Healthy Eating for Children and Teens

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What should I know about healthy eating for children and teens?

While most children have mastered basic eating skills by 4 years of age, school-age children and teens still need adult support to ensure a nutritious diet and to develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Despite the increasing influence of friends, school, and advertising, there are many ways that parents and caregivers can support healthful eating.

What tips should I follow for feeding my older children and teens?

  • Offer 3 meals and 2–3 sit-down snacks served at about the same times every day. 
  • Sit and eat with your children as much as possible.
  • Do not expect your child to clean their plate. Appetites are likely to vary depending on the day. Consider serving meals “family style” and letting children serve themselves.
  • Involve your child in shopping, meal preparation, and age-appropriate cooking tasks. They will be more likely to try foods they helped to make.
  • Give your child choices but not too much control. For example, ask “Would you like to have apples or strawberries?” or “Would you like to have whole wheat bread or crackers?”, rather than “What would you like for a snack?” Although you may not always be present during your teen’s snack, you can guide and support them by posting a “menu” of healthy snack options that are readily available in your kitchen.

Does my child or teen really need milk and dairy products?

  • Calcium is a mineral in dairy products that is essential for bone health. Kids 4–8 years old need about 1000 mg of calcium each day. Older kids and teens 9–18 years old need more calcium, about 1300 mg each day. 
  • To get their required calcium, kids should consume 3–4 servings of calcium-rich foods like milk or calcium-fortified milk alternatives, yogurt, cheese, or tofu every day.
  • The amount of calcium in non-dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese varies a lot by brand, so be sure to check the nutrition label.
  • If your child is lactose intolerant, remember that hard cheese is very low in lactose, and lactose-free milk and yogurt are available.

What should my child or teen have to drink?

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, sports drinks, lemonade, sweet tea, and some fruit juice cocktails, may lead to cavities and unhealthy weight gain and should be avoided as much as possible.
  • Fruit juice can also lead to cavities and unhealthy weight gain. If you chose to give your child juice, use 100% fruit juice and limit the amount to 4–6 ounces per day for children aged 4–7 and 8 ounces per day for children 8 and older. 
  • Water and low-fat or fat-free milk should be what kids drink most often.

How much from each food group should my child or teen eat?

The United States Department of Agriculture’s My Plate is a helpful tool for understanding food groups and planning your child’s meals and snacks. 

Food Groups and Recommended Daily Intakes by Age

Food Group 4–8 years 9–13 years 14–18 years Tips
Fruits 1 to 1½ cups 1½ cups 1½ to 2 cups If choosing canned fruit or fruit cups, look for varieties canned in juice rather than in syrup. One small to medium fruit equals about 1 cup.
Vegetables 1½ cups 1½ to 2 cups 2½ cups Include all colors, especially dark green and orange. Canned or frozen without added sugar and salt are fine alternatives to fresh.
Grains 4 to 5 ounces 5 to 6 ounces 6 ounces Make half your child’s grains whole grains like 100% whole wheat bread, pasta, or crackers, brown rice, oatmeal, and barley. One ounce of grain equals 1 slice of bread, 1 cup dry cereal, or ½ cup cooked pasta or grains.
Meat and Other Protein Foods 3 to 4 ounces 4 to 5 ounces 5 to 5½ ounces Offer low-mercury fatty fish like salmon and light tuna twice a week; limit salty cured meats like bacon and sausage. One ounce of non-meat proteins equals 1 egg, 2 tablespoons nut butter, 1/8 cup nuts, or ¼ cup cooked dry beans.
Milk and Milk Products 2½ to 3 cups 3 to 4 cups 3 to 4 cups Choose low-fat or non-fat options unless instructed otherwise by a doctor. 1 ounce of cheese equals about 1 cup of milk.

*Note these servings sizes are a starting point. Your child may eat more or less, depending on their size and activity level. Younger kids especially may eat more or less depending on the day.

Where can I find support and resources?

US Department of Agriculture. Choose My Plate: Preschoolers.

US Department of Agriculture. Choose My Plate: Kids.

US Department of Agriculture. Choose My Plate: Teens. from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Preschool Nutrition and Fitness. from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Gradeschool Nutrition. from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teen Nutrition.


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrition Care Manual ®. Nutrition and Feeding Tips for Preschool Children Ages 4–5. Accessed June 28, 2021. 

Heyman and Abrams. Fruit juice in infants, children, and adolescents: Current recommendations. Pediatrics. (2017) 139: e20170967.

US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. Chapter 3: Children and Adolescents. 

Author: Greta Breskin, MS, RD, CSP, LDN
Editor: Amanda D. Deacy, PhD
September 2021

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North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition
The Association of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Nurses
North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Foundation
The NASPGHAN Council For Pediatric Nutrition Professionals
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