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Nutrition for Children and Teenagers

This article discusses the specific dietary needs of children and teenagers.

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Nutrition for school-age children

Nutrition for Children and Teenagers

School-age children and teenagers are much more independent when it comes to making food choices. Children and young adults need a different type of guidance. No matter what their age, learning the importance of a healthy diet and a healthy weight is essential to good health and growing into a healthy adult.

School-age children are no longer toddlers yet not quite teenagers. At this age they are beginning to eat away from home and make their own food choices more frequently. Children at this age grow at a rapid pace.

Children need the same nutrients as adults but in different amounts. Just as for adults, it is important for growing children to eat a variety of foods from each food group to ensure optimal intake of all vitamins and minerals.

A well-nourished and fit child is better able to learn and has more energy, stamina, and self-esteem. A healthy eating pattern along with regular exercise helps children to get fit. The calorie needs of school-age children vary greatly and depend on growth rate, activity level, and body size. All children need at least the lowest end of the serving range from each food group in the Food Guide Pyramid. Most school-age children need about 1,000 to 2,200 calories each day. The table below gives the number of servings in each food group for this caloric intake.

Number of Servings for Kids Ages Six to Twelve

Food Group Number of Servings*
Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta 6-9
Vegetables 3-4
Fruit 2-3
Milk, yogurt, and cheese 2-3
Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts 2-3 (about 5-6 ounces)

*Children may prefer smaller servings. Serving several smaller serving sizes can still add up to the total recommended number of servings for the day.

Eating at School
For school-age children, school meals can contribute significantly to overall daily dietary intake. Some children may bring their lunch from home, while others may participate in the school lunch program. The National School Lunch Program, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides about a third of the RDA for students. Children from low-income families are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Fact: Children grow rapidly during these years—typically, they grow one to two feet in height and almost double their weight from six to twelve years of age.

School meals are planned to help moderate fat intake and offer more fiber through whole grains and fresh fruits. It is a smart idea to become familiar with the menu if your child participates in the school lunch program. If your child carries a lunch to school, pack lunches that are pleasing and fun to eat, as well as healthy, safe, and nutritious. A well-balanced packed lunch might include a sandwich with whole wheat-bread and a lean, protein-rich filling, such as turkey chicken, tuna, egg, cheese, or peanut butter; fresh fruit and/or vegetables; low-fat or fat-free milk; and graham crackers, Jell-0, or another simple low-fat dessert. Be aware of food safety measures when packing your child's lunch, such as keeping perishable foods well chilled.

Eating After School
School-age children consume snacks primarily after school. After-school snacks can be a nutritious way to make sure children get the energy and nutrients they need to properly fuel their bodies and to ensure proper growth and development. Snacking can be part of a healthy diet if snacks are chosen correctly. It is another opportunity to incorporate needed food groups into the child's daily diet.

Some speedy after-school snack ideas include the following:

  • Bagel or English muffin pizza
  • Shaker pudding. Pour 2 cups of milk into a jar with a lid, add 1 small box instant pudding mix, and shake for one minute.
  • Tortilla rollups. Roll a tortilla with shredded cheese, microwave until cheese is soft, and dip in salsa.
  • Peanut butter on a mini bagel
  • Cereal topped with fruit and milk
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Fruited yogurt topped with granola
  • Cut-up vegetables dipped in low-fat ranch salad dressing
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Pretzels
  • Banana pops. Peel a banana, dip it first in yogurt and then in crushed breakfast cereal or granola; freeze.
  • Celery with low-fat cream cheese
  • Peanut butter on graham crackers
  • Fresh fruit (cut up and ready in a bowl, easy to grab and eat)
  • Low-fat string cheese
  • Breakfast bars
  • Banana or apple topped with peanut butter
  • Fruit shake-up. Put ½ cup low-fat yogurt and 1/2 cup cold fruit juice in an unbreakable, covered container. Shake it up and pour it in a cup.

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