Healthy Diet for Children Ages 2-11

A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

Food gives children the calories they need to be active and the nutrients they need to grow. Here are some ways to provide your child with healthful foods.

Key Parts of Healthy Eating

Getting Enough Calories

How many calories your child needs depends on age, sex, and activity level. You do not usually need to worry about tracking calories with children. They are pretty good at eating the right number of calories. But you can offer them healthy food options and the right amount of food. Here are some tips to make sure your child gets enough calories:

  • Giving your child small portions. Serving too much food at one time can lead to overeating. Give your child more if he or she is hungry. Do not limit servings.
  • Children have small stomachs and cannot focus for very long. Spread food out over the course of the day. Having set eating times—3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks per day often works well.
  • Give your child many types of nutrient-rich foods from all the food groups. Do not give your child too many foods that are high in added sugar or fat.
  • Serve juice rarely, or never. Do not serve soda at all. These drinks are full of sugar. It can be easy to fill up on them.

Key Nutrients

Your child needs:

  • Carbohydrates (carbs): This is your child's main source of energy. About half of their calories should come from carbs. Give your child choose healthy carbs like whole grains, fruits, veggies, and milk.
  • Protein: Your child needs protein to grow and build muscle. About 5% to 20% of your young child’s calories should come from protein. An older child should aim for a quarter of their calories to come from protein. Good sources are poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low fat and nonfat dairy products.
  • Fat: Very young children need a little more fat than older children. About 25% to 35% of their calories as fat. It helps with growth and brain development. Give your child eat healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish.

Vitamins and Minerals

Give your child food from each of the food groups. It will give your child all the vitamins and minerals they need. Ask the doctor whether you should give your child vitamins.

Here are some vitamins and minerals that children often do not get enough of:

  • Calcium builds strong bones and teeth. Good choices are milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, orange juice with calcium, cereal with calcium, and canned salmon.
  • Vitamin D is needed to help the body to use calcium. Good choices are milk with vitamin D, salmon, and egg yolks. The sun also helps your child's body make vitamin D, but be aware of the dangers of getting too much sun.
  • Not getting enough iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. This can affect your child’s growth and ability to learn. Good choices are lean meats and breakfast cereals with iron.

Fiber

Foods with fiber may put off heart disease and some kinds of cancer. It can also ease constipation and help your child feel full after eating. Most children do not eat enough. Give your child whole grains and offer them plenty of fruits and veggies.

Eating Plan

This eating plan is based on the United States Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate website. The daily amount varies based on age, weight, sex, and activity. Use these amounts as a start. Go to their website to learn more.

Food Group Daily Amount * Tips

Grains (1 ounce = 1 slice bread, ¼ bagel, ½ cup cooked pasta or rice, 5 whole wheat crackers)

  • 2 years old: 3 ounces
  • 5 years old: 5 ounces
  • 8 years old: 5 ounces
  • 11 years old, female: 6 ounces
  • At least ½ of grains should be whole grains
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, popcorn.

Veggies (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked veggies, 2 cups raw leafy veggies)

  • 2 years old: 1 cup
  • 5 years old: 1 1/2 cups
  • 8 years old: 2 cups
  • 11 years old: 2 1/2 cups
  • Offer your child many kinds of veggies each day
  • Your child should eat more of these veggies:
    • Dark greens like broccoli, spinach, or romaine lettuce
    • Orange veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash
    • Dry beans and peas like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu

Fruits (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup fruit juice, ½ cup dried fruit)

  • 2 years old: 1 cup
  • 5 years old: 11/2 cups
  • 8 years old: 1 1/2 cups
  • 11 years old: 1 1/2 to 2 cups
  • Offer your all kinds of fruits
  • Choose fresh fruit over juices—your child should not drink more than 4 ounces of 100% fruit juice per day
  • Choose dried, frozen, or canned juices without added sugar

Milk (1 cup = 8 ounces milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces natural cheese)

  • 2 to 8 years old: 2 cups
  • 9 to 11 years old: 3 cups
  • Choose low fat or fat free dairy items such as milk, yogurt, kefir, and cheese
  • Other choices are drinks or food that have calcium added to them

Protein (1 ounce = 1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry; ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon peanut butter; ½ ounce nuts)

  • 2 years old: 2 ounces
  • 5 years old: 4 ounces
  • 8 years old: 5 ounces
  • 11 years old: 5 to 6 ounces
  • Choose lean meats and poultry
  • Eat more fish and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds

Fats and Sweets

  • 2 years old: 165 calories
  • 5 years old: 170 calories
  • 8 years old: 130 calories
  • 11 years old: 195 to 265 calories
  • Limit solid fats such as butter, stick margarine, lard, and shortening
  • Look for items do not have saturated or trans fats
  • Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats like soda, candy, cookies, muffins, chips, French fries, and fried foods

  *The daily amounts are for children who are of average weight and height for their age and do 30 to 60 minutes of activity each day.

Making Mealtime Healthy

There are ways you can help your child make meals healthier. Here are some tips:

  • Breakfast: Studies show breakfast helps kids learn. Your child's breakfast should have foods from the grain, milk, and fruit groups. Some healthy choices are yogurt, whole wheat toast, cereal, and breakfast sandwiches.
  • Lunch: Your child should have a balanced, healthy lunch each day. It should include most of the food groups. Some healthy choices are sandwiches and pasta salads.
  • Dinner: Dinner is a great time to get together as a family. Try to eat the same dinner together. Some healthy dinner choices are whole grains, veggies, lean protein, low fat dairy, and fruit for dessert.

Most children need to eat 2 to 3 snacks a day. Your child may need to eat snacks on the go, but do not get in the habit of feeding your child snacks throughout the day. Some healthy choices are fresh fruit and veggies, yogurt, granola bars, cheese, pretzels, and popcorn.

Tips to Help Your Child

Help your child learn about the foods you eat:

  • Have your child help with meal planning, shopping, and cooking.
  • Try to cook at home. Meals cooked at home are often healthier and lower in calories, fat, and salt.
  • Talk to your child about the benefits of healthy eating.
  • You do not have to offer your child dessert at every meal. You can also offer a healthy dessert, such as fresh fruit slices or yogurt.

Help your child have a good relationship with food:

  • Do not push your child to finish his or her plate. This can cause overeating.
  • Your child will eat more on some days and less on other days. This is normal.
  • Give your child new foods more than one time. But do not force the food if your child does not want it.
  • It may take 10 times before your child tries a new food.
  • Do not use food as a reward or as a bribe.

Lastly, model healthy eating habits for your children. Kids are quick to pick up on their parents’ behaviors. Parents who skip breakfast will have children who skip breakfast, too.

RESOURCES:

Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
http://www.choosemyplate.gov

Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
http://www.eatright.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/. Accessed February 12, 2020.

Parent teaching: Teaching parents about nutrition of healthy preschool-aged children. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:https://www.ebscohost.com/nursing/products/nursing-reference-center. Updated April 6, 2018. Accessed February 12, 2020.

Last reviewed November 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 2/3/2021