Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone – especially for a growing child.
But what does a healthy, well-balanced meal consist of and how can parents help their children choose nutritious foods?
Using MyPlate, a tool developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, you can quickly determine if the food on your child's plate is healthy and is a good mix of vegetables, protein, grains and dairy. MyPlate replaced the Food Pyramid most parents remember learning about in school. While the pyramid was meant to help guide families, MyPlate offers easier-to-understand advice by describing what your plate should look like at each meal.
"MyPlate is a great way to build a meal," says Denon Stacy, registered dietitian at Children's Health℠. "It's balanced, easy to follow and gives parents a lot of options to provide many different nutrients for their children."
How to use MyPlate to build a healthy meal
One of the most important things a parent should keep in mind is that good nutrition and eating healthy is a process. Making healthy food choices doesn't happen overnight. Using the MyPlate tool as a guide can help establish healthy eating habits in the long-term.
According to MyPlate:
- Half the plate should consist of fruits and vegetables
- A quarter of the plate should contain a lean meat, like chicken, fish or pork loin
- A quarter of the plate should contain a 100% whole-grain item such as brown rice, pasta or tortillas
- Include low-fat dairy at every meal, either as a drink or as part of the dish
Of course, not all plates will look the same because foods can be combined. For instance, a salad with cheese and lean meat may take up the whole plate. What matters most is that the plate consists of mostly vegetables with the appropriate size servings of meat, grain and dairy.
Dietary restrictions and MyPlate
If your child has food restrictions like food allergies, a lactose intolerance or celiac disease, you can still use MyPlate and substitute in the foods your child needs.
For instance, instead of dairy milk, give your child a glass of soy milk for his or her "dairy" serving. For the whole grain serving, if your child has to avoid wheat, offer brown rice.
Stacy also suggests that any child who has a dietary restriction see a dietitian to ensure proper nutrition is offered at every meal.
Other tips for a healthy, balanced diet for kids
While MyPlate makes planning for a balanced meal easier, you could still face nutritional challenges with your child, especially if they are a picky eater. Stacy offers parents the following advice:
- Be a role model for your child. Eating any fruit, vegetable, protein or dairy product you want your child to eat. Watching parents eat healthy meals instills healthy eating habits from an early age.
- Try preparing veggies in different ways. Vegetables that are steamed, roasted or raw can taste very different. You can also offer your child cheese or dips, such as light salad dressing or hummus, with their vegetables.
- Involve children in meal planning. As children grow up, encourage them to take part in the preparation and cooking of meals. See age-appropriate tips.
- Allow children to express their hunger and fullness. Avoid requiring your child clean their plates. Doing so can cause them to ignore their body's signals about hunger and fullness. This can lead to overeating. If your child doesn't finish the food on their plate, you can save it for later and offer it to them if they get hungry.
- Choose healthy snacks. Even with balanced meals, many growing kids still need snacks. While a meal typically fits on a plate and contains three or more food groups, a snack is a smaller portion with one or two food groups that would fit in one or both hands. Make sure kids are snacking only when hungry, and choose healthy options like fruits, vegetables, fat-free popcorn, string cheese or low-fat yogurt.
With the right balance of healthy snacks and healthy meals using MyPlate guidance, you can help children receive the energy they need to grow, play and learn.
Setting goals and making one healthy choice at a time can help your family on the journey to wellness. Learn more about our pediatric weight management programs and services.
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