When it comes to helping kids be smart eaters, I usually like to focus on behavioral strategies.  In other words, strategies that help kids learn how to eat more so than what to eat. By mastering the behavioral aspects, your child will ultimately be empowered to make smart choices even when you’re not around.

That said, every once in a while, I still like to focus on the nitty-gritty of what kids should actually be eating. It’s a good reality check that helps me prioritize what foods and strategies I need to focus on.
So what is the ideal diet anyway?

It’s tough to know when every time you read a magazine or turn on the news, there are conflicting opinions on what the “ideal” should be. Truth be told, good nutrition should be individualized for specific health needs, family health history, etc.  But while there are slight differences in what the experts recommend, the same general advice holds true for most Americans:

Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and eat less sugar, saturated fat and the overly-processed stuff.

If you and your family follow that general advice, you’re probably in pretty good shape. But it can be helpful to take a deeper dive into the “ideal.” One good place to start is ChooseMyPlate.gov, which you’re probably familiar with (it used to be the Food Pyramid).  The recommendations are developed by an advisory committee of scientists and nutritionist who represent diverse areas of health and nutrition. So even if you don’t agree with every single recommendation they make, overall it’s a pretty good model.

One good thing about ChooseMyPlate.gov is that you can create a meal plan specific to the age and activity level of your child (or for yourself).

Here is a sample plan for a 4-year-old boy who is active for more than 60 minutes per day (like my son who has to move, move, move all the time).

First, it’s kind of shocking that someone so little could need 1600 calories per day, right? But remember, this takes into account their activity level and the fact that they’re growing. Also remember that kids are generally really good at regulating their calorie intake (until we start to mess it up by making them “take 5 more bites” or “finish everything on their plate). So some days they may eat more and other days they may eat less.

You probably can also tell at a pretty quick glance what area your child is falling short on. For most of us, it’s the vegetable group.

So, once you have that realization, you can start working on it in lots of little ways. For example:

  • Chop up some veggies and store them on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, so your child can help herself to them.
  • Incorporate veggies into every-day favorites like stir fry and mac n cheese. Or blend them into dips and sauces like Asparagus Pesto.
  • Change your afternoon snack routine so that veggies are always a part of it. Your child may scoff at first, but you’re working to build long-term habits.

I also like to dig a bit deeper into a few of the food groups, especially vegetables. Here’s a look at how many specific vegetables an active 4-year-old boy should aim to eat per week.

Unfortunately, most kids (and adults) have pretty limited habits, so this can help you focus on variety. I like to periodically take a look at this list when I’m meal planning or grocery shopping – or even pause to think about it in the middle of the week. If I haven’t served any dark greens in a few days, I’ll make a point to serve them. This doesn’t necessarily mean my kids will actually eat them, but I’ll least make them an option.

Let us know in the comments section if you have questions about any of this – or what you find most challenging about working to the “ideal” and we’ll be sure to address them in future posts.


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