The 6 food groups every kid should know
Pop quiz: What are the six food groups for kids? If you can easily answer this question, you're ahead in the nutrition game. But if you're like many parents and nannies, you might need some brushing up on your nutritional know-how. That way, instead of forcing kids to eat what you think is good for them, you'll inspire them to make their own good and healthy choices about what they eat.
"The best way for kids to learn about the food groups is to encourage them to taste, make, and be involved in meal preparation," says Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian and author of "Clean Eating for Busy Families." "When making menus, you can ask them what kind of fruits and vegetables they like. It's better to focus on the deliciousness of a food rather than going into a lot of detail of how healthy it is."
As for the food groups themselves, they're the same as the ones designed for adults. "The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are designed for anyone ages 2 and above. The food groups for kids and adults are the same. It's the portions that are different," explains registered dietitian Toby Amidor, author of "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen." So make sure your kids are aware of what to choose from and learn what amounts are best for them.
Here's a handy reference list of the six food groups to teach your kids about, along with examples of the types of foods that fall into each category and recommended daily servings for elementary-school aged children, according to Dudash.
At least half of your children's grain intake should be whole grains, says Dudash. "Children love grains, but most do not make half their grains whole," says Amidor. "Whole grains contain fiber, which is found to be lacking in children. Fiber has a wide variety of benefits including to help keep kids regular and to help keep them full and satisfied after a meal or snack. Simple swaps like changing to whole-grain pasta, whole-grain bread, and whole-wheat couscous can help increase your kiddos' overall fiber intake."
- Recommended amount for kids: 1/2 cup or 1 ounce
- Example foods: Oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, whole-wheat tortillas, crackers and pasta
Fruits can be fresh fruit, frozen, canned, dried or freeze-dried. Experts recommend choosing frozen fruit without added sugar and fruit canned in its own juices instead of syrup. "It's important to recommend a variety of colors from this group so children can get a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant chemicals that help prevent and fight disease)," says Amidor. "For example, strawberries contain the phytochemical anthocyanins, a powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant. In addition, fruits give kids nutrients that many don't get enough of, including fiber and vitamin C."
- Recommended amount for kids: 1/2 to 3/4 cup
- Example foods: Apples, bananas, raisins, frozen strawberries, canned peaches and 100-percent fruit juice
Vegetables can be fresh, canned or frozen, suggests Dudash. "Just like with fruit, fresh, frozen, canned, dried, freeze-dried and 100% juice count as a vegetable," says Amidor. If using canned veggies, make sure they contain little to no sodium. Amidor emphasizes, "Choosing a colorful variety of veggies is important in order to ensure that kids get a wide variety of nutrients their bodies need for proper growth and development."
- Recommended amount for kids: 1/2 to 3/4 cup
- Example foods: Spinach, peas, carrots, potatoes, lettuce and broccoli
Dairy-free products fortified with calcium may be substituted for children with lactose intolerance. The main point of this group is to supply a rich source of calcium, Dudash explains. "It is recommended that children 2 years and older choose low-fat and nonfat dairy products, including milk, yogurt and cheese," notes Amidor. "Dairy products contain nine essential nutrients, including calcium, which is a nutrient of concern."
- Recommended amount for kids: 1 cup
- Example foods: Low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt
Ideally, protein sources should be lean or have "good" fats, notes Dudash. "Protein helps kids grow and develop properly and build muscles," says Amidor. "Choose lean proteins like lean beef and pork, chicken (without the skin), eggs, fish, tofu, beans and lentils."
- Recommended amount for kids: 2 to 3 ounces
- Example foods: Chicken breast, salmon, tuna, turkey, chickpeas, eggs, peanut butter, edamame, hummus, and beef
Use oils that come from vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as soft table spreads made with no hydrogenated oils, Dudash recommends.
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Margie Mars is a happily married mother of eight and a "shockingly young Oma" of three who lives with her family in Oregon. She writes about parenting topics for several popular websites.