Healthy Meal Plans for Kids

Hands down, the most frequently asked nutrition question I get from parents is this: “What should I feed my child?”

Whether it stems from concerns about picky eating, the worry that they’re eating too much junk food, or just supporting their growing body, many parents share a sense (sometimes founded, oftentimes not) that their child’s nutrition is suboptimal.

Part of this, I suspect, has to do with today’s social media and blogging frenzy. People love to post photos of their kids’ healthy lunch boxes or boast about how their kids love smoothies made with dandelion greens and ginger. That’d be enough to make Gwyneth Paltrow jealous.

How Many Calories Do Kids Need Per Day?
2 to 3 years: 1,000 to 1,200 for girls, 1,000 to 1,400 for boys
4 to 8 years: 1,400 to 1,600 for girls and boys
9 to 13 years: 1,600 to 2,000 for girls, 1,800 to 2,200 for boys
14 to 18 years: 2,000 for girls, 2,400 to 2,800 for boys

On the other side of the spectrum, the food industry certainly doesn’t help by spending $2 billion a year marketing a barrage of highly processed junk foods to children and teenagers, including sweetened cereals, packaged lunches with processed meats and candies, and juice drinks that are essentially flat soda. In many instances, the deck is stacked against parents.

Once you get past all that noise, however, the important thing to remember is that the same rules that apply to adult nutrition also apply to children, albeit with different caloric requirements. Whereas the average adult needs about 2,000 daily calories, a 3-year-old’s caloric needs range from 1,000 to 1,400. Children between 9 and 13, meanwhile, require between 1,400 to 2,200 calories, depending on growth and activity level.

Calcium Boost
The amount of calcium a child needs varies greatly over time. Kids between 1 and 3 need 700 mg, but they’ll need up to 1,300 mg per day between the ages of 9 and 18, due to rapid bone growth.

As with adults, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage children to consume foods from a variety of food groups: protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. But one note on dairy: You can also get nutrients like calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamin D from plant-based foods. Nutrition science has demonstrated that children can meet nutrient needs without dairy, or any animal products, really (as long as their diet contains a variety of nutrient-dense plant-based foods).

Ask the Experts: Is Milk Really Good for You? »

To help visualize what a day of healthful eating looks like, below are two eating plans — one for a 6-year-old, and another for a 14-year-old. As with adult nutrition, it’s important to prioritize whole grains over refined grains, and whole fruit over fruit juice, and keep added sugars to a minimum. There are no specific caloric recommendations per meal or snack; the caloric total for the day is most important.

A Day in the Life of a 6-Year-Old

Breakfast:

1 oz. grains (e.g., 1 slice whole grain toast)

1 oz. protein (e.g., 1 tbsp. nut/seed butter)

1 cup dairy or dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup milk of choice)

Snack:

1 cup fruit (e.g., a banana)

1/2 oz. grains (e.g., 1/2 cup oat-based cereal)

Lunch:

2 oz. protein + 1 tsp. oil (e.g., 2 oz. protein of choice, cooked in 1 tsp. olive oil)

1/2 cup vegetables + 1 tsp. oil (e.g., 1/2 cup carrots roasted in 1 tsp oil)

1 oz. grains (e.g., 1/2 cup cooked rice)

Water

Snack:

1/2 cup vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup celery sticks)

1 oz. protein (e.g., 2 tbsp. hummus)

Water

Dinner:

2 oz. grains (1 cup cooked pasta)

1 oz. protein of choice

1/2 cup vegetables

Water

Dessert:

1 cup dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup yogurt of choice)

1/2 cup fruit (e.g., 4 strawberries)

Watch Out for Added Sugar
Keep an eye on added sugar intake. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 12 g per day for kids between 4 and 8 years old. That’s a scant 3 teaspoons. As a reference, a 3/4-cup serving of Golden Grahams contains 9 g.

A Day in the Life of a 14-Year-Old

Breakfast:

1oz. grains + 1 cup dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., oatmeal: 1/3 cup dry oats + 1 cup milk)

1oz. protein (e.g., 12 almonds)

1/2 cup fruit (e.g., 1/2 Granny Smith apple)

1 cup dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup milk of choice)

Snack:

1 oz. grains (1 oz. whole grain crackers)

1 oz. protein (1 tbsp. nut/seed butter)

Water

Lunch:

Sandwich:

  • 2 oz. grains (e.g., 2 slices of 100 percent whole-grain bread)
  • 2 oz. protein of choice
  • 1 cup vegetables (e.g. tomato, lettuce, cucumbers, etc.)
  • 1/4 cup avocado

1 cup fruit (e.g., a banana)

Water

Snack:

1 cup dairy/dairy equivalent (1 cup yogurt of choice)

Dinner:

Chili, cooked in 1 tbsp. of olive oil:

  • 2 oz. protein (e.g., 1/2 cup beans of choice)
  • 1/2 cup vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup red and green peppers)
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup corn, 1/2 cup red and green peppers, 1/2 cup tomato puree)
  • 2 oz. grains (e.g., 1 large slice cornbread)

Water

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD

Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., is a dietitian and former author of “Small Bites.” He is currently the strategic director at Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Follow him on Twitter @andybellatti