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Children's Nutrition: An Overview

By Edited May 25, 2016 1 2

Determining what to feed your child and how much is a tedious process.  There are many sources of information available, some of which conflict with each other.  In addition, smaller children and those hitting the double digits have widely different nutritional needs.  Below is an overview of both the Food Pyramid system and the Daily Calorie Intake system and an idea on how to use them.  For more specific information on your child's needs, follow the links to age appropriate articles at the bottom of this article.

Food Pyramid System


USDA 1992 Food Pyramid

In 1992, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the Food Guide Pyramid, replacing the Food Wheel as a visual guide used to show healthy eating habits.[1670]  Although the pyramid has since been updated by the USDA in 2005 and again in 2011 to a dinner plate, this is still the version that many parents today recognise.  Despite the visual changes instituted from pyramid to plate, the information it gives has not changed.[1671]  The daily intake of certain food groups remains the same.

A kid's food guide pyramid was released along with the 1992 adult version, which suggested the following daily amounts of:

  • Grain Group = 6 Servings
  • Vegetable Group = 3 Servings
  • Fruit Group = 2 Servings
  • Milk Group = 2 Servings
  • Meat Group = 2 Servings
  • Fats & Sweets = Eat Less![1672]

These servings are the minimum amounts given on the adult version of the 1992.  But, what is a portion?  Most people tend to remember that one apple equals one portion of fruit.  This is true for an adult.   However, the portion size for children aged one to three is roughly a third of the adult size and gradually increases with until about the age of ten, when children grow into adult portions.[1673]  An apple  is an easy guideline to remember.  Portion sizes for other foods are more difficult to calculate, especially as many adults are not aware of the correct portion sizes for themselves.  Adult portion sizes are readily available both online and in many lifestyle cookbooks.  Here is a very quick guide for common ingredients.

Portion Sizes Under the Food Pyramid

According to information provided by the USDA and widely circulated, one portion in the grain group is a slice of bread or a half cup of pasta, rice or hot cereal.  At least half of a person's daily intake, regardless of age, should be whole grains, which include whole wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal, among others.[1674] 

The USDA sites a portion of vegetables as a half cup of chopped vegetables or a cup of leafy vegetables.[1674]  Before trying to figure out how you are going to get your toddler to eat a half cup of any vegetable,  pause to consider that a half cup is only 4 tablespoons.  This may impact upon your idea of serving sizes across the board.

Children's Nutrition: 1 Apple = 1 portion

The measure of one apple equals one portion stands true for most pieces of fruit.  Other fruit group portions include a half cup of canned fruit or 3/4 cup of 100% fruit juice.[1674]  Keep in mind however, that only the first cup of fruit juice counts towards this total, even if your toddler has several throughout the day.[1673]

The milk group includes cheeses as well as milk.  A portion is equal to one cup of milk or two ounces of cheese.[1674]  The introduction of semi-skimmed milk can be made to children around the age of two years, as long as they are achieving target levels of their saturated fat intake through other means.[1676]

Meat group portions include two to three ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish.  Although not sold in the meat section, several alternatives are suggested for vegetarian children, such as a half cup of cooked beans.  Peanut butter and eggs are also replacement options.[1674]

While this pyramid version of nutritional management serves as a good tool for keeping a balanced diet in mind when trying to get through the day, it can also be a cause for stress when determining what is for dinner.  Not to mention the chaos that follows when a three-year old is told she must eat all her peas.

Daily Calorie System

Children's Nutrition: Avoiding a Struggle at Mealtimes
Although it generally requires an extra step in the planning stages, readily available (free) software exists for nutritional analysis of foods against the daily calorie intake model.  This model still assumes you should have a varied diet, including meats, milk products, fruits and vegetables.  However, it makes an important distinction: some foods overlap into different categories of nutrients your child needs.  For example, milk provides protein and calcium as well as necessary fats.  The caloric portion allocated to fats, according to the Mayo Clinic is 30-40% for a two to three-year old.[1678]  How much of that comes from meat and how much from milk is more easily suited to both family lifestyle and the preferences of your toddler.  The amount of fat required in any diet gradually reduces over time.

The calorie counting system measures the following nutrients:

Calories made up from all food and drink sources, including juice and milk.  The only zero calorie food is water.

Protein is needed as it helps "the body to build and repair muscles, tissues, hair and organs and keep up an effective immune system."[1676]  Sources of protein include meat, fish, beans and pulses, dairy products, such as milk, cheese and eggs.

Carbohydrates are important for short and medium term energy.  This nutrient is broken into 4 divisions. Natural starches: potatoes, bread and cereals, corn, root vegetables, nuts, chickpeas and bananas. Refined starches: breakfast cereals, white bread, biscuits and cakes. Natural sugars: fruit and vegetables, full fat milk. Refined sugars: white and brown sugar, cookies and cakes.  As much as possible, your child's carbohydrate intake should come from the natural starch group and then from the fruit group.[1673]

Fats are used for medium and long-term energy and are important when much of a child's energy is needed for growing.  There are also a number of fat soluble vitamins (including A, D, E and K.  Saturated fats: Meat, eggs, full-fat milk, butter and coconut oil.  Unsaturated fats: Avocados, nuts and seeds, olive and sunflower oils

Sodium (not to be confused with salt) is essential to the regulation of fluids in the body.  Key sources of sodium include table salt, powdered soups, soy and other sauces, salami, bacon, other cured meats and cheeses.  

Fiber helps with digestion and eliminating waste and toxins from the body.  Good sources of fiber include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.[1678]

Children's Nutrition: Milk Provides Several Nutrients

Calcium is required for bone and teeth development.  While most children get the recommended amounts of calcium from full-fat dairy products, calcium is also found in sardines, nuts and green vegetables.  

Vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium and plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system.[1676]  Vitamin D is only found naturally in animal products, however a person's body is capable of producing Vitamin D in the presence of sunlight.  Foods with good concentrations of Vitamin D include oily fish, eggs and full fat cheeses and milk.

Your Child's Nutritional Needs

All this information adds up to one thing.  It is important to feed your child (and yourself) a balanced diet consisting of a variety of foods.  But how does all this information translate to practice?  For specific guidelines relevant to your child's age and development along with some surprisingly good menu ideas your child will eat have a look at these articles:

And for more information on adapting your favorite recipes for your kids, have a look at:


Disclaimer: Information provided in this article has come from many sources, including web resources such as the Mayo Clinic and books focusing on children's recipes and nutrition.  While much of the data has been researched by nutritionists, some of it is contradictory.  The author of this article is not a pediatrician or a nutritionist and recommends that you contact a registered practitioner should you have concerns with your child's health.  



Jan 19, 2012 9:29pm
Just two words....."Informative Article"

Jan 20, 2012 11:35pm
Very comprehensive for an introduction. Great read. :)
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  1. USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion "A Brief History of USDA Food Guides." ChooseMyPlate.gov. 17/12/2011 <Web >
  2. USDA "MyPlate and MyPyramid… Can they be used together?." ChooseMyPlate.gov. 17/12/2011 <Web >
  3. "Kids Food Guide Pyramid." keepkidshealthy.com. 17/12/2011 <Web >
  4. Netmums & Judith Wills Feeding Kids: The Netmums Cookery Book. London: Headline Publishing Group, 2007.
  5. "Food Pyramid." keepkidshealthy.com. 17/12/2011 <Web >
  6. Amanda Grant The Toddler Healthy Eating Planner. London: Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2004.
  7. Mayo Clinic staff "Nutrition for kids: Guidelines for a healthy diet." Mayo Clinic. 16/07/2011. 17/12/2011 <Web >
  8. Eliza Martinez "Natural Sources of Fiber for Children." LiveStrong.com. 31/01/2011. 18/12/2011 <Web >

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