of 11 important nutrients that kids need for growth and development.

Mother and daughter cooking with vegetables
Photo: Getty Images

Every parent knows that children should be eating a balanced diet. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, they wind up choosing a few foods over and over again. Doing this can deprive them of important nutrients their body needs.

"Good nutrition supports your child's health, growth, and development," says Isla Zyer, nutritionist, blogger, and plant-based nutrition expert. "A healthy diet stabilizes your child's energy, keeps their bones strong, supports their mental health, promotes a healthy weight, and prevents chronic diseases."

According to Harvard University's School of Public Health, a balanced diet for kids contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and protein. They recommend a plate that's half-full of colorful veggies (no, French fries don't count) with the other half split between lean protein and whole grains (like whole wheat pasta or brown rice).

Along with this recommendation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against too much sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, indicating these should represent less of a kid's diet.

Here, we'll take a look at 11 must-eat nutrients for healthy growth and development in children.

What Nutrients Do Children Need?

Wondering exactly what to put on your family's plates? Below, we'll introduce you to some of the most important nutrients kids should have on a daily basis (keeping in mind that every child has different needs based on their age, weight, height, and other factors).


Protein helps a child's body build cells, break down food into energy, fight infection, and carry oxygen. According to the Cleveland Clinic, kids between the ages of 4 and 9 need about 19 grams (g) of protein daily. Those ages 9 to 13 need 34 g each day.

Foods that are good sources of protein include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Dairy products

If your kids are hesitant to eat the foods listed above, they can try the following items, which offer lesser amounts of the important nutrient.

  • Crab cakes
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Quinoa
  • Cottage cheese
  • Green peas
  • Edamame
  • Brussels sprouts


Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy. They help a child's body use fat and protein for building and repairing tissue. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that kids over the age of 1 consume about 130 g of carbohydrates each day. That's usually pretty easy because carbohydrates come in several different forms, like sugars, starches, and fiber. (Kids should be eating more of the starches and fibers and less of the sugar, since consuming high amounts of "bad" carbs like soda, candy, and processed foods is associated with obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.)

Foods that contain high levels of carbohydrates include:

  • Breads
  • Oatmeal
  • Cereals
  • Rice
  • Crackers
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes

Healthy Fats

A great source of energy for kids, fats are easily stored in the body, and they allow for proper usage of other important nutrients. The American Heart Association says to "keep total fat intake between 30 to 35% of calories for children 2 to 3 years of age and between 25 to 35% of calories for children and adolescents 4 to 18 years of age, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils."

Foods that contain high levels of healthy fats include:

  • Whole-milk dairy products
  • Cooking oils
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Nuts


Calcium is essential for building a child's healthy bones and teeth. It's also important for blood clotting and nerve, muscle, and heart function. The FDA recommends that children ages 1 to 3 get 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, while those over 4 years old should strive for 1,300 mg daily

Foods that contain calcium include:

  • Milk
  • Cheeses
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Egg yolks
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Tofu
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Fortified plant-based "milks"
  • Fortified cereals


Iron is necessary to build healthy blood that carries oxygen to cells all over the body. It's also vital for "growth and development, immune function, reproduction, and wound healing," says the FDA. What's more, having sufficient iron stores reduces the risk of anemia. Kids ages 1 to 3 should get about 7 mg of iron daily, while older kids should get increasingly more; check out the recommended amounts from the National Institutes of Health. Adolescent girls who have started menstruating may want to pay closer attention to iron intake.

Foods that contain high levels of iron include:

  • Red meats
  • Poultry (especially dark meat)
  • Shellfish
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Iron-fortified cereals


Vital for soon-to-be parents, folate (one of the B vitamins) is also crucial for healthy growth and development of a child's cells. Lack of this vitamin can cause folate-deficiency anemia. The amount of folate kids need varies by age; for example, those under 6 months need 65 micrograms (mcg) daily, children ages 4 through 8 years old need 200 mcg daily, and teens 14 to 18 years old need 400 mcg daily. Find more dietary recommendations on the National Institute of Health website.

Foods that contain folate include:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Berries
  • Orange juice
  • Asparagus
  • Spinach
  • Black or kidney beans
  • Brussels sprouts


Fiber promotes bowel regularity in a child, and it may also reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease and cancer later in life. Fiber also lowers "bad" cholesterol and controls blood sugar. For kids up to age 3, the FDA recommends 14 g of dietary fiber per day; those ages 4 and older need about 28 g.

Foods that contain high levels of fiber include:

  • Whole-grain cereals
  • Whole-grain breads
  • Chickpeas
  • Kidney beans
  • Seeds
  • Nuts

Vitamin A

Vitamin A serves a variety of purposes in kids and adults. It promotes growth, assists the eyes in adjusting to dim and bright lights, keeps skin healthy, works to prevent infection, and more. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lists the recommended amounts of two sources of vitamin A (preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids) as micrograms of retinol activity equivalents (RAE). There's a wide range of acceptable levels based on age and sex; for example, babies under 6 months should get 400 mcg RAE of vitamin A daily, while kids ages 9 to 13 should get 600 mcg RAE. Find the complete chart on the NIH website.

Foods that contain high levels of vitamin A include:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Apricots
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Fish oils
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Salmon

Vitamin C

Vitamin C does more than just fight off the common cold. It also holds the body's cells together, strengthens the walls of blood vessels, heals wounds, and promotes strong bones and teeth. From ages 4 to 8, kids need about 25 mg of vitamin C daily; that's approximately the amount in half of a small orange. From ages 9 to 13, the recommended daily intake increases to 45 mg, and by the teen years, your child will need to consume between 65 and 75 mg of Vitamin C daily.

Foods that contain high levels of vitamin C include:

  • Citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruit)
  • Orange juice
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupe

Vitamin D

Not only does vitamin D assist with calcium absorption, it also builds strong bones and teeth. What's more, vitamin D is necessary for "many body processes, such as blood pressure regulation, hormone production, and immune and nervous system function," says the FDA. From ages 1 to 3, kids should get about 15 mcg (600 IU) of vitamin D each day. People need about 20 mcg (800 IU) daily after that.

Foods that contain vitamin D include the following:

  • Fortified dairy products (like milk and some yogurts)
  • Fortified cereals
  • Fish and fish oil
  • Eggs
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Mushrooms
  • Pork


Potassium regulates several body functions including heart rhythm, the nervous system, and muscle contraction. Low levels of potassium can lead to muscle weakness and abnormal heart rate. The recommended daily intake is 3,000 mg through age 3 and 4,700 mg for older children and adults, says the FDA.

Foods that contain potassium include:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Orange juice
  • Spinach
  • Beans
  • Prune juice
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Salmon
  • Bananas
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles