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Nebraska Department of Education
Nutrition Services
301 Centennial Mall South
PO Box 94987
Lincoln, NE 68509-9487

(800) 731-2233 (Nebraska Only)
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Child & Adult Care Food Program

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Healthy diets for children

by Laura Byrns, R.D., Program Specialist, Nutrition Services

Balance, variety and moderation. These key words are used by dietitians and nutritionists when describing a healthy diet for adults. These three key words also describe a healthy diet for children. Balance means eating enough, but not too much, of any one food or food group. Eating a variety of foods provides energy and a variety of nutrients. Children need the same nutrients as their parents do only in different amounts. Moderation promotes health now and in the future. Like adults, children above the age of two years should receive no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat. The Food Guide Pyramid is a guideline for healthy eating designed for children aged two or more, as well as for teens and adults. The pyramid is flexible enough for everyone, even the food preferences of children. For the menu planner, having a wide variety of foods is probably the most difficult and challenging task. Serving a wide variety of foods ensures adequate nutrition by providing the energy, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber needed for good health. Not only does no one food group provide all of the nutrients we need, no one food within a food group provides all of the nutrients we need. So it is important to include a wide variety of foods when planning meals and snacks. Balance and moderation are achieved by following the guidelines set forth regarding number and size of servings that are required to meet the standards for minimum quantity served. Contrary to popular belief, many kids like trying new things. According to Elaine Moquette-Magee, master of public health and registered dietitian, if there is something unusual about it, like a silly shape or strange color or texture, kids are willing to try it. Some children even really like salads and vegetables. No matter what their age, kids love to eat with their hands. Finger foods can be a fun way to get children to try new foods and to add a twist to a familiar food. The introduction of a new fruit or vegetable provides an opportunity to learn. Fruits and vegetables come in a variety of colors, textures, sizes and shapes. While serving a new fruit or vegetable have one available to talk about. Let the kids touch the food and talk about how it feels, relate the shape to other things in their environment, talk about the where the fruit is grown and how growers get it to market or how it is bought, stored, and prepared in your facility. Discuss the color and how it changes during the growing period. Sparking children's curiosity will increase their willingness to try new foods. Snack time provides the perfect opportunity to experiment with a variety of foods. Children's tastes are different than adults. Children enjoy natural flavors so adjust seasonings to children's tastes. Many younger children prefer plain, unmixed foods. Salt, fat and sugar should be used in moderation. Make snack a pleasant time and involve the children. Make sure that each child is served a reimbursable snack. 

Getting Kids to Try Something New

  • Make foods appealing and the plate attractive.
  • Serve new foods with familiar favorites.
  • Make fruits and vegetables fun to eat, kids like the bright colors and crisp texture of vegetables.
  • Offer raw vegetables that can be easily nibbled by hand.
  • Let kids "assemble" foods in a way that suits them, i.e., salads and sandwiches.
  • Cut foods into fun shapes like hearts and diamonds.
  • Brown bag it. Try sack lunches and have a picnic indoors or out. 

Snack Ideas to Add Variety

  • Make melon balls by using a melon ball scoop for cantaloupe and other melons. These can also be frozen.
  • Fill celery sticks with peanut butter and sprinkle on raisins.
  • Add grated carrots, tomato wedges, raisins or orange segments to the standard lettuce salad.
  • Serve raw cauliflower and broccoli florets.
  • Make blender drinks by adding bananas, strawberries, canned or fresh peaches, pears or crushed pineapple to low-fat yogurt and milk.
  • Make a simple fruit salad. Try chopped apples, bananas, strawberries, and peaches. To keep the fruit from browning, drizzle with vitamin C rich fruit juice like orange or pineapple.
  • Dip fruits in low fat yogurt.
  • Top pancakes with fruit or berries
  • Freeze banana slices and serve them right out of the freezer.
  • Have a medley of dried fruit.
  • Vegetable sticks such as zucchini, bell pepper, asparagus spears, carrot and celery.
  • Oven-baked lower-fat French fries.
  • String fruits and vegetables on skewers to make colorful kabobs. Mix a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes, i.e., fresh mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, onion wedges, zucchini coins and green cauliflower for a vegetable kabob. Pineapple chunks, strawberries, kiwi coins, apple wedges, seedless grapes, and banana circles for a fruit kabob.
  • Mini pizzas with assorted vegetable toppings.
  • Include the grain group, i.e., pasta salad, English muffins, bread sticks, whole wheat bagels, soft tortillas or tortilla chips, soft or hard pretzels (unsalted), graham crackers and gingersnaps.
  • Include the meat group, i.e., trail mix, dry roasted peanuts, sunflower seeds, part skim mozzarella cheese, hard boiled eggs, garbanzo beans, peanut butter, dips made from yogurt, cottage cheese or beans. As the menu planner you should taste combinations of foods. Not all foods go together like bean dip and tortilla chips, cheddar cheese and apples, or milk and cookies. For example orange slices because of their acidic nature may not taste good with milk or yogurt but would be fine with graham crackers or popcorn. Be creative! Use your imagination! The variety that you can add to the snacks you serve is limitless.

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