The other day I had a mom ask me (somewhat embarrassed), “What do I feed my child?” She’s a great mom and I’ve known her since the birth of her baby. Her honest question reflects the concerns of many parents.

All children need sound nutrition and foods rich in vitamins and nutrients. If you remember that you are fueling your child’s growing brain and body, you may think twice before microwaving chicken nuggets and going to the fast food drive through. It is my opinion that we as a society are propagating this notion of “kid food,” (e.g., mac n’ cheese, hot dogs, French fries, chicken nuggets.) These foods have very little nutritional value.

So what should you feed your child (this applies to children over age 1)?

Drinks: Think water and milk.

  • Milk. The general rule of thumb is that your child should get about 2-3 servings of milk a day. Most kids can get this if they drink 16 oz of milk (2 cups) and a have another dairy product (e.g., cheese, yogurt). 1-2 year olds need whole milk. Over 2 years should drink low fat milk (skim-2%).
  • Don’t give juice. Parents love juice. Pediatricians and dentists don’t. We’ve been fed by the media the message that kids should have juice. This simply is not true. Juice (even “natural” or “100%”) has a lot of sugar (it may be fruit sugar, but sugar nonetheless). Your child is better eating the actual fruit and getting the other benefits (like fiber). The American Academy of Pediatrics says to limit a child’s juice intake to no more than 4 oz a day (this is a half a cup). Parents often put juice in sippy cups and let a child have it throughout the day. This is terrible for a child’s teeth (it’s hard to fight cavities when you’re pouring sugar on the teeth multiple times a day).

Fruits and Vegetables. Eat more.

  • I can’t remember the last time I encountered a child who ate too many fruits and veggies. I feel pretty confident in saying your child isn’t getting enough. Fruits and veggies are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, etc. For the most part, fruits and veggies are power foods and kids can’t get enough.
  • Try veggies both cooked and raw. Your child may prefer one way over the other. At our house, we do a fruit at every meal and a vegetable at lunch and dinner. Be creative. Broccoli may be trees, carrot sticks may be mini swords. My child won’t eat sweet potatoes or squash, but when I puree it into an “orange, smooth” soup, he will. We also grew zucchini in our garden this year. Allowing my son to be a part of the planting, growing, watering, and picking process made him interested in eating it. The same applies when we grocery shop (he helps choose the fruits and veggies).
  • Fruit examples: Apples, oranges, bananas, grapes (be careful if your child is <2 for the choking hazard), melons, pineapple, berries, etc.
  • Vegetable examples: Carrots, broccoli, zucchini, spinach, corn, beans, peas, avocados, tomatoes, etc.

Proteins. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs.

  • Stay away from breaded and fried versions of these foods. Try grilled or baked versions.
  • Many kids (esp. those who aren’t growing/gaining weight well) do not get enough protein in their diets.
  • If you or your child is vegetarian, consult a nutritionist or your doctor to ensure your child is getting enough protein (e.g., soy, tofu, nuts)
  • Examples: Chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna, halibut, eggs, steak, pork tenderloin, pork chops.

Grains/starches: Cereals, breads, potatoes, rice.

  • Whenever possible, opt for whole grain and wheat products over white and processed.
  • Examples: Whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, waffles, cereal (when choosing cereal, try not to have sugar or corn syrup as one of the first 3 ingredients).

Fats and sweets. Eat less butter, margarine, oil/fried foods, cakes, cookies, candy.

  • As a general rule, these items should be very limited in your child’s diet. There is a pandemic of obesity in today’s children and these foods are largely to blame
  • Exception: If your child is failing to thrive, your pediatrician may encourage more fats than usual in your child’s diet. That said, some fats are better than others (rich in Omega fats, etc.). Consult your pediatrician before purposely putting your child on a high-fat diet.

Sample Menu (based on my experience and from the American Academy of Pediatrics)

  1. Breakfast:
    • Glass of milk
    • Iron-fortified cereal (or oatmeal) or an egg
    • Sliced fruit (e.g., a banana, blueberries, cantaloupe)
    • Whole wheat toast (with a teaspoon of jelly)
  2. Snack
    • Cheese or hummus with crackers
    • Fruit (e.g., apple, orange, strawberries)
    • Raw veggies (e.g., carrot sticks)
    • Yogurt
  3. Lunch
    • Glass of milk
    • Sandwich (half or whole depending on your child’s age) made of whole wheat bread, deli meat, cheese, and veggies (avocado, lettuce, tomato, sprouts)
    • Green beans (or other veggie)
    • Fruit (pineapple or pear)
  4. Another snack (see examples above)
  5. Dinner
    • Water or milk to drink
    • 2-4 oz of meat (e.g., grilled chicken breast), depending on your child’s age
    • 1/3 cup-1 cup of pasta, rice or potato, depending on your child’s age
    • Vegetable (e.g., steamed broccoli) e. Fruit (e.g., blackberries)

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About The Author

Dr. Monica Wonnacott

I'm a pediatrician and a mom. I've been doing this doctor thing for 10 years, and love it. I'm known for giving parents the straight scoop without always sugar-coating it. And I believe in educating parents. The more you know, the better care you give your kids.

Dr. Monica Wonnacott

I'm a pediatrician and a mom. PediatricAnswers.com is my blog where parents can get the straight scoop on their child's health, largely based on my experience in the office and at home. I don't diagnose on the site, so please don't ask. These are just my opinions. Use this site as a resource. And trust your parent gut.

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