How to Create a Healthy Plate

Healthy Meal Plans for Kids

Parents often ask nutritionists, “What should I feed my child?”

Whether it stems from concerns about picky eating, the worry that they’re consuming too much junk food, or just supporting their growing body, many parents share a sense that their child is not eating as well as they could. Sometimes they have good reason to think this, but not always.

This may be partly due to the influence of social media and blogging. People love to post photos of their kids’ healthy lunch boxes or boast about how their kids love smoothies made with dandelion greens and ginger. That’d be enough to make Gwyneth Paltrow jealous.

At the same time, the food industry spends billions a year marketing highly processed junk foods to children and teenagers, including sweetened cereals, packaged lunches with processed meats and candies, and juice drinks that are, essentially, flat soda.

In many instances, the deck is stacked against parents.

When trying to get a balanced view, it’s important to remember that the same rules that apply to adult nutrition also apply to children, but with different caloric requirementsTrusted Source.

Whereas the average adult needs about 2,000 daily calories, a 3-year-old’s caloric needs range from 1,000 to 1,400. Children from ages 9 to 13, meanwhile, need between 1,400 to 2,200 calories, depending on their growth and activity level.

As with adults, the Dietary Guidelines for AmericansTrusted Source encourage children to consume foods from a variety of food groups: protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy.

However, dairy isn’t essential, as you can also get nutrients like calciumpotassiumprotein, and vitamin D from plant-based foods.

Nutrition science shows that children can meet nutrient needs without dairy, or any animal products, as long as their diet contains a variety of nutrient-dense, plant-based foods. Children who follow a vegan diet need to supplement with vitamin B-12.

To help you visualize a day of healthy eating, below are two eating plans. One is for a 6-year-old, and another is for a 14-year-old.

As with adult nutrition, it’s important to:

  • prioritize whole grains over
    refined grains
  • choose whole fruit over fruit juice
  • keep added sugars to a minimum

There are no specific caloric recommendations per meal or snack. The caloric total for the day is most important.

A Day in the Life of a 6-Year-Old


1 ounce of grains (e.g., 1 slice of whole grain toast)

1 ounce of protein (e.g., 1 tablespoon of nut/seed butter)

1 cup of dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup of milk of choice)


1 cup of fruit (e.g., a banana)

1/2 ounce of grains (e.g., 1/2 cup of oat-based cereal)


2 ounces protein + 1 teaspoon oil (e.g., 2 ounces protein of choice, cooked in 1 teaspoon olive oil)

1/2 cup vegetables + 1 teaspoon oil (e.g., 1/2 cup carrots roasted in 1 teaspoon oil)

1 ounce of grains (e.g., 1/2 cup of cooked rice)



1/2 cup of vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup of celery sticks)

1 ounce of protein (e.g., 2 tablespoons of hummus)



2 ounces of grains (1 cup of cooked pasta)

1 ounce of protein of choice

1/2 cup of vegetables



1 cup of dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup of yogurt of choice)

1/2 cup of fruit (e.g., 4 strawberries)

A Day in the Life of a 14-Year-Old


1 ounce of grains + 1 cup dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., oatmeal: 1/3 cup dry oats + 1 cup milk)

1 ounce of protein (e.g., 12 almonds)

1/2 cup of fruit (e.g., 1/2 of a Granny Smith apple)

1 cup of dairy/dairy equivalent (e.g., 1 cup of milk of choice)


1 ounce of grains (1 ounce of whole grain crackers)

1 ounce of protein (1 tablespoon of nut/seed butter)




  • 2 ounces of grains (e.g., 2 slices of 100 percent whole
    grain bread)
  • 2 ounces of protein of choice
  • 1 cup of vegetables (e.g. tomato, lettuce, cucumbers,
  • 1/4 cup of avocado

1 cup of fruit (e.g., a banana)



1 cup of dairy/dairy equivalent (1 cup of yogurt of choice)


Chili, cooked in 1 tablespoon olive oil:

  • 2 ounces protein (e.g., 1/2 cup beans of choice)
  • 1/2 cup vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup red and green
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetables (e.g., 1/2 cup corn, 1/2 cup red
    and green peppers, 1/2 cup tomato puree)
  • 2 ounces grains (e.g., 1 large slice cornbread)



Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a dietitian and former author of “Small Bites.” He is currently the strategic director at Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Follow him on Twitter @andybellatti




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Last medically reviewed on March 24, 2020

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Medically reviewed by Atli Arnarson BSc, PhD — Written by Andy Bellatti, MS, RD — Updated on March 24, 2020