What do I need to know about feeding my preschooler and school-aged child?
Kids this age should basically follow the same principles of a healthy diet that adults should follow. They should eat a variety of foods from all the food groups. It's especially important at this age that you set a good example for your children with your food choices and your attitude toward food.
- To make sure your child is eating right, read these tips for feeding young children, which features ideas about how to make mealtimes good times for your kid, as well as nutrition information.
- Check out this info about Nutrition for the School - Aged Child.
- Here are some tips for packing nutritious lunches for your child's school days.
- Introducing new foods to your preschooler—the key to preventing picky eating.
- Read about the importance of family mealtime, and how to make it go smoothly.
How can I make sure my teen is getting good nutrition?
As your child grows up, you have less and less control over what they eat. We can only help our kids develop good eating habits early on, and hope that they will stay with them. When your teen eats at home, take advantage of that time to get wholesome food into his or her body. Mealtime continues to be an important family time, so keep the television off while you're eating.
Here are some useful resources for your teen:
- Eating well while eating out. In Spanish: Comer bien afuera
- Smart snacking on the go. In Spanish: Refrigerios inteligentes
- What do food labels really say? In Spanish: Información nutricional
- Recipes for Teens—includes recipes for people with special nutritional needs
How do I know if my child is getting enough to eat and growing properly?
Is your child following their growth curve? The percentile your child falls into is not so important. Instead, look for steady growth that follows the curve. If you have questions or concerns about your child's growth chart, ask their doctor or nurse practitioner.
- Find out about using growth charts to plot out your child's growth.
- In Spanish: Tablas de crecimiento.
- Body Mass Index (BMI) is now used to chart kids' growth. It's not used the same way for kids as for adults, so read here about how to use it for kids, and check out the BMI calculator.
What if I'm concerned about my child's or teen's weight being too low or too high?
Read YourChild: Obesity and Overweight and Eating Disorders for information and resources relating to overweight and underweight concerns. Also see Your Child's Weight for a short discussion of these issues. Talk to your child's health care provider about your concerns.
How can we make family meals work in our busy family?
Hard to find time for home-cooked meals for those family meals? Believe it or not, fast food may not actually save you time or money. Try batch-cooking—also called cooking once a month—and freezing.
Here are some more tips and tools for making family meals work:
- Enjoying the Family Meal
- Say “YES” to Family Meals
- Let’s Talk About Mealtime
- Family meal calendar, "design a dinner" and grocery list worksheet
- The SpendSmart EatSmart site from Iowa State University offers tips for planning, shopping and eating, including recipes and food prep video.
How much milk or juice should kids drink?
If your child doesn't seem to want to eat food, but drinks lots of milk and juice, they may be filling up on calories from these liquids. After age two, most kids should switch to reduced fat milk (skim or 1% milk fat). Even kid's arteries can clog up if they eat (or drink) too much saturated fat. Talk to your pediatrician about how much milk your child should be drinking.
Juice is not as nutritious as fresh whole fruit. If your child drinks juice, read the label carefully, and make sure it is 100% fruit juice. A yummy alternative to juice is a fruit smoothie made with whole fruit and yogurt in the blender.
Here are the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines on giving juice to kids:
- Sipping juice all day can lead to tooth decay.
- For children ages 1 to 6, intake of fruit juice should be limited to 4 to 6 ounces per day (about a half to three-quarters of a cup).
- For kids ages 7 to 18, juice intake should not be more than between 8 and 12 ounces a day.
- All children and teens should be encouraged to eat whole fruits.
To reduce the amount of milk or juice your child takes in, try diluting your child's milk or juice with water, and each day gradually adding more water until your child is drinking plain water to quench their thirst. This will help them make the change little by little.
What about soda pop?
That brings us to soda pop. And of course, children should not drink soda pop or other sweetened drinks as a daily beverage. Soda pop fills you up with either empty calories or artificial sweeteners, and often contains caffeine. Soda pop-sippers need to know that it's also terrible for your teeth to have acidic, sugary liquid passing over them all day long. If your family likes these drinks, save them for an occasional, special treat. Water should be your main thirst-quencher. Keep filtered water, 100% fruit juice, and skim milk or soy milk in your refrigerator instead of soda pop. Encourage your teenaged kids to avoid soda pop. Drinking lots of soda pop has been linked to increased risk of bone loss because it replaces healthy beverages in the diet, and may interfere with calcium absorption. It is critical to get enough calcium from birth through adolescence.
What about picky eaters?
A picky eater can drive you nuts. How do you know if you need to worry? Again, as long as your child has energy and is healthy and growing, they are probably getting enough food. If you are concerned, check with their doctor. Find out some tips for when there's a picky eater at home.
Find out more: Listen to a podcast interview with UMHS pediatrician Dr. Julie Lumeng about Picky Eaters: Turning 'Yuck' into 'Yum' .
Is snacking okay?
Snacks are great if your kid eats healthy snack foods. Think of snacks as mini-meals, and use them to get more grains, fruits, and vegetables into your child's diet. Keep healthy snacks ready and available to your kids. Bring healthy snacks with you on outings, instead of relying on fast food. Here are some ideas for healthy, no-cook, kid-friendly snacks:
- Cut softer raw vegetables or fruit into chunks. Skewer them onto thin pretzel sticks. To prevent discoloration, dip apples, bananas, or pears in orange juice after they're cut.
- Although it can be challenging getting some children to eat them, vegetables are a child's best friends. Especially when eaten raw, the nutritional value in vegetables can't be beat. Try broccoli or cauliflower flowerets, carrot or celery sticks, green pepper slices, cherry tomatoes or tomato wedges, zucchini sticks, and more. Cut them into sticks or coins. Then dip them into salsa, hummus, or yogurt dip. These are great alternatives to high-fat dips made with mayonnaise or sour cream.
- For older children, try making your own air-popped popcorn -- kids like to watch as it flies out of the popper.
- Peel a banana. Dip it in yogurt, then roll in crushed breakfast cereal, and freeze.
- Put 1/2 cup low fat plain or fruit yogurt and 1/2 cup cold 100% fruit juice in a non-breakable, covered container. Make sure the lid is tight. Then shake it up, and pour into a cup. Kids also go for blender smoothies, made with yogurt and whole fruit. Whole fruit is healthier than fruit juice.
- Using cookie cutters with fun shapes, like dinosaurs, stars, and hearts, cut slices of cheese, low-fat lunchmeat, and whole-grain bread. Then put them together to make fun sandwiches. Eat the outlines, too.
- Mix peanut butter and bran flake cereal in a bowl. Shape them into balls with clean hands. Then roll them in crushed graham crackers. Fresh peanut butter (which often can be ground fresh for you at a health food store) is healthier than peanut butter with added fat, sugar and salt.
- Fill celery with peanut butter or cream cheese. Arrange raisins along the top. Call it "Ants on a Log!"
- Favorite fruits are often grapes (be sure to cut them in half for kids aged four and under), apple wedges, and banana slices. When choosing fruit, it's important to remember the many, many options available, including lots of kinds of berries, pears, grapefruit and orange slices, cantaloupe chunks and pineapple. And don't forget about more exotic fruits, like kiwi fruit, papaya and mango, and the fun star fruit (carambola).
What if my kid won't eat meat or is a vegetarian?
A vegetarian diet can be very safe and healthy for your child. But you may need to remind your child that being a vegetarian doesn't necessarily make them healthy (they may gravitate away from hamburgers to pop and French fries)! You and your child should learn to eat a variety of foods especially grains and legumes (beans) for protein, and not lean too heavily on cheese and eggs, which are higher in fat and cholesterol. Having a vegetarian in the family provides a great opportunity for everyone to learn more about nutrition and find some creative new ways to eat well.
- This web page on kids and vegetarianism has great information.
- The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) educates the public on vegetarianism, health, nutrition, and more.
- Read about raising a vegetarian child.
What books should I read to help my child develop healthy eating habits?
How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter.
This is a book all parents should read, whether their children have eating problems or not. It applies to kids from birth through the teen years. The advice in this book can start your child off with a healthy relationship with food that will last a lifetime.
Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World, by David Ludwig.
A nine-week program with all the tools you need to help your kids develop healthy eating habits.
- YourChild: Feeding Your Baby and Toddler
- YourChild: Food safety
- YourChild: Eating Disorders
- YourChild: Obesity and Overweight
- YourChild: How Parents can Fight the Obesity Epidemic—pediatrician commentary
- The Food Allergy Network (FAN) works to improve public awareness about food allergies and anaphylaxis (a severe, life-threatening reaction), and advance research on behalf of all of those affected by food allergies.
- The American Dietetic Association has helpful nutrition information for families, including information on kids' nutritional needs.
- The food pyramid is a thing of the past. Check out the new MyPlate Food Guide.
- Here is an annotated list of kids' cookbooks. Cooking with kids is a great way to get them to try new foods.
- "Smartmouth" from the Center for Science in the Public Interest is a fun website for kids about healthy eating.
Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by Julie Lumeng, MD.
Updated June 2011