Nutrition and Healthy Foods Guide

Good eating habits that begin in early childhood can go a long way to ensuring a lifetime of good oral health.

Good nutrition and a balanced diet will help your child grow up healthy. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, you can take steps to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits.

Five of the best strategies are:

1. Have regular family meals. Kids who take part in regular family meals are more likely to eat fruits, vegetables and grains, less likely to snack on unhealthy foods, and less likely to smoke or drink alcohol. Allow your teens to invite a friend and keep mealtime calm and congenial with no lectures or arguing. Plan around a child’s schedule who has sports practice. Try setting aside time on the weekends such as Sunday brunch, when it may be more convenient to gather as a group.

2. Serve a variety of healthy foods and snacks. Younger kids will most likely eat what’s available at home. Work fruits and vegetables into the daily routine. Other good snacks include yogurt, peanut butter and celery or whole-grain crackers and cheese. Serve lean meats and other good sources of protein such as eggs and nuts. Limit fat intake, fast food and other low nutrient snacks. On any given day, one third of toddlers eat no fruit, and french fries are the most commonly consumed vegetable. Instead of sugary drinks such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks, serve water and milk. The carbonation found in soda can actually erode tooth enamel. If they must drink soda, encourage them to use a straw which will help keep at least some of the carbonated beverage away from the teeth.

3. Be a role model by eating healthy yourself. Children will follow the lead of the adults they see every day. Send the right message. Providing your body with the right amounts of vitamins and minerals helps your teeth, gums and immune system stay strong and wards off infection, decay and disease.

4. Avoid battles over food. Establish a predictable schedule of meals and snacks. Don’t force kids to clean their plates. Doing so teaches them to override feelings of fullness. Don’t bribe or reward kids with food. Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal. Don’t use food as a way of showing love. Give hugs instead.

5. Involve children in the process. Talk to them about making choices and planning a balanced meal. At the store, help your child look at food labels to begin understanding nutritional values. Let them help in the kitchen with age-appropriate tasks. Don’t forget to praise them for jobs well done. Let them help prepare school lunches.

Another great resource is USDA Team Nutrition with educational materials developed at the elementary school level to help children learn the MyPyramid food guidance system. Lesson plans for teachers are available in three levels: Level 1 (grades 1-2); Level 2 (grades 3-4); Level 3 (grades 5-6).
View USDA Team Nutrition

Caries (cavities) are among the most prevalent health problems facing American infants, children and adolescents. Frequent ingestion of sugars and other carbohydrates (eg, junk food, juices and acidic beverages) and prolonged contact of these substances with teeth are risk factors in the development of caries. Nutritious conscious parents can prevent cavities for their children by limiting or eliminating apple juice or any other high sugar content juice from their children’s diet. Children at high risk for cavities should restrict their liquid intake to water and milk.

Parents with sports-minded children should limit the use of sugar laden sports drinks (i.e. Gatorade, Powerade). We recommend the use of electrolyte enhanced water (i.e. SmartWater).

Along with increasing caries risk, increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods also has been linked to obesity.

Healthy Sack Lunch Ideas

Healthy school lunches are a very important part of the school day. Why not inspire your children to bring to school some fun and healthy lunches? Involve them with menu planning, shopping and preparing meals. Children who feel they have had a part in preparing their lunches will be more likely to eat them and less inclined to trade with their friends. Let them pick out five or six lunch items they really like and build on those. Offer a new food with a familiar one. Applaud adventurous eating. Cut foods in different ways (i.e. carrot sticks one day and carrot coins another). Allow your children to choose a special food from time to time. Teach them the difference between everyday foods and occasional foods. Rely less on processed, packaged foods and replace them with fresh foods whenever possible. In time, your children will start making healthy choices on their own. Remember most kids will skip foods that take a lot of effort to eat.

Brown paper bags may be convenient and inexpensive, but they rip easily and do not help keep cold foods cold or hot foods hot. Insulated lunch bags are the best choice for school lunches. Often they have two or more compartments so foods and beverages can be kept separate. Some of these are equipped with freezer packs or you can buy them separately. These will keep your children’s lunches cold and, therefore, safe and fresh. Do not leave food out at room temperature more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F). Always wash your hands before you prepare or eat food and use a clean cutting board. Pack just the right amount of food that can be eaten at lunch so you won’t have to worry about leftovers. If you prepare your lunch the night before, store it in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to include disposable utensils and napkins.

Try incorporating three food groups plus a drink in your children’s sack lunches. Pick and choose from the following suggestions:

LOW-FAT DAIRY: Low-fat milk kept in a thermos or shelf-stable individual drink box; squeeze low-fat yogurt; low-fat cheese in sandwiches; low-fat mozzarella sticks; low-fat cottage cheese; low-fat pudding cups
(Jazz up a low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit or low-fat granola.)
FRUITS: Oranges, grapefruit, bananas, apples, grapes, melon balls, strawberries, raspberries, mini applesauce without sugar, or any seasonal fruit
(Peeled and sliced fruit is more likely to get eaten and less likely to be traded than is a piece of whole fruit. Occasionally include surprises such as mini fruit kabobs or fruit cups.)
VEGETABLES: Carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, green and red pepper strips,
celery, broccoli or cauliflower florets with light dressing
(Use all the colors!)
PROTEIN: Sandwiches made of turkey, lean ham, lean roast beef, peanut butter, hummus (chick pea spread/dip), chicken, or tuna
(Try PB&J with Granny Smith apples, ham & cheese roll-ups with dipping sauce, or turkey all wrapped up in a tortilla with low fat cheese and vegetables.)
BREADS & GRAINS: Whole grain or whole wheat bread, pita pockets, bagels, muffins or crackers
(Place the fillings on the side so your children can assemble the sandwiches or crackers themselves. Don’t forget to include their favorite sandwich additions such as a little light mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, lettuce and/or tomatoes.)

DRINKS: Water is always a wise choice. If your kids like juice, try packing a 4 or 6.25 oz 100% juice box with a water bottle.


Pin Wheel Sandwiches – Spread your children’s favorite sandwich fillings onto tortillas. Roll them up and slice them into smaller pieces (i.e. peanut butter and jelly, lunch meat with cream cheese or Laughing Cow Cheese).

Cookie Cutter Sandwiches – Any sandwich cut with a large cookie cutter (i.e. star, heart, dinosaur, animals, etc.). You can also cut slices of cheese, ham or turkey into fun shapes.

Ham and Potato Sandwiches – To make this silly sandwich, place a couple of thin slices of turkey ham on wheat bread, add a thin slice of cheese and a dollop of mayonnaise. Where does the potato come in? Include a container of five single potato chips which your child can add to the sandwich during lunch. The salty crunch of the chips against the sweetness of the ham is so tasty, they won’t want to be trading this sandwich.

Finger Foods – Sometimes kids, especially younger ones, don’t like to eat a whole sandwich or bowl of food.  Instead, try preparing cut up cubes of cheese, grapes, carrot sticks, pretzels, mini crackers, and ham cubes. Place them in a container with individual compartments or just a standard one for a fun lunch.  Also try cutting sandwiches into small rectangles or triangles for easier eating.

Dip It – Kids love dipping stuff.  For an easy and nutritious lunch snack, cut apple wedges and serve with a strawberry or peanut butter dip or cut up veggies served with a hummus dip or try a cream cheese dip.  For a more substantial lunch, add pieces of pita bread, breadsticks or crackers.

Make Your Own Trail Mix – Combine mixed nuts, raisins or dried fruit, mini pretzels, sunflower seeds, breakfast cereal such as Chex, and a few chocolate chips into a re-sealable plastic bag.

Hot Foods – With insulated food containers (thermos), you can send hot foods to school. Make sure the foods are heated up to at least 140 degrees before you load them into the insulated containers. Some suggestions are: beef and vegetable stew served with a hard roll, chicken noodle soup with whole grain crackers, lasagna with a salad and bread, chicken casserole with carrots and vegetable dip, hot vegan or beef meatballs in a sauce with a roll to make a meatball sub, taco meat or refried beans and taco shells with your children’s favorite taco toppings, chili with whole grain crackers, or combine Bush’s vegetarian baked bean and veggie dogs for beanie weenies.

Lunch Notes – Write cute little notes once in a while to put smiles on your children’s faces (i.e. a simple note with a smiley face saying “I love you”).