Healthy Diets for Children Overview

Eating well is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. It's something that should be taught to children at a young age. These are some general guidelines for helping your child eat healthy. It’s important to discuss your child’s diet and nutrition needs with your child’s healthcare provider before making any dietary changes:

  • Provide 3 meals a day, with healthy snacks in-between.

  • Increase fiber in your child’s diet.

  • Decrease the use of salt and salty foods.

  • Encourage your child to drink water. Try to avoid drinks and juices that are high in sugar.

  • Don’t put your child on a low-fat diet without talking to your child’s healthcare provider. Children under the age of 2 need fats in their diet to help with the growth of their nervous system.

  • Serve balanced meals.

  • Try to bake, grill, roast, or broil instead of frying.

  • Decrease your child’s sugar intake.

  • Offer fruit or vegetables for a snack.

  • Decrease your use of butter and heavy gravies.

  • Serve more lean meat, chicken, fish, and beans for protein.

Making healthy food choices

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you and your child eat a healthy diet. MyPlate can help you and your child eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat.

The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared the following food plates to guide parents in selecting foods for children 1 year and older.

MyPlate graphic showing healthy balance of foods.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food group categories, emphasizing the nutritional intake of the following:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Examples include whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal. Aim for mostly whole-grains.

  • Vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (peas and beans), and starchy vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants should not have any juice before 12 months of age without a doctor’s approval. They also recommend children ages 1 to 3 have no more than 4 ounces of juice per day. For children ages 4 to 6, limit juice to 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day. For children ages 7 to 18, limit juice to 8 ounces (1 cup) of juice per day. 

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk, like yogurt and cheese, are considered part of this food group. Choose on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean on protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine. Choose more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.

Oils are not a food group. But some, like nut and other plant oils, have vital nutrients and should be included in the diet in small amounts. Others, like animal fats, are solid and should be avoided.

Exercise and daily physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan.

Nutrition and activity tips

Here are some tips to follow:

  • Try to control when and where food is eaten by your child. Provide regular daily meal and snack times with social interaction. Demonstrate healthy eating behaviors.

  • Involve your child in selecting and preparing foods. Teach your child to make healthy choices by letting them choose foods based on the nutritional value.

  • Select foods with these nutrients when possible: vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. 

  • Keep in mind: Most Americans need to cut the number of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and limiting highly processed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.

  • Try to serve recommended serving sizes for each child.

  • Make an effort to limit a child’s screen use to no more than 1 hour daily. Instead encourage activities that call for more movement.

  • Promote physical activity. Children and teens need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for good health and fitness and healthy weight during growth.

  • Encourage your child to drink fluid regularly during physical activity. They should also drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is done to prevent dehydration.

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025  and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your child’s age, sex, and physical activity level, visit and 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines. Note that the MyPlate plan is designed for people over age 1 who don't have chronic health conditions.

Always talk with your child’s healthcare provider regarding healthy diet and exercise requirements.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brittany Poulson MDA RDN CD CDE
Online Medical Reviewer: Diane Horowitz MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2021
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.