There is no doubt that eating a healthy diet can be beneficial both for weight loss and for improving long-term health. However, nutrition is a tricky thing. With new diets and "salvation" foods popping up all the time, it's hard to know what to eat, what to avoid and who to believe. When it comes to your child's eating habits, the situation often becomes even more confusing. The good news is that what's good for your child also is good for you. Here are some guidelines from the doctors and nutritionists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital to help you navigate your family's nutritional needs.

Fruits and veggies

Children and adults should eat between five and nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Not only are most fruits and vegetables low in fat and calories, but they also are full of essential vitamins and minerals, fiber and other substances that promote good health. In addition, studies have found that diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.

Each day, you and your children should eat:

  • Two to four servings of fruit
  • Three to five servings of vegetables


Grains such as bread, cereal and pasta account for most of the carbohydrates many people eat. Some people refer to these foods as "carbs." These starches can be made from whole grain flours or from refined flours. Whole grain flours contain the fiber, vitamins and minerals that are lost when flour is refined. Therefore, whole grains are a better choice. The basic guideline for this group of foods is to decrease starches made from refined flour and increase those made from whole grains.

  • Refined flour starches ("white fluffies") – These are quickly broken down into sugar and absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise. Refined flour has had the husk, or brown part of the grain, stripped away. This leaves the flour looking white. Some examples of refined starches are white bread, white rice or pasta, cookies and other junk foods.
  • Whole grains ("brown crunchies") – These are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than refined starches. Some examples include whole grain bread, brown rice, barley and whole grain cereals. Whole wheat does not mean the same thing as whole grain. Whole grain foods have the bran surrounding the starch, which slows sugar absorption from the intestine and reduces your risk for obesity.

You and your children should eat at least three servings of whole grains per day. Some examples of serving sizes include:

  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, whole wheat pasta or steel-cut oatmeal
  • 1 slice of 100 percent whole grain bread
  • 1 six-inch whole wheat tortilla
  • 3/4 cup whole grain cereal, such as Kashi

Non-fat and low-fat dairy

Dairy products contain calcium, an important mineral for growing bones in children and keeping bones strong through one's lifetime. The Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans suggest that people choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products such as non-fat or 1 percent milk, non-fat or low-fat cheese and yogurt. Look at food labels on yogurt containers to check for added sugar.

Your child's calcium needs vary based on age:

  • Younger children need two to three servings of calcium-rich foods a day.
  • Children age 9 to 18 should get three to four servings of calcium-rich foods a day.
  • Most adults need three servings a day to meet their calcium needs.

NOTE: Fat intake should not be limited for children under the age of 2. Whole milk is appropriate until 2 years of age. Once a child turns 2, they should switch to non-fat milk.

Lean protein

As with dairy, there are different types of protein, and some sources are higher in fat that others. The dietary guidelines suggest people choose lean protein sources, such as skinless chicken and turkey, lean cuts of meat, fish, beans and tofu.

Each day, you and your children should eat two to three servings of protein. Serving sizes generally are 3 ounces of cooked meat, about the size of a deck of cards. However, serving sizes are smaller for younger children.

Things to avoid

High-sugar and high-fat foods can lead to weight gain and health problems. Therefore, it's best to limit foods and beverages high in sugar and fat, such as fast food, sweets, juice, chips, soda and other forms of junk food.

A note about juice: Even though some juices are made from fresh fruit, juice contains a lot of sugar and a lot of calories, and the much of the fiber is strained away. Excessive juice intake can lead to weight gain. Therefore, juice intake should be limited and children should be encouraged to eat fruit rather than drink juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has not yet recommended doing away with juice altogether, but they instead have issued these severely restricted recommendations:

  • Juice should not be given to infants under 6 months of age
  • After 6 months of age, infants should not get juice from bottles or cups that allow them to consume juice easily throughout the day
  • Infants should not get fruit juice at bedtime
  • For children aged 1 to 6, intake of fruit juice should be limited to 4 to 6 ounces a day
  • For children 7 to 18, juice intake should be between 8 and 12 ounces a day
  • All children should be encouraged to eat whole fruits

Portion control

In addition to eating the right foods and watching total caloric intake, it also is important to pay attention to portions and serving sizes. Large servings at restaurants have helped distort healthy portions sizes. Look at nutrition labels to find serving sizes for packaged foods. Remember that the calories and fat listed are for one serving only.

The Healthy Plate Model helps children and families put the healthy diet outlined above into practice. The recommended servings are outlined below. Divide your plate into 4 equal parts at each meal and fill it as follows:

  1. 2 parts (1/2 plate) fruit, vegetables and/or a salad
  2. 1 part (1/4 plate) lean protein
  3. 1 part (1/4 plate) whole grain

Most people eat more refined starch and protein and fewer vegetables and whole grains. Since vegetables are so low in calories, filling half of your plate with vegetables helps decrease your overall calorie intake. Vegetables also have a lot of fiber, which helps you feel full. Remember that starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn are considered starches.

Common misconceptions

Eating healthy is important for the entire family. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions that discourage people from trying to change the way they eat. The fact is that you don't have to eat organic to eat healthy. In fact, canned and frozen vegetables and fruit can be just as nutritious as fresh. You also don't have to spend a lot of money to eat healthy. Actually, you can save money by not buying soda and unhealthy snack foods.

If you have questions about what is and is not healthy for your family, it's best to ask a doctor or nutritionist.

Unhealthy habits

In addition to eating the right foods, children also need to learn good eating habits. Unfortunately, many children today learn unhealthy eating practices from their parents and friends. The best way to prevent children from picking up these unhealthy habits is to set a good example and avoid:

  • Skipping breakfast
  • Eating a late dinner or snacking before going to sleep
  • Eating in front of the television
  • Eating when not hungry because of boredom or stress
  • Ordering super-large portions at fast food restaurants