Food Pyramid for Kids
As a child, you may have grown up with the Food Guide Pyramid as your resource for a healthy diet. However, today’s generation has the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new MyPlate, a graphic that mimics a place setting to stress the five basic food groups.
The graphic doesn’t include any recommended number of servings and portion sizes. Instead, that information is found on the MyPlate website, with tailored recommendations by age and gender. It’s important to understand the USDA’s supplementary information so you can serve your child healthy meals and correctly teach them about the different food groups.
The Old Food Guide Pyramid vs. New MyPlate
While the old pyramid provided generalized healthy eating recommendations for everyone, part of the MyPlate redesign focuses on customizing your meal plan. Hence the “My” in MyPlate.
The MyPlate graphic is meant to serve as a reminder to eat healthy rather than an actual guide on doing so. Detailed guides are available online through USDA, with sections for children of different ages, men, women, and a range of professionals.
Some might not be aware that there was a significant redesign of the food pyramid before the USDA transitioned to MyPlate. The second pyramid design debuted in 2005 and was called “MyPyramid” to emphasize individualized meal plans. One notable addition was a figure climbing the side of the pyramid to stress the importance of regular exercise.
Although the food pyramid has been replaced, you can still use it to provide a valuable lesson. You can explain past USDA food guidelines to older children how our knowledge of healthy eating has improved over time.
MyPlate has online resources for preschoolers and older children. Kids can play games, print off activity sheets, watch videos and listen to songs to learn more. Parents can educate themselves on how to structure their children’s daily diet and learn how to teach their children about nutrition.
Half of the grains a child consumes should be 100 percent whole-grain foods. Give your child plenty of choices with brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain bread and cereals, oatmeal, and quinoa.
|Age Range||Recommended Daily Intake of Grains Group|
|Children ages 2 to 3||3 ounces, with at least 1 ½ ounces of whole grains|
|Children ages 4 to 8||5 ounces, with at least 2 ½ ounces of whole grains|
|Girls ages 9 to 13||5 ounces, with at least 3 ounces of whole grains|
|Boys ages 9 to 13||6 ounces, with at least 3 ounces of whole grains|
|Girls ages 14 to 18||6 ounces, with at least 3 ounces of whole grains|
|Boys ages 14 to 18||8 ounces, with at least 4 ounces of whole grains|
Give your child fruits in different colors of the rainbow. Whole fresh fruits are ideal, but canned, dried, and frozen are good choices as well. When you select a canned fruit, look for ones that are stored in water or fruit juice rather than sugary syrup.
Make sure your child is getting their recommended fruit intake from more than just 100 percent juices. While these do offer vitamins and minerals, they lack the dietary fiber that a piece of whole fruit offers.
You’ll also want to limit fruit chews and gummy fruit snacks. These items usually contain little actual fruit. Instead, offer raisins or unsweetened dried fruit.
|Age Range||Recommended Daily Intake of Fruit|
|Children ages 2 to 3||1 cup|
|Children ages 4 to 8||1 to 1 ½ cups|
|Girls ages 9 to 13||1 ½ cups|
|Boys ages 9 to 13||1 ½ cups|
|Girls ages 14 to 18||1 ½ cups|
|Boys ages 14 to 18||2 cups|
Make sure your child is eating an assortment of colorful vegetables. You might want to research how to prepare a vegetable best to retain their original nutritional content. Sometimes cooking a vegetable can decrease their vitamin and mineral levels.
You can make eating vegetables more fun by serving them up with simple dips. Kids can dunk vegetable slices into seasoned yogurt or peanut butter.
|Age Range||Recommended Daily Intake of Vegetables|
|Children ages 2 to 3||1 cup|
|Children ages 4 to 8||1 ½ cups|
|Girls ages 9 to 13||2 cups|
|Boys ages 9 to 13||2 ½ cups|
|Girls ages 14 to 18||2 ½ cups|
|Boys ages 14 to 18||3 cups|
A proper diet should cover a variety of protein foods. You want to limit your child’s intake of highly processed protein foods such as chicken nuggets and fish sticks. Instead, the focus should be on lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and beans.
When you can, add beans and peas to your child’s diet. Mix them into tacos, stews, pastas, and more. Perhaps you could even have a “Vegetarian Dish Night” where you cook a dish like black bean burgers.
|Age Range||Recommended Daily Intake of Protein|
|Children ages 2 to 3||2 ounces|
|Children ages 4 to 8||4 ounces|
|Girls ages 9 to 13||5 ounces|
|Boys ages 9 to 13||5 ounces|
|Girls ages 14 to 18||5 ounces|
|Boys ages 14 to 18||6 ½ ounces|
Many children may love chocolate milk and other flavorings which add unnecessary sugar and additives. Other dairy products you can offer include yogurts and cheeses. You can also make smoothies with fruit and yogurt or milk to give your child a healthy sweet treat.
|Age Range||Recommended Daily Intake of Dairy|
|Children ages 2 to 3||2 cups|
|Children ages 4 to 8||2 ½ cups|
|Children ages 9 to 18||3 cups|
It’s best to limit sugary foods as snack options. By keeping fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, hard-boiled eggs, and more on hand, you can offer a child choices without the temptation of sweets and other junk food.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to prepare your child’s every snack. Healthy ready-to-eat snack choices include yogurt and packaged string cheese.
For a drink, offer a glass of 100 percent fruit juice or water instead of something like soda. However, take care to limit how much fruit juice your child drinks and stress the importance of eating whole fruits.
Teach your children that snacks shouldn’t replace a meal. You can control portions with snack-sized containers.
A Word on Fat
“MyPlate is a starting place for building a balanced diet but, like most programs designed to address public health concerns, it has shortcomings,” reported Kristin Koskinen, RDN, a functional and integrative dietitian based in the Pacific Northwest. “A theme carried over from the old Food Guide Pyramid is that low-fat/no-fat is better. Current research doesn’t support this and actually indicates that formerly-vilified foods like full-fat dairy, eggs with the yolks, and poultry skin actually have health benefits. When we throw out the fat, yolks, and skin we lose fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids, and a natural source of collagen.”
She added, “Reducing fat content that naturally occurs in food is a form of processing the food. We all require fat in our diet, especially sources that provide essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3s which are necessary for brain health and have anti-inflammatory properties, among other things. Plant sources like walnuts and chia seeds offer alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), but eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) come almost exclusively from animal sources. Fatty fish, egg yolks, and grass-fed whole-fat products can be excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. When you take away the fat, you take away the fatty acids. Not only that, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are also removed.
Even if the nutrients removed are added back in, a process referred to as enrichment, the synthetic versions of the nutrients added are not equal in quality as those naturally occurring and may even be in a form that some people can’t readily metabolize, creating a needless problem.
I recommend getting your fat from minimally processed, foods like whole-fat dairy, avocados, nuts, seeds, pastured eggs, and fatty fish, to name a few. Choose high-quality meats that have been grass-fed and finished and eat them in moderation. When it comes to moderation, a serving of protein is roughly the size of your palm.”
Getting a Picky Child to Eat
Many parents know that one of the biggest obstacles to building healthy eating habits is a child who’s a picky eater. This behavior is normal in a child faced with unfamiliar foods, but it can be frustrating for parents who are unsure how to coax their child to try new food.
Picky eating can come in a variety of behaviors. Some children may refuse to eat foods with a certain color or texture, such as yellow vegetables or squishy foods. Other children may demand their favorite two or three meals.
The USDA does offer some tips that can help you accommodate your child while still establishing the importance of good nutrition.
First, introduce only one new food in a meal and offer it at the meal’s start, when your child is most hungry. Keeping most of the meal familiar will prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed. Model good behavior by trying new foods yourself and eating the same foods.
You can also give your child a measure of control over their meals. Have them pick out produce at the grocery store and help with simple kitchen tasks like washing vegetables or adding ingredients.
Be mindful of how you offer your child choices. For example, you can provide a range of options such as corn, peas, or carrots instead of merely asking, “Do you want peas with your meal?”
Make mealtimes enjoyable. Focus on pleasant conversations, so your child doesn’t associate unhappy feelings with their food.
Don’t be afraid to be persistent. It may take a few meals for your child to warm up to trying a new food.
Help Your Child Get Active
While eating right is necessary for a healthy and growing child, it’s not the only important consideration. Regular physical activity is necessary to prevent childhood obesity and chronic illnesses. Exercise is also essential for:
- High self-esteem
- The growth and maintenance of healthy bones
- Minimizing stressors such as depression and anxiety
- Building muscle mass for a good metabolism
How physically active should your child be every day? They should spend at least 60 minutes actively playing. It’s even better if you can extend that play to several hours. Plus, 10 to 15 minutes of vigorous exercise such as running and jumping rope.
Potential activities include team sports, walking, biking, hiking, skating, jumping rope, hopscotch, skiing, and tag. You can also introduce elements of make-believe or play, such as NASA’s physical activities for children that are designed to mimic astronaut training.
Your child should find the activity fun, so they’ll be motivated to repeat it and develop a routine. It’s best if you find time to exercise with your child so that you can lead by example.
Frequently Asked Questions
The food groups in the older food pyramid were from top to bottom to stress what you needed the most and the least. At the base of the pyramid was the bread, rice, cereal, and pasta group. Next were fruits and vegetables, then dairy and meat. At the top of the pyramid were fats, oils, and sweets.
The new MyPlate icon features a colorful plate with sections for protein foods, grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
An 8-year-old boy should have 1400 calories a day and an 8-year-old girl should have 1200 calories a day, according to the American Heart Association.
- They should have 2 cups of fat-free milk and 1.5 cups of fruit every day.
- A girl should have 3 ounces of lean meat and beans, a cup of vegetables, and 4 ounces of grains.
- A boy should have 4 ounces of lean meat/beans, 1.5 cups of vegetables, and 5 ounces of grains each day.
Remember, half of your children’s grain intake should consist of whole grains such as brown rice and whole-wheat bread. They should also eat a variety of vegetables.
It’s a good idea to have three regular meals and maybe a set snack time for your young child. When you establish an eating routine, you avoid giving your child the idea that they can eat continuously throughout the day. You should avoid giving a preschool-age child a low-fat diet since it’s been linked to unhealthy weight gain, especially if there are added sugars to compensate for the reduced fat.
Your child's exact bedtime will depend on when they need to get up in the morning. An 8-year-old child usually requires about 9 to 12 hours of sleep, so count backward from when they need to wake up and add at least 15 minutes to give them time to fall asleep.
As an example, if your child needs to wake up at 7 a.m., their bedtime should be between 6:45 to 9:45 p.m. A consistent routine is vital to establish a sleep schedule.
You can teach your child to eat healthily by involving your child in the process. Take them with you to the grocery store and have them pick out fruits and vegetables. When they get older, include them in meal preparation. Avoid giving a too-detailed lecture that will only lose their attention, and instead focus on explaining facts when pertinent.
You should also avoid sorting foods into “good” and “bad” categories. Instead, stress moderation and explain that there are foods they can have every day and foods they should only have once in a while.
Finally, make sure to set a good eating example. If you tell your child to eat their vegetables without touching any yourself, they’ll soon pick up on that.
Did We Help?
While the food pyramid is outdated, the new MyPlate graphic can help you teach your child the importance of a balanced diet. One of the best ways a child to learn is to get them involved, so include them in meal planning. They can help out with simple tasks and take on more complex chores as they get older.
Be sure to also check out our 10 Healthiest Foods for Kids article for some meal and snack suggestions!
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.