What are the best foods for kids?
No, they aren’t brain foods, super foods, or clean foods…
Best Foods for Kids
In general, the best foods are healthy foods packed with the nutrients that your kids need, including foods that are high in fiber, low in fat, and good sources of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and iron, etc.
And they are foods that make it easy to avoid things your kids don’t need, like trans fats and too much extra salt, added sugar and calories.
That’s why many of the best foods include things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low fat milk. Eat enough of them and you won’t have to worry about giving your kids vitamins.
High Fiber Foods
Do your kids get enough fiber in their diet?
According to the latest recommendations, based on their age, the average child needs:
- 1-3 years old – 19g fiber/day
- 4-8 years old – 25g fiber/day
- 9-13 years old (female) – 26g / (male) – 31g fiber/day
- 14-18 years old (female) – 26g / (male) – 38g fiber/day
Is 19 or 21g of fiber a lot? What about 38g?
When you consider that a high fiber food has 5g per serving and one that is a good source of fiber only has 2.5g per serving, then it might be hard for some kids to reach recommended levels each day.
To help make sure that they do, look for:
- high fiber foods – beans, broccoli, peas, lentils, pears, prunes, raspberries, shredded wheat cereal, spinach, whole wheat pasta, snack bars
- foods that are good sources of fiber – air popped popcorn, nuts, apples (with the skin on), bananas, brown rice, carrots, celery, corn, figs, oatmeal, raisins, strawberries, whole wheat bread
And compare food labels, looking for foods with high amounts of fiber.
Since many kid-friendly foods have plenty of iron, getting kids to eat iron-rich foods isn’t as big an issue as some parents imagine.
It can be a problem if your exclusively breastfed infant isn’t eating much baby food, your toddler or preschooler drinks too much milk and doesn’t eat much food, or when a kid on a specialized diet doesn’t eat meat or other iron-rich food (vegans and vegetarians).
Fortunately, there are plenty of iron-rich foods, even if your kids don’t eat red meat, including:
- most types of beans
- iron fortified bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, including those made with whole grains
- collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, and turnip greens
- broccoli, swiss chard, asparagus, parsley, watercress, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables
- raisins, prunes, dates, apricots and some other dried fruits
- egg yolks
- blackstrap molassses
Seafood and poultry are also good sources of iron.
And while the iron in non-meat sources isn’t as easily absorbed by our bodies as the iron from meat, fish, and poultry, you can boost that absorption by pairing those iron rich foods with some vitamin C, such as drinking orange juice or eating citrus fruits.
Many kids don’t drink enough milk. That’s not necessarily a problem, as some kids actually drink too much milk, but it can be if they don’t make up for it with other foods to get calcium and vitamin D in their diets.
How much calcium do kids need?
- 700 mg a day for kids who are 1 to 3 years old
- 1,000 mg a day for kids who are 4 to 8 years old
- 1,300 mg a day for kids who are 9 to 18 years old
And when you consider that 1/2 cup of broccoli only has 21mg of calcium, you are probably going to want to turn to milk, cheese and yogurt and calcium fortified orange juice, cereal and bread to make sure your kids are getting enough calcium.
Other foods that are good sources of calcium include tofu, sardines, and salmon.
Foods with Vitamin D
Like calcium, good sources of vitamin D can include milk, cheese, and yogurt, but only because many of these foods are fortified. That’s why ice cream, even though it is made with milk, isn’t usually a good source of vitamin D! Neither is raw milk.
Some non-dairy foods that do contain vitamin D include:
- fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel (just don’t overdo it on the fish because of the risks from mercury)
- beef liver and egg yolks
- some mushrooms
And of course, many foods are fortified with vitamin D, including breakfast cereal and orange juice.
Are your kids getting at least 600 IU/d of vitamin D?
Believe it or not, your child likely gets enough protein in their diet.
Kids should eat a variety of protein rich foods though, including lean meats, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, and soy products.
“Strategies to increase the variety of protein foods include incorporating seafood as the protein foods choice in meals twice per week in place of meat, poultry, or eggs, and using legumes or nuts and seeds in mixed dishes instead of some meat or poultry. For example, choosing a salmon steak, a tuna sandwich, bean chili, or almonds on a main-dish salad could all increase protein variety.”
2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
For most kids, it is the variety of protein that’s the problem, not the overall amounts, as most of their protein likely comes from red meat and dairy products.
What to Know About the Best Foods for Kids
Are you worried that your kids are too picky? Are they overweight, with portion sizes that are too big?
Learn to make healthy food choices and help avoid kid-friendly junk foods, but still make sure your growing kids are getting all of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients they need.
A registered dietician can be especially helpful in planning a healthy eating plan for your kids if you are still having trouble.
More on the Best Foods for Kids
- USDA – Dietary Guidelines
- MyPlate, MyWins for Families
- Kids Need Their Nutrients
- AAP – Making Healthy Food Choices
- Do your kids need vitamins or supplements?
- CDC – Micronutrient Facts
- FDA – Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins
- Does My Child Need A Supplement?
- 4 Infant Supplements to Ask Your Pediatrician About
- 15 Fueling Snacks to Take to Your Child’s Game
- When Should My Kids Snack?
- How Much Calcium and Vitamin D Does My Child Need?
- AAP – Optimizing Bone Health in Children and Adolescents
- AAP – Iodine Deficiency, Pollutant Chemicals, and the Thyroid: New Information on an Old Problem
- AAP – Dietary Guidelines for Calcium and Vitamin D: A New Era
- Dairy Alternatives for Kids Who Won’t – or Can’t – Drink Milk
- Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI)
- FDA – Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide: Appendix C. Daily Values for Infants, Children Less Than 4 Years of Age
- Fiber and Children’s Diets
- What is iron and what does it do?
- Calcium Fact Sheet
- What is vitamin D and what does it do?
Last Updated on September 12, 2018 by Vincent Iannelli, MD