Healthy Eating for Kids

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 6 minutes

What to know about building healthy eating habits in kids

  • Learning healthy eating habits now will build the basis of your child’s eating habits in the future

  • Good nutrition will help provide the foundation of a healthy life

  • Get tips on feeding your child healthy foods and developing good eating habits

Good nutrition is important at every stage in your child’s development. But as they get older, the days where your once baby or tot gobbled up everything that you offered without protest seem long gone.

As your little one grows up, external influences like other kids, teachers, busy on-the-go lifestyles, and even television shows and commercials can start to shape your child’s idea of what eating and food choices should look like.1,8

Now, more than ever, is the time to keep building upon and reinforcing a strong foundation of healthy eating for your growing child.

Why is healthy eating important during childhood?

Good nutrition in young children has a profound influence on their overall health and wellbeing. This includes decreasing the risks of disease now and later in life, maintaining a healthy weight, stabilizing their moods, and even sharpening their minds.2,5,6 A healthy diet also has a positive influence on a child’s mental and emotional well-being.3,4

The benefits don’t stop there – did you know that healthy eating habits are more likely to stick with you if you learn them as a child?7 Creating an environment where nutrient rich foods are a priority can help to shape your child’s lifelong eating habits and preferences.

Read more: Helping Your Child Learn to Love Healthy Foods

Need some tips to help feed your little one healthfully? Reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am - 6pm (ET). Chat Now!

Nutrition tips for kids

Here are some tips to help not only feed your child nutritiously, but also help them build healthy eating habits to last a lifetime.

Offer a variety of foods at all meals and snacks

Offer a variety of whole foods across all food groups. Choices like fruits, vegetables; a variety of proteins such as poultry, lean beef, fish, beans, tofu, and eggs; whole grains, dairy, and healthy fats such as avocado and nut butters.2,9 These foods offer the most bang for your buck in terms of nutritional quality.

Plus, when you vary the foods offered, your little one is getting a better balance of the nutrients they need to grow and develop.

What to do

Meals: Aim to provide a protein, a whole grain, and a vegetable and/or fruit at every meal. Let your little one decide what and how much of those healthy foods to eat.

Snacks: Make sure these “mini-meals” are wholesome as well! Offering a combo of protein (yogurt, cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs, etc) and a high fiber carbohydrate (whole grain crackers, fruits, veggies) will help give your little one nutrition as well as lasting energy.

Recipe and Snack Ideas:

Meal Plan for 6 to 9 Month Old Baby

Meal Plan for 12 Month Old Toddler

Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Months Old Toddler

Let your child listen to their hunger and fullness cues

As much as we want our kids to eat all their veggies, don’t bribe or force them. Children shouldn’t have to “clean their plates.”10 Making your little one finish what they are eating may make them ignore their natural hunger and fullness cues and create unhealthy eating habits for the future.12

What to do

Let your child listen to their body and decide when they’ve had enough, even if their plate is not clean. And if they are still hungry, let them eat more of the foods they are enjoying from that meal!

Learn about: Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues: Responsive Feeding

Establish meal and snack routines

Young children thrive on routine. Offer meals and snacks at about the same time each day.13

Having sit-down snacks between meals, and not just letting your little one graze on food all day, will help them come to the table hungry and ready to eat for mealtimes.14,15 This can also help your child eat more of the healthy foods you offer.

What to do

Try to have all snacks and meals eaten while sitting down without being distracted by other activities. Space meals and snacks 2 to 3 hours apart.15

Read more: Healthy and Easy Snacks for Moms and Toddlers

Limit processed foods

Our lives are busier than ever and sometimes a home cooked meal just might not be in the cards. In fact, recent research has showed that ultra-processed foods now fill up to 67% of kid’s (ages 2 to 19 years) total diet.16

Do your best to limit the amount of exposure your child has to convenience type foods (think packaged heat-to-eat meals, sugary cereals, and snack foods.) These are havens for added salts and sugars, while also being low in nutritional quality.

What to do

To help with days you are short on time, stock your pantry and fridge with on-the-go healthy snacks and meals, such as:

  • Nut butter on whole grain bread with a side of baby carrots

  • Hummus with chopped veggies and whole grain crackers

  • Cheese sticks, fruit, and whole grain crackers

  • Hard-boiled eggs, cut cucumber, toast

  • Yogurt with berries and chopped nuts

  • Ingredients for fruit smoothies

If you do have to grab a meal on the run, try to add a side of fruit or cut veggies to it to help add some extra nutrition. To help make healthier choices, select foods that are grilled and not fried; ask for sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side; order the kid’s size to help keep portions on target; and choose water or milk most often.26

Learn about:

Healthy Snacks for Babies and Toddlers

8 Tips for Simple, Quick, Healthy Cooking

Limit fruit juice and other sugary drinks

Sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of sugar to our children’s diets.17 Sugary drinks, including juice, don’t offer much nutrition, but they do offer excess, empty calories. The problem is that taking in too many added sugars may increase kids’ risk of different diseases both now and in the future.18

What to do

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting your child’s intake of fruit juice to:

  • ½ cup or less per day for children ages 1 through 3 years

  • 4 to 6 ounces from children ages 4 through 6 years

  • 8 ounces for kids 7 through 17 years19,20

Instead of juice and other sugary beverages, offer water liberally and up to 2 to 3 (8 ounce) cups of milk per day.21

Eat together

YOU are the best role model for your child. From a very young age, your little one watches you during meal and snacks times, mimicking both how and what you eat.23 In fact, what children eat is strongly associated with what their parents eat.22

Eating together as a family encourages your child to be a more adventurous eater and sets the tone for appropriate mealtime behavior.

What to do

Eat any healthy foods you’d like your little one to eat, including plenty of vegetables and fruit. Keep the focus on the meal; eat at the table, turn off the TV, and limit other distractions.24

Read more: Family Meals: Developing Healthy Eating Patterns

Remember your role: Division of Responsibility

Your role as the parent is to decide what healthy foods to offer to your child to eat. It is their job to decide how much or even if they will eat at all.25 Dividing this responsibility helps to reduce the stress at meal time while letting your child make decisions about their meal.10

Mealtimes can lead to power struggles in young children. Hold your ground with what you are offering.

What to do

Offer at least 3 different healthy foods at meals: a protein, a whole grain, and a veggie or fruit. Let your little one decide what they’ll eat and how much of it.

No need to force your child to eat any certain foods. Simply seeing the foods over and over, along with also seeing you eat them, will help them eventually become more adventurous eaters.

Make sure that there is at least one food on the table you know your child will eat.

Learn about: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

Let's Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

Read more about the experts that help write our content!

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Nutrient Needs and Feeding Tips for 6 to 12 Month Olds

Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas

What Type of Milk Should my Toddler Drink?