While the physical size of a child increases steadily between the ages of 5 and 10 years, the ways in which he thinks (intellectual growth), his feelings about things (emotional growth), and how he interacts with other children and adults around him (social growth) all develop much more rapidly. A child needs to eat a variety of healthy foods, usually three meals plus snacks, to get enough energy (calories) and nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) for optimal growth and development. Therefore, during this middle-childhood period, it is important for parents (and children) to pay close attention to what children eat and how much.
The following information summarizes the nutritional needs of children during the middle-childhood years. The goal is to make it easier for you to help your child learn healthy eating habits. By learning healthy eating habits, all children can:
- Develop normally and reach their full growth potential
- Be healthy
- Avoid health problems during childhood directly related to nutrition, such as iron-deficiency anemia (low iron in the blood), poor growth, obesity (being overweight) and cavities
- Stay healthy into adulthood, by decreasing the risks of getting certain chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis and even some forms of cancer
Serve child-sized portions of well-balanced meals
Children between the ages of 5 and 10 years typically need between 1,200 and 1,800 calories per day, but the number of calories will be different depending on your child's age, body size, how active he is and how quickly he is growing. It is usually not necessary to count calories, but it is important for you to offer a variety of nutritious foods from each of the food groups every day.
During middle childhood, children tend to grow at a slow, steady rate, just like during the toddler and preschool years. On average, children have fairly good appetites during these years, but with variation from week to week — increasing during growth spurts and decreasing during periods of slower growth. With the onset of puberty, which typically occurs late in middle childhood or early in adolescence, this rate of growth (and a child's appetite) increases considerably.
Your child will get enough calories and all the necessary nutrients from an average daily diet that includes:
- Grains (bread, cereal, rice, pasta) — 5 to 6 ounce equivalents
- Vegetables — 1.5 to 2.5 cups
- Fruits — 1 to 1.5 cups
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) — 2.5 to 3 cups
- Protein (meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, eggs) — 4 to 5 ounce equivalents
Note that younger children need the same number of servings as older children, although the size of their portions may be smaller. For serving suggestions and approximate serving sizes, visit Food Groups with Serving Suggestions.
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Make snacks part of the daily meal plan
Growing children have relatively small appetites considering their very high levels of activity, so they usually need to eat every two to three hours. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, most children need mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Be sure to offer healthy snacks, such as:
- Fresh fruits, dried fruits, fruit-filled cookies
- Vegetables with low-fat dip
- Cheese cubes, cheese sticks, yogurt, milk
- Whole-grain bread, bagels, whole-grain crackers, unsalted whole-wheat pretzels, rice cakes, dry cereals (low or no sugar)
- Peanut butter, hummus, bean dip
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By age 5, all children should eat few high-fat foods and be sure to follow a heart-healthy diet, just like older children and adults. This means no more than one-third of total calories from fat and no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.
The following suggestions can help to decrease your family's fat and cholesterol intake:
- Switch to low-fat or nonfat milk (except for children younger than 2 years old), and reduced-fat cheeses and yogurts.
- Limit the amount of fried foods eaten.
- Use low-fat cooking methods such as baking, steaming, boiling, grilling and broiling, and use nonstick pans and cooking spray instead of oil when frying.
- Have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on hand, and serve them for snacks rather than cookies, chips, ice cream or other high-fat foods.
- Trim visible fat from meat and remove skin from poultry before cooking.
- Limit the use of high-fat sauces, salad dressings and spreads (for example, butter, margarine, mayonnaise).
- Choose lower-fat items when eating out, such as a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a fried burger, a salad instead of fries or pasta with tomato sauce instead of pepperoni pizza.
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Calcium is a mineral that is essential for building strong bones and healthy teeth. For most children, dairy products are the major sources of calcium and vitamin D (another important nutrient that helps the body absorb calcium), with 2.5 to 3 cups per day recommended. Calcium intake during middle childhood often decreases because children tend to drink less milk. To make sure your child gets enough calcium every day, see Getting Enough Calcium.
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Remember that breakfast is important
Children (and adults) need to eat breakfast every day. When most people wake up, it's been 10 or 12 hours since their last meal. Their brains and muscles are running on stored-up fuel in the body and need more energy to perform at their best during the day. It is most important that you and your child eat breakfast every day. There are lots of quick, easy, nutritious foods that can give you and your child a healthy start to the day. Read The Importance of Breakfast for more information and recipe ideas.
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Remember that lunch is important, too
Working all morning at school burns up a lot of energy, and children need a healthy lunch to refuel so that they can make the most of their afternoons. Encourage your child to eat a healthy lunch every day, either one provided by the school, or one brought from home. For more information about making healthy choices from the school menu, or about packing healthy lunches from home, see School Lunches.
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Eat healthily now, avoid obesity later
Statistics show that the number of children of all ages who are overweight or obese has increased in past years. At the same time, the amount of fat, saturated fat and sodium (salt) eaten by all children is significantly more than the daily recommended amounts. Eating habits are formed during childhood, when obesity and other diseases, including heart disease and osteoporosis, also begin to develop. It is essential that parents eat healthy diets and get regular exercise, too. Besides the clear benefits for their own health, parents are also helping their children to develop healthy eating habits by setting a good example. For more information on eating healthy to maintain a healthy weight, see Obesity.
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Remember that meals and snacks are important social times for children and families. If you are home with your child after school, sit down with him as he eats his snack and give him an opportunity to tell you about his day. Whenever possible, make plans to share meals together as a family, whether breakfast, dinner or weekend lunches. If your family rarely shares evening meals together at home due to evening activities, try packing a picnic supper and eating together at the event. Encourage pleasant conversation during mealtimes and make sure that each person gets a chance to talk.