Creating balanced, healthy meals for your kids can sometimes seem like a full-time job. But nutrition doesn’t need to be overwhelming. In fact, this prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to scrap its old-school "food pyramid" (remember the big base of "breads and cereals" on the bottom?) for "MyPyramid" (click here to download a kid-friendly version), which divides the old groups into vertical, triangle-shaped slivers that better reflect that harmony.
Here’s a closer look at some of the dietary guidelines to help you feed your brood well.
Know calorie needs and don’t overfeed. These can vary. For younger kids, it’s typically linked to age; for instance, a 1-year-old only needs about 900 calories per day. As kids get older, gender factors in, too: Girls ages 14-18 need 1,800 calories, while boys in this bracket require 2,200. To gauge your child’s specific needs, use this calorie calculator as a point of reference to get you started.
- Fruits are best served varied – fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Don’t rely on fruit juice; it provides too few nutrients, too much sugar, fills kids up and decreases their appetites.
- The darker the vegetable color, the more cancer-fighting carotenoids it has. Try broccoli, kale, dark leafy greens, orange veggies and beans and peas.
- Generally speaking, kids should have at least one fruit or vegetable per meal. Vary your veggies, too (for instance: spinach, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes).
- Whole-grain breads and cereals are healthier than refined grain products, which are stripped of fiber, iron and many B vitamins (the latter two are re-added with "enriched" grains). This is the first ingredient on the food label. Try to make at least half your grains whole grains.
- Serve calcium in nonfat and low-fat dairy form. Kids ages 1-8 need two cups per day; older than that, it’s three cups. Choose lactose-free products if needed.
- Lean meats and poultry are great sources of protein which maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Choose baked, broiled and grilled varieties. Avoid steamed and sauteed options, especially while eating out. Mix up protein intake with fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.
- Choose foods low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars. Most fats should come from foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.