What to eat: Simplifying the suggested amounts for you and for your family
We are so lucky, as parents. We have so many opportunities to have a positive impact on our kids. This is true in a thousand different ways. One very important concept that we influence is our kids’ ability to understand what they should be eating. Serving sizes are a very convoluted and much-maligned concept that even most adults don’t understand. And not understanding serving sizes – just how much of a food you should be eating – has greatly impacted the general size of our population. Our ever-growing waistbands have a lot to do with eating too much (and moving too little, but that’s a topic for a different day).
The newest version of the Food Guide pyramid we all grew up with is now the MyPlate graphic, with each portion of the plate a different color, representing a different food group. This is all well and pretty, but it still doesn’t necessarily help us figure out just HOW MUCH we and our kids should be eating. I have to say, I love the pyramid. I learned it, I studied it, it was the focal point for my college studies, but … I understand that there is not an absolute answer to everyone’s nutritional education. So. MyPlate is good, too.
The strengths of the MyPlate plan is the overlying assumption that if you eat off a normal-sized plate (nine inches in diameter or smaller), and if you don't pile your food up too high, you're eating a normal, healthy amount for weight management if you are following the general guidelines outlined by the graphic (detailed below). In a sense, the lack of set serving sizes makes the Plate simpler to implement and understand than the pyramid once was; everyone can imagine the plate and the divisions for each category.Additionally, it should be understood that while most of your meals should ‘resemble’ the plate, you might happen to have a night of nutritional debauchery, say, and you shouldn’t feel guilty. Nutrition is not about absolutes. The idea is that ON THE WHOLE you are following the plan.
Still. As a parent, you are supposed to be feeding your kid(s) what they need in order to be healthy, to grow well and to be active. How are you supposed to do that without some numbers?! Just what is a serving size? And yes, it does matter how old you are! I’ll clarify the amounts below for each group.
Ok, half your plate should be fruit and veggies. It’d be great if these were a large variety and different types, but you know what? If your kid loves baby carrots and tomatoes, isn’t that better than nothing? Keep introducing new fruits and veggies and I promise, eventually he will say ‘yes!’ to something else. Color, color, color. My kids think baby spinach right out of the bag is ‘sneaking’, so I often deliberately will leave it open on the counter and they can sneak to their hearts’ content. Adults and teenagers should be eating 1 – 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ to 3 cups of veggies, while younger kids should be eating 1 – 1 ½ cups of fruit and 1 – 2 cups of veggies. That might seem like a lot but it’s really not. Look at your applesauce cups: that’s 2 servings right there. A banana is 2 servings. Even a smallish handful of carrots is one serving. A baseball is about the size of 2 servings. Trust me, these are not large amounts of food. As with all foods, the less added sugar and salt, the better. If you can pronounce it, it’s a good thing.
Why are fruits and veggies important in your diet? They offer the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. The natural forms of all of these vitamins and minerals function significantly better in your body than might a synthetic version. Fruits and veggies are also a great source of fluid and contribute towards your hydration levels. Fruits and veggies also do not contain cholesterols and, thanks to all of that fiber, help you to feel full for longer after a meal. Finally, fruits and veggies are nutrient dense, meaning they contain all of these amazing nutrients, and have few calories comparatively speaking. When possible, thinking about your plate, design your meals around fruits and veggies, instead of around meat.
The next large portion of your plate is the grain section. ¼ of the plate is devoted to grain. Grains should be ‘whole-grain’, meaning the nutrient- and fiber-rich parts are still in there (typically, this should be indicated on the nutritional label or have a stamp on the front). Whole-wheat pastas, brown rice and fun new (old) grains like farro, kamut and kasha are great for kids to try. You may not be able to get a tan on your skin any longer without being frowned upon, but in this case brown is better. Most grains cook in the same amount of time it takes to cook pasta. Adults and teens should be eating between 5 and 8 ounces, and kids should be eating 3 to 5 ounces each day. One ounce is about 1 slice of bread or a tortilla. A tennis ball is about the size of 1 cup of pasta or rice (roughly 2 ounces). Sometimes, it’s all you can do to get a kid to pick at a plate of pasta; make that pasta whole-grain butterflies, and I bet they’ll have fun making a game out of getting those in their mouth. Sometimes even pasta is finger-food.
Why are grains an important part of your diet? Grains, especially those that are ‘whole’ and have more of their nutrients intact, provide a number of vitamins and minerals that are not available in other foods, they offer a great source of complex carbohydrates (which is your body’s favorite fuel), are a great source of fiber, and are a rich source of non-heme iron (not from animal source). Grains are, unfortunately, much maligned in many fad diets. Please don’t avoid this food group, as it is a great source of nutrients and tastes great, too!
Ah, the protein section. Either the bane of a parent’s existence (‘My kid won’t eat any meat. At all. Ever!’) or the bulk of their kid’s intake (‘ Veggie? Oh, no. It’s all about meat for my little guy.’) What to do? Well, protein should be a bit less than ¼ of the plate. Protein should be lean sources, such as chicken or fish or fiber-rich legumes (see next paragraph for more on these plant-based proteins). Best cooking options are to grill, broil, roast or bake to keep meat/protein sauce-free and healthier. Of course, if all you can do is get one bread-coated nugget into your kid, get the most bang for your buck with a whole-grain crumb coating and a baked variety instead of fried. Adults and teens should be eating between 5 and 6 ounces, and your younger kids should be eating 2-5 ounces of protein each day. Look at the palm of your hand. That’s about the size of a 3-ounce serving of meat.
A unique part of the plate are the pulses (beans, legumes, peas, lentils, and other plant proteins. This category is a shape-shifter of sorts: If you regularly eat meat, poultry and fish, then this group is counted as part of your veggies. If you are a vegetarian, vegan or seldom eat meat, then this would count as your protein foods group.
Why are proteins important in your diet? Lean proteins and plant-based proteins supply a number of vitamins and nutrients that are not available in other food groups. Proteins, too, are often a focus of fad diets. I would encourage you to read more about these specialized diets before embarking on anything overly restrictive or one that eliminates whole groups of foods.
The circle outside the plate designates dairy (or dairy alternatives). Calcium-fortified soy, cheese, yogurt and milk all fall into this category. By now, your kids should be drinking/eating low-fat options, especially for their milk. I don’t know how big your glasses might be, but if you look at a woman’s fist, that’s about the size of a 1-cup portion. Adults and teens should be drinking 3 cups of dairy per day and kids should be enjoying 2 cups of dairy. One serving of cheese is about the size of a domino (equated to ½ c of dairy).
Why is this group so important? Calcium and protein, as well as potassium, and a few other nutrients. Many dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D, which is a power horse in the body and can be difficult to obtain in other food sources.
You’ll notice that the MyPlate design does not include a space for fats and sweets but we know you enjoy them. Fats and sweets, like all things, in moderation. At my house we say ‘No foods are bad foods, just inappropriate amounts.’
A couple more things to remember:
The amounts above are not hard-and-fast rules. They are guidelines. Some days maybe you won’t be as hungry as others. It’s more important that you listen to your own body and cues and eat when you are hungry, not when the clock says you should be hungry. It’s important to help your kids pay attention to these body cues as well. Also, as you might expect, food needs increase before and during growth spurts.
Very important: Water is best. Water, not juice. Not soda. Water. Juice is, in its own place, not a bad thing. But it lacks greatly for nutrients that the whole fruit and/or veggie provides.
Snacks are amazing things. Make them count. Veggies and whole grain cracker with hummus? Great snack. Frozen grapes? Great snack. Air-popped popcorn? Great snack.
Friends, trust me. Feeding yourself and your family healthfully should not be the hardest thing about parenting. I know it can be confusing, but it’s worth the endeavor to decipher all of the food guidelines. You know you’re doing a great job and hopefully, your kids will (eventually) thank you for your efforts.
One last note: Remember, I said the science of nutrition is a new one, right? Well, the more we learn, the more realize that nutrition is complicated. It's hard to prescribe RULES to fit everyone. A new group of guidelines have recently been released, and, again, they are at the same time comprehensive and yet still have holes. Some thoughts on the new guidelines here: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/rd-digests-new-dietary-guidelines-for-americans-2020-2025
For further reading: