Between work, school, and play dates, it can be hard to make sure your kids eat a well-balanced diet. Do you ever worry that your kids may not be getting the nutrients they need? Or wonder how much junk food is too much? If so, you aren't alone--many parents find it challenging to encourage their kids to eat healthier food.

Fortunately, understanding the basics of children's nutrition is easier than you think. With a little effort and planning, you can make sure your kids enjoy nutritious snacks and meals--and learn to limit junk food, too.


Did you know that the food pyramid is ancient history? In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) replaced its MyPyramid food guide with the MyPlate food groups system. The MyPlate system uses a picture of a place setting to show what a well-balanced meal looks like: A carefully-portioned plate of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins along with a small cup of dairy.

The MyPlate portion guide can be used whether you are making breakfast, lunch, or dinner for your family. Do your best to include foods from each food group to give your kids the nutrients they need to lead healthy lives.

Half a Plate of Fruits and Vegetables

The current MyPlate icon suggests that approximately half of your children's diet should be made up of fruits and vegetables. Now, think about the foods your kids ate yesterday: Chances are, they aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables! Help them fill half their plates and boost their intake of key nutrients and dietary fiber by:

  • Cutting raw fruits and vegetables into fun shapes to serve with healthy dips
  • Adding shredded or pureed fruits and vegetables to baked goods
  • Doubling the vegetables in soups, stews, and casseroles when cooking (this works well for most recipes)
  • Helping kids to build their own veggie kabobs, taco salads, or other vegetable-centered meals

Add More Whole Grains

According to the MyPlate system, at least half of the grains that your kids eat should be whole grains, rather than refined. Whole grains contain more dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains. Add more whole grains to your children's diets by:

  • Choosing whole grain breads, pastas, and crackers at the supermarket
  • Substituting whole grain flours for up to half of the all-purpose flour in recipes
  • Adding brown rice, barley, and other whole grains to soups, stews, and casseroles

Serve a Variety of Lean Proteins

Chicken, again?! Get out of that protein rut and add variety to your children's meals! Although lean cuts of chicken are a healthy choice, it's best to include a wide selection of lean proteins, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, moderate amounts of nuts and seeds, along with beans, peas, and tofu. Make a point of:

  • Serving seafood a couple of times each week
  • Substituting beans, peas, and tofu for meat in chilies, burritos, and stir fries
  • Choosing lean cuts of meat and trimming visible fat before cooking

Choose Low-Fat Dairy Products

Milk, calcium-rich foods made from milk, and calcium-fortified soymilk all contain the calcium needed to build healthy teeth and bones. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that children between the ages of 4 and 8 should consume 2 1/2 cups of milk or equivalent dairy servings every day. Choose low-fat or fat-free options to help reduce the amount of saturated fats your kids eat.

Limit Junk Food

Watch out for donuts, soda, and other "junk foods" that contain added sugars and saturated fats, giving kids "empty calories" with little nutritional value. The MyPlate system encourages children between the ages of 4 and 8 to eat no more than 120 empty calories per day. That can be tricky, when a single can of soda has 136 empty calories and a glazed donut has 170!

It's okay to give your kids treats from time to time, but don't let donuts, soda, or other junk foods become everyday staples. When you do serve treats, remember to:

  • Keep portions small: Feel free to cut a donut in half.
  • Read the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to learn how much fat is in a product. Choose products with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated or trans fats.
  • Read the ingredient list to learn if a product includes added sugars, which can be listed under different names, including glucose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, or malt syrup. Choose foods that list sugar near the end of the ingredient list, rather than the beginning.

HealthAhead Hint: Build Healthy Plates for Healthy Lives

A well-balanced diet includes foods from all five food groups: Fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. Use the MyPlate system to build healthy meals for your kids and give them the nutrients and fiber they need to grow and be healthy. Start today by adding more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products to their plates. And remember, although your kids may love sweeter snacks, it's best to limit junk foods to the occasional treat.