A Parent's Guide to Nutrition for Kids - Part 1

Believe it or not, the nutritional needs of children have not changed much in the last 20 years. However, the world they live in certainly has. It is quite a different childhood experience for kids and teens, with fast food restaurants on every corner, big-gulp colas, 50 or more TV channels to surf, text messaging, mall hopping, video games, and iPods. It is important that we update our parental nutrition lessons to help them form the best possible eating habits for life in the 21st century. 

Blueprint for a Healthy Diet 
The MyPlate model is currently the best blueprint for building a balanced diet. At http://www.choosemyplate.gov/, you can obtain a personalized nutrition plan for each member of the family. A healthy diet will help your children build bodies that go the distance. Here is what they need most each day.


 Food Group

 Serving Size

# of Servings 

A Serving Looks Like...


bread, cereal, rice, pasta

*Go for whole grains at least 1/2 of the time.

- 1 slice bread
- 1 oz cereal
- 1/2 cup pasta, rice, grits, hot cereal
- 1/2 English muffin, bun, bagel
- 1 tortilla
- 1 small muffin

Kids 6-12
6-9 servings

Teen Girls
6-9 servings

Teen Boys
9-11 servings

1/2 cup = tennis ball

1 oz. = a large fist


 - 1/2 cup juice

- 1/2 cup cooked

- 1 cup raw, leafy

 Kids 6-12
3-4 servings

Teen Girls
3-4 servings

Teen Boys
4-5 servings

 1/2 cup = tennis ball

1 cup = a large fist


- 1/2 cup juice
- 1 medium fruit
- 1 cup berries
- 1/2 cup canned 
- 1/2 grapefruit
- 1/4 cantaloupe
- 1/4 cup dried

 Kids 6-12
2-3 servings

Teen Girls
2-3 servings

Teen Boys
3-4 servings

 1/4 cup = golf ball

1/2 cup = tennis ball

1 cup = a large fist

 Dairy Products

- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup yogurt
- 1 oz cheese
- 1/2 cup cottage cheese, pudding, frozen yogurt

 Kids 6-12
2-3 servings

Teen Girls
3+ servings

Teen Boys
3+ servings

 1 oz cheese = 4 dice

 Meats & Beans

- 2-3 oz cooked, lean meat or fish
- 2 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup nuts, seeds
- 1/2 cup cooked peas or beans

 Kids 6-12
2-2.5 servings

Teen Girls
2-2.5 servings

Teen Boys
2-3 servings

 3 oz meat = deck of cards

2 tbsp = ping pong ball

1/4 cup = golf ball

1/2 cup = tennis ball


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Member Comments

I wouldn't apply this to my children. Report
Interesting discussion and article. Thanks for sharing. Report
clears up a few things Report
Good article. Report
good points Report
I rember the old saying,you can lead a horse to water but you can"t make him drink.I try so hard to help my son to lose weight.I'll buy fruits and vegetables that he likes to eat.I don't buy chips, a person can't eat foods they don't buy. Report
This article presupposes that the food pyramid/food plate, or whatever the USDA is calling it, is the way to eat. I was a follower of the "eat low fat foods and lots of whole grains" for most of my adult life. I was even fairly active here on Sparkpeople. That is until last year, when my wife's Dr. suggested she increase her protein and reduce her carbohydrate intake in order to lower her cholesterol. I was skeptical of this so I did a lot of research and discovered the benefits many people have been getting by cutting out all grains and replacing that with full-fat dairy, meat, eggs, nuts and a healthy dose of veggies. The movie "Fat Head" (it's on Netflix streaming) opened our eyes and since March of last year we've essentially cut out all "healthy whole grains" as well as any food that comes from a box.

The result? My HDL went from 62(already pretty good) to 89 and my Ttl Cholesterol/HDL ratio went from 2.82 to 2.39. My wife had similar dramatic results. I even managed to get my Father (a 25 yr follower of a Dr Ornish/Vegan diet who was having issues with increasing blood sugar) to make the same basic dietary changes and his results were the same-much higher HDL, lower LDL, lower blood sugar.

The point of this is that there is an increasing amount of evidence that the "low fat, high grain" diet that has been advocated for the last 25 years or so may be the exact reason our rates of type 2 diabetes, childhood and adult obesity and heart disease are increasing dramatically.

I personally believe that the "Experts" are so heavily invested in this that they can't/won't change for fear of losing the Government grant money they depend on.

Just some food for thought! Report
Unlike some government guidelines which proceeded it, the food pyramid does not provide the cleares or healhiest approach to eating, The servings in the "grain" section, for example, is quite high for most adults -- yes, I do understand portion size -- and does NOT emphasize the need for complex carbs over simple starches like muffins and bagels and kid's cereals. I also concur that it's erroneous to think that any processed item mentioned -- including fruit juice drinks - are an appropriate substitute for "real foods" on a consistent basis. Nor does the vegetable section differentiate the colors/ nutrients/ types of vegetables. So, a heavy dose of potatoes -- ie., french-fires -- is often counted as meeting the veggie needs. And simlar thinking earlier led to ketcup (heavily processed and laden with high fructose corn syrup) and canned pickles being counted as the vegetable serving(s) when served on a burger in school lunches!! There are better guidelines available for healthier eating that consider "real" foods over processed junk-foods, yet are over-the-top fanatical, and are children-friendly
. -- Maryjean Report
This article is in serious need of repair. The Pyramid never did make sense and the plate is only a hair better. 6-9 servings of starch for little kids? That's crazy. Three would be more than enough. Would you really let your kid eat 9 slices of bread or 9 tortillas in one day? I would hope not. Report
Makes me sad to think that so many people are so messed up about food that they have no idea what to feed their kids. It terrifies me to hear about CHILDREN who are obsessed and worrying about how much they weigh, and what they are supposed to weigh, etc. Please, please, please people DO NOT do this to your kids and create another generation of messed up humans! Eat food, REAL food, not processed white garbage and fast food, and feed that to your kids, too. Let them eat when they are hungry: fruits, vegetables, and whole grains AS MUCH AS THEY LIKE. I have three kids, two are now adults, and one is still an active, wonderful ten year old. None of them have weight issues. They eat real food. Junk is discouraged. So is playing video games for hours. They ride bikes, participate in activities that interest them: interestingly NONE of them went for team sports, but I have a weight lifter, a SCUBA diver and a budding gymnast. If YOU don't eat crap, THEY won't either. Sometimes, they needed to eat a lot more for a period of time: I call it a growth spurt. Other times, their appetities wane. As long as they are eating mostly REAL FOOD they will be fine. I would have been, too, if my family wasn't brought up on white bread and a mother who obsessed continually about being fat and calories and weight loss. (She is still fat, BTW, after a lifetime of being grumpy, short with her children, and constantly dieting.....)
Sorry: had to get all that off my chest :^)
Love them, and give them good whole foods, and they will be beautiful! Report
As Becky surely must know, the food pyramid was finally let go and replaced by "choose my plate" which encourages filling half your plate with veggies and fruits, etc. Even her link goes there. Hopefully it is a more helpful message and fits beautifully with SparkPeople as fruits and veggies are great food value--more nutrients per calorie. Report
A site for Healthy lunch ideas I found.
s.com/ Report
Anyone got a site w/ good lunch bag recipes? Easy/Quick/Nutrit
ious Report
I suffer from major PORTION DISTORTION!!! Report
I think alot of us don't really realize what a serving of grains look like. 1/2c of grains cooked is about the size of tennis ball. A serving on the food guide pyramid for grains is 1/2 cup cooked for many grains (oatmeal, barley, rice, pasta or in other words approximately 80 calories per serving. 5 servings of grains would only be 400 calories from grains. That is less than half of your calories if following 1500-1600 calories. Whole grains are important because they contain fiber and fiber is what helps us stay full and prevent constipation, diverticulosis, colon cancer etc. Whole grains also contain many B vitamins. Fruits and vegetables are also a great source of fiber but lack many B vitamins. If you choose not to have dairy in your diet, just make sure to take calcium and vitamin D from other sources. Report

About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.