Healthy Eating

Creating Healthy Eating Habits

“It’s important to offer children a wide variety of foods so they can try new things,” says Dr. Alexandra Roche, a CHOC Children’s Pediatric Specialist. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are always the best for kids. One of my biggest recommendations is to limit sweetened beverages as much as possible. Encouraging milk and water is best, with juice being okay once a day. Soda should only be for special occasions. Snacks or weeknight desserts can be yogurt with fruit, and then on the weekends, maybe dessert can be a special treat like cookies. Whole grains help keep people full longer, so offer whole wheat bread and pasta as opposed to white or highly processed foods.” For healthy snacks, Dr. Roche suggests granola, apple slices with peanut butter, carrots, hummus, fruit smoothies and low-fat yogurt.

Learn more about Kids and Healthy Eating Habits.

Current Diet Trends & Kids

Vegetarian Diet

A vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood and shellfish but includes eggs and dairy products. “It can be really healthy for children and teens. Vegetarian diets include a lot of healthy foods like fruit, veggies, whole grains and protein-rich foods like eggs, tofu, and dairy products. If your child is eating a variety of those foods, it can be very beneficial. On the other hand, if you have a picky eater, it can be a restrictive diet,” says CHOC clinical pediatric dietitian Vanessa Chrisman. Vegetarian diets are associated with lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer and type 2 diabetes, and a lower obesity risk, she notes.

Vegan Diet

Vegans are vegetarians who do not eat dairy, eggs, gelatin or other animal products. “A vegan diet can be healthy for kids too but this is a diet that can be restrictive and parents should seek help from a registered dietitian to make sure their child is meeting their nutritional needs. Calcium and B12 are two micronutrients that can be low in a vegan diet. However, if you include soy milk or other non-dairy milks in the diet, most are enriched with calcium and vitamin B12. Calcium is really important for children in the development of strong bones and teeth,” says Chrisman.

Paleo and Gluten-Free Diets

The Paleo diet is a newer diet trend that Chrisman says is less suited for children. “The paleo diet is a high-protein, high-fiber diet consisting of lean meat, fish, fruits, veggies, eggs and oil. It excludes grains, dairy, anything with sugar, salt, beans and other legumes. Supporters say it helps people lose weight. It’s hard for kids to maintain their growth on this diet and get all the nutrients they need,” she says. A gluten-free diet excludes wheat, barley and rye, and foods made from them. (Gluten is a protein found in those grains that some people may have an intolerance to.) “A gluten-free diet is safe for kids to follow, but if not medically necessary, there is no reason to follow it because it removes many healthy whole grain foods from the diet,” says Chrisman.

Young girl wearing chef hat and holding fork and knife with plate of food in front of her

Health Eating Tip Sheets

Ages Birth – 1 Year Old

Download Healthy Eating Tip Sheet for 0-1 Year Olds: English | Spanish

Smart Choices

  • Breast milk is best! It is recommended to exclusively breastfeed your infant for at least the first 6 months of life. This means no other food or drink (including water) except breast milk. Breast milk is nature’s perfect “first” food, supplying all of the important nutrients that your infant needs and should be continued during the first year of life.
  • If breastfeeding is not possible, iron-fortified infant formula is the only acceptable alternative.
  • Avoid propping your infant’s bottle with objects such as pillows or blankets.
  • Let your baby decide when to eat and how much.
  • Wait until your infant is around 6 months old before introducing solid food.
  • You may switch to cow’s milk after your baby’s first birthday or continue using breast milk. When feeding cow’s milk use whole milk only. Your baby needs the fat from whole milk to support normal growth and brain development.
  • Avoid feeding your baby juice during the first 12 months of life. It offers little to no nutritional benefit for your baby.
  • After that first birthday, it’s time to lose the bottle and transition your baby to using a cup.

Healthy Activities

  • Set aside tummy time (lying on their stomachs) for your baby 2-3 times each day up to 3-5 minutes each time while he or she is awake. Add more time as you see your infant enjoying tummy time.
  • No screen time, such as watching TV or programs on smartphones/tablets, is best for children under 18 months. Live video chats with families and friends are okay.
  • Avoid leaving your baby in places that restrict movement such as their car seats, strollers, bouncy seat etc. for long periods of time.

Planning For Success

  • Maintaining a regular feeding schedule helps your child expect when food will be available during the day. Ask your doctor for any questions on how much your child should eat.

 

Ages 1 – 3 Years

Download Healthy Eating Tip Sheet for 1-3 Year Olds: English | Spanish

Smart Choices

  • At age 1, your child is ready to start losing the bottle and transition in using a cup.
  • Choose milk or water for your toddler. It is recommended to feed whole milk until your child is 2 years old. The fat from whole milk helps to support normal growth and brain development.
  • Choose 100% juice for your toddler. Remember to set a limit to 4 ounces of juice per day.
  • Prevent tooth decay by not letting your toddler sleep with a bottle or sippy cup filled with juice or milk.
  • Offer your toddler 3 healthy meals and 2-3 healthy snacks a day. Avoid foods that may be a choking hazard such as popcorn, hot dogs, whole grapes and hard candies.
  • Let your child decide what and how much to eat.

Healthy Activities

  • No screen time, such as watching TV or programs on smartphones/tablets, is best for children under 18 months. Live video chats with families and friends are okay. Children 18-24 months may be introduced to digital media with high-quality programming. Limit screen use to 1 hour per day.
  • Set aside time for your toddler to run around and play every day. Programs such as Mommy & Me and Gymboree are fun for your toddler — and for you!

Planning For Success

  • As your child becomes more independent, he or she will probably want to feed themselves. Go ahead and let your child explore his or her food. Be patient with spills or messes, and keep a sense of humor handy at all times.
  • Reward your toddler in ways other than using food; studies show that using food as a reward is associated with extra weight gain.
  • Having a regular feeding schedule helps your child expect when food will be available during the day. Ask your doctor for any questions on how much your child should eat.

 

Ages 3 – 5 years

Download Healthy Eating Tip Sheet for 3-5 Year Olds: English | Spanish

Smart Choices

  • Make it a family affair — switch the entire family to low-fat or non-fat milk. It provides the same amount of calcium per serving for your growing child with fewer calories from fat.
  • Although fruit juice sounds healthy, it is mostly sugar. Limit your child’s intake on juice to 6ounces or less per day. Whole fruits provide more nutritional benefits like fiber that fruit juice does not provide.
  • Pay special attention to serving size on the nutrition facts label. Serving sizes on the facts label may not be the right portion for your child.
  • Disband the clean your plate club! Serve smaller portions and let your child ask for more.

Healthy Activities

  • Set aside some time for family meals. Children who participate in family meals are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables.
  • Enroll your child in organized sports or classes such as ballet, soccer or martial arts.
  • Do active things together as a family — walk, bike ride, play in the park or swim.
  • Limit screen time to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Co-view media with your children

Planning For Success

  • Provide healthy choices at mealtimes and then let your child decide from those choices what to eat and how much.
  • When making changes, keep them simple and incorporate them into your daily routine.
  • Picky eating is a normal behavior for preschoolers. The best thing you can do is to continue offering foods that your child has rejected in the past. Consistency and patience is key!

 

Ages 5 – 12 years

Download Healthy Eating Tip Sheet for 5-12 Year Olds: English | Spanish

Smart Choices

  • Make half your plate colorful with fruits and vegetables for each meal. Serve lean meats like grilled chicken or fish as your protein. Quinoa and soy make good plant-based complete proteins.
  • Switch your dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese to low-fat or not-fat. They provide the same amount of calcium per serving for your growing child with fewer calories from fat.
  • Make at least half of your daily grains whole grain such as whole wheat bread. This provides lots of fiber which helps promote normal bowel movements, keep you full between meals and prevent heart disease.
  • Do not skip breakfast! Provide a well-balanced breakfast that will fuel your child’s day. If you are on the run, a grab-and-go breakfast item, such as fresh fruit, dry fiber-rich cereal, or granola bars are better than skipping breakfast.
  • Drink smart! Always drink plenty of water every day to re-hydrate your body. You can avoid piling on extra calories by limiting fruit juices and avoiding other sugary drinks like soda. Save those drinks for special occasions.

Healthy Activities

  • Participate in at least 1 hour of physical activity each day. Add daily routines that the entire family can be involved in, such as after-dinner walks.
  • A family calendar is a great way to get organized and stay on track with your busy schedules. Family calendars can include after-school activities, meal planning, and homework time.

Planning For Success

  • Keep healthy foods your child likes within easy reach for snack time.
  • When making changes, keep them simple and incorporate them into your daily routine.
  • Start small and build on success. Pick one small change your family can make together, like eliminating soda. After mastering that, make another small change like watching portion size.

Ages Teen years

Download Healthy Eating Tip Sheet for Teen Years: English | Spanish

Smart Choices

  • Offer each food group for every meal and select healthy choices from each food group. The 5 food groups are: vegetable, fruit, dairy, protein and grain. One way to make sure your adolescent is eating these food groups is to have family meals together.
  • By this time, your adolescent has entered a growth spurt of puberty which means a rise in their appetite. Boys require an average of 2,800 calories per day. Girls require an average of 2,200 calories per day.
  • Provide a variety of healthy foods for snack time.
  • When you eat out, think of “fast-food fuel.” Choose from the healthier side of the menu, such as pizza topped with vegetables, salads or grilled chicken selections.
  • Only serve soda during special occasions and choose varieties without sugar or caffeine.
  • Break-The-Fast! Insist on breakfast every morning, no matter how busy your kids are. Healthy choices include cereal, non-fat milk, yogurt, fruit or toast.

Healthy Activities

  • Being a parent doesn’t mean you have to stop participating in the activities you love. Set a good example and stay active.
  • Adolescents should be physically active 60 minutes every day. Whether it be all at once or broken up throughout the day.
  • Set limits on the time, places and the types of media your adolescent uses. Make sure it does not take time away from their sleep, physical activity, school work and other healthy behaviors.

Planning For Success

  • Encourage a healthy body image and accept your children for who they are.
  • Focus less on weight and more on educating yourself and your adolescent on preparing delicious healthy meals and living a healthy lifestyle.