The Best Balanced Meal Plan for Kids

balanced meal plan

A Balanced Meal Plan for Kids

Children who eat a balanced diet tend to eat a healthy diet. But food alone does not a healthy diet make. You also need to consider meal timing. Together, a balanced diet and optimal meal timing creates a balanced meal plan from which your child can grow well and regulate his or her eating.

Why Does a Balanced Meal Plan Matter?

There are several reasons why a balanced meal plan is important for growing children. First, offering a balanced diet of different foods ensures your child will receive the vast majority of his nutritional requirements for growth. Secondly, the timing of meals and snacks help cover your child’s hunger and appetite so that he or she is better able to self-regulate eating. In the end, a balanced meal plan helps your child meet nutritional requirements while eating in a more intuitive manner (for hunger and appetite, rather than boredom or other outside triggers).

Food Groups in a Balanced Meal Plan

Food groups are groupings of food that target important, specific nutrients. For example, the fruit group and vegetable group target potassium, vitamins A and C, and fiber, among other nutrients. The protein group covers iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and more. The dairy group covers calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

The more food groups you include in a meal, the better chance your child gets an optimal variety of nutrients. 

The more food groups you include in a meal, the better chance your child gets an optimal variety of nutrients. Click To Tweet

I teach my clients to set up a balanced meal plan using the basic food groups, starting with protein first. Protein is important for growth and for appetite control, so I like to see it take a starring role on the meal plan. The protein food can be beef, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, or it can be something from the dairy group (also a good source of protein) like milk or yogurt.

Second, pick fruit and vegetables. Yes, I like to see fruit on the table at all major meals. It takes the pressure off of eating veggies if you have a hesitant eater, is a great source of nutrients, and if your child has a sweet tooth, is a good stand in for dessert.

Lastly, fill in the meal plan with (whole) grains and dairy (if it hasn’t been added yet). Include all the food groups for a balanced meal plan and a healthy diet for your child.

What about Portion Sizes in a Healthy Diet?

I believe that the table is where kids learn about portion sizes. I also believe that children should be allowed to eat to satisfy their appetite. These two goals: learning about portions and eating to feel satisfied can clash at the family table.

You never want portion sizes to become a restrictive way to feed your child. 

You never want portion sizes to become a restrictive way to feed your child. Click To Tweet

That’s why I like to use the concept of starter portions. Starter portions are age-appropriate portion sizes for your child. They help her understand how much food to eat, with the understanding that more food, if she’s hungry, is okay to have.

Let me repeat: your child should be allowed to eat an array of food groups at mealtime, in amounts that satisfy her appetite. Starter portions are simply a place to begin with food amounts.

Starter portions teach a point of reference for kids. Think of them as a visual learning tool. Without them, kids may not understand portion sizes or may be over-served portions.

As kids grow, the starter portions change to accommodate their bigger bodies and growth requirements. See my free chart to help you better understand starter portions.

I like to see kids using measuring cups and spoons and other simple tools to help them learn. Who says your child can’t use a half-cup measure to serve up rice at the table?

What is Optimal Meal Timing for Kids?

The timing of a balanced meal plan matters, too. In fact, the timing of meals and snacks can work for you, or against you. Get the timing right, and your child will be satisfied after eating and less likely to ask for more food afterward. Get the timing wrong and your child will be hungry, asking for snacks, and potentially grazing with or without your permission.

I base my meal timing recommendations on basic physiology. A child’s tummy is smaller. Because of the smaller size, children need to eat more frequently.

For instance, a toddler has a very little tummy, so I recommend setting up meal timing every 2 to 3 hours. Translated: a meal or snack should be scheduled every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day. This will help to meet nutritional needs while covering hunger and appetite.

The school-age child should have a meal plan that reflects a 3 to 4 hour window between meals and snacks. The teen does well with meal timing scheduled every 3 to 5 hours, depending on growth spurt, activities and overall daily life events.

I think meal timing is critical to helping your child self-regulate his eating. In other words, helping him eat the right amount of foods to satisfy his appetite. I see kids go too long without eating and experience the sensation of being overly hungry…and you know where that leads. Or, I see the child who is eating frequently throughout the day and getting too much. Meal timing (and the supportive kitchen boundaries you need to back you up) can help tame those eating extremes.

Putting It All Together

A balanced meal plan for your child will include a variety of food groups, starter portions, and optimal meal timing based on your child’s age. This trifecta will help you create a healthy diet for your child, while teaching him how to balance food and encouraging self-regulation with eating.

How do you create a healthy balanced meal plan for your family?

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Healthy Childhood Weight Series: Bad Eating Habits

Healthy Childhood Weight Series: Structured Eating

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