Food Groups for Kids: Best and Worst Choices

Eating foods from each food group every day provides most of the nutrients that kids need. Here, find the best and worst choices from each group for your little one.

Baby Carrots

Nutrition for Growing Bodies

Each food that kids eat gives them a different assortment of the six nutrients that they need, which is why it’s so important for them to eat a variety of foods. The USDA has placed foods into groups because they have similar nutrients. For example, foods in the milk group, such as yogurt, cheese, and milk, are all good sources of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Eating foods from each group every day provides most of the nutrients that kids need.

Grains Group

Grains Group

There are two types of grains: whole grains and refined grains. Refined grains have had the outer parts of the grain kernel removed, a process that strips the grain of nutrients. Whole grains are the best choice because they contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Both kids and adults should aim for at least half of their daily servings to be from whole-grain sources (see Best Choices on next slide).

Nutrients: Carbohydrates, fiber*, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate), iron*, magnesium*, selenium*
*Greater sources of these nutrients are found in whole grains. 

Servings: Approximately 4-5 ounces for kids and 6-8 ounces for adults

Grains: Best and Worst Choices

Best & Worst Grains

1 ounce of whole grains or whole-grain products
1 ounce is equivalent to:
• 1 slice whole-wheat bread
• 1 small corn or whole-wheat tortilla
• 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, or whole-wheat pasta
• 1 whole-wheat bun, roll, or mini bagel
• 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin or pita
• 1 cup whole-grain breakfast cereal (with no added sugar or fat)
• 5 whole-wheat crackers or 3 cups fat-free or air-popped popcorn
• 1 whole-wheat or buckwheat pancake

1 ounce of refined grain products
1 ounce is equivalent to:
• 1 slice white or wheat bread
• 1 small corn or flour tortilla
• 1/2 cup white rice, pasta, or grits
• 1 package instant flavored oatmeal
• 1 bun, roll, small low-fat muffin, mini bagel, or pancake
• 1/2 English muffin or pita
• 1 cup breakfast cereal with a moderate amount of added sugar and fat (less than 10g of sugar and less than 3g of fat)
• 5 low-fat crackers or 15 pretzels

Refined grain products with added fat and/or added sugar such as doughnuts, muffins, croissants, garlic bread, crackers, snack foods, and refined pastas

Vegetable Group

Vegetable Group

The vegetable group is where you find many of nature’s healthiest foods. Vegetables are full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are low in calories, fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Vegetables are divided into five subgroups based on nutrient content—dark-green vegetables, orange vegetables, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and a group for all others. Serve your child a variety of vegetables from all the subgroups each week.

Nutrients: Fiber and abundant vitamins and minerals, which vary by vegetable

Servings: Approximately 1 1/2 to 2 cups for kids and 2 to 3 cups for adults

Vegetable Group: Best Choices

Best & Worst Veggies

Fresh or frozen vegetables
1 cup of vegetables is equivalent to: 1 cup cooked or 2 cups raw
Dark-green: spinach, broccoli, greens (collard, mustard), romaine, bok choy
Orange: Butternut and acorn squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots
Beans and peas: black, garbanzo, navy, soy and soybean products (like tofu), kidney, black-eyed peas, lentils
Starchy: potatoes, peas, corn
• Other:
onions, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, celery, cucumbers, cabbage

• Canned vegetables, due to the high amount of sodium
• Vegetables in a low-fat sauce

Fried vegetables such as French fries and vegetables in butter, cream, or cheese sauces

Fruit Group

Fruit Group

Naturally sweet and juicy, fruits are also low in calories, fat, sodium, and cholesterol and are bursting with an array of vitamins and minerals. Fruit may already be a staple in your house, so if that’s the case, keep it up! Remember to introduce kids to all types of fruit because each offers its own assortment of nutrients. And try to choose whole fruit or cut-up fruit over fruit juices to get more fiber and fewer calories per serving. Be sure to cut fruit into appropriately sized pieces for younger children.

Nutrients: Carbohydrates, fiber, folate, vitamin C, potassium

Servings: Approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups for kids and 1 1/2 to 2 cups for adults

Fruits: Best Choices

Best & Worst Fruits

All fresh fruits, fruits canned in water, frozen fruits, and unsweetened fruit purees
1/2 cup of fruit is equivalent to:
• 1 small apple, small orange, small peach, large plum, or small banana
• 1/2 cup sliced strawberries, chopped apple, or chopped pineapple
• 1 snack container of unsweetened applesauce, mixed fruit in juice, or other fruit in juice
• 6 melon balls

All unsweetened dried fruits and 100% fruit juice
1/2 cup of fruit is equivalent to:
• 1 small box raisins
• 1/4 cup dried fruit
• 1/2 cup of 100% fruit juice

Fruit punches, drinks, and juices with added sugars; fruits canned or frozen in syrup; and sweetened purees such as sweetened applesauce

Dairy Group

Dairy Group

Milk has long been a mealtime staple for kids. Full of bone-building calcium and vitamin D, milk and dairy foods offer a mix of protein, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and potassium. Early in life most kids need the extra fat provided in whole or 2% milk for growth. But after children reach the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends they be weaned from higher-fat milks (2% and whole) unless directed otherwise by your pediatrician. If your child still loves whole milk, then start by slowly stepping him down to 2% and then to 1% or fat-free milk and dairy products.

Nutrients: Protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium

Servings: Approximately 2 to 3 cups for kids and adults

Dairy: Best Choices

Best & Worst Dairy

All fat-free or low-fat (1% milk fat) milks, yogurts, and cheeses with no added sugar
1 cup in the milk and dairy group is equivalent to:
• 1 cup (8 ounces) milk
• 1 cup or 1 (8-ounce) carton of plain yogurt or flavored yogurt sweetened with low-calorie sweetener
• 2 cups cottage cheese
• 1/3 cup shredded cheese
• 1 cheese stick
• 1 1/2 ounces hard cheese (Parmesan, cheddar, Swiss, etc.)
• 1 cup pudding made with fat-free milk and sweetened with low-calorie sweetener

All fat-free or low-fat (1% milk fat) milks, yogurts, and cheeses with added sugar
1 cup in the milk and dairy group is equivalent to:
• 1 cup (8 ounces) chocolate milk
• 1 cup or 1 (8-ounce) carton of flavored yogurt
• 1 cup pudding or low-fat frozen yogurt

Full-fat milks, cheeses, yogurts, and dairy-based desserts such as ice cream

Protein Group

Protein Group

This group is the primary source of protein in the diet. Protein is the most satiating nutrient—meaning it makes you feel full and content longer—so it is good to incorporate a little protein into each meal and snack to help keep energy levels up. Recent recommendations encourage everyone to choose leaner sources of protein, such as seafood, beans, soy products, and lean meats and poultry.

Nutrients: Protein, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, magnesium

Servings: Approximately 3 to 5 ounces for kids and 5 to 6 1/2 ounces for adults

Protein: Best Choices

Best & Worst Protein

1 ounce of meat or beans is equivalent to:
• 1 ounce cooked fish and shellfish
• Approximately 1/4 cup drained canned fish
• 1/4 cup cooked beans
• 2 tablespoons hummus
• 1 tablespoon peanut butter or nut butter
• 1/4 cup cooked tofu
• 1/2 ounce nuts and seeds (approximately 12 almonds or 7 walnut halves)

1 ounce of meat or beans is equivalent to:
• 1 ounce cooked skinless chicken or turkey
• 1 ounce cooked lean ground meat or poultry
• 1 egg
• 1 ounce cooked lean, trimmed cuts of beef, pork, ham, or lamb

High-fat meats, meat and poultry with skin, canned fish and shellfish in oil, fried meat, fried poultry, and fried seafood

Fat and Oil Group

Fat and Oil Group

Fat is naturally found in some foods, and fat may also be added to food during cooking or manufacturing. However, different fats have different effects on the body—some good and some bad. The healthy fats are unsaturated fats found in most vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, and fatty fish such as salmon. These fats protect our hearts and are the ones we should choose most often. The unhealthy fats are saturated fats (found in animal foods such as ground beef or whole milk) and trans fats (found predominantly in snack foods, baked goods, and fried foods). By choosing low-fat food items that aren’t processed or fried, you can avoid most unhealthy fats.

Nutrients: Vitamin E and essential fatty acids

Servings: Approximately 4 to 5 teaspoons for kids and 5 to 7 teaspoons for adults

Fat & Oil: Best Choices

Best & Worst Fats and Oils

1 teaspoon of oil is equivalent to:
• 1 teaspoon of plant-based cooking oil (canola, olive, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean)
• 8 olives
• 1/4 of an avocado or 1 slice avocado
• 1 tablespoon oil-based salad dressing such as Italian
• 2 tablespoons reduced-fat oil-based salad dressing
• 4-5 tree nuts including almonds, walnuts, and pecans

1 teaspoon of oil is equivalent to:
• 2 tablespoons light or reduced-fat mayonnaise or creamy oil-based salad dressing such as ranch
• 1 tablespoon margarine (made with no trans fats)

Full-fat mayonnaise, salad dressings, and solid fats—such as butter, lard, and shortening—bacon, hydrogenated oils, and fried foods

Extras Group

Extras Group

There are many foods you can think of that may not “fit” into one of the food groups. Many of these foods are what we may call “extras” and include sugary sweets such as birthday cake, lollipops, and sugary beverages such as sodas. These foods aren’t included in a food group because they provide few nutrients, lots of added sugar, and sometimes added fat. Although these foods should be limited, there are ways to incorporate them into your child’s diet. There are also healthier alternatives to each that at times may be just as appealing to your child.

Nutrients: Limited

Servings: Less than 5 per week

Orange Juice

Extras: Better Choices

Limit: Lemonade, fruit punch, sodas, and sugary beverages
Alternatives: 100% fruit juice or fruit-flavored water

Limit: Ice cream and frozen treats
• Low-fat frozen yogurt
• Sugar-free gelatin
• Frozen grapes
• Pudding made with fat-free milk and low-calorie sweetener
• Smoothies made with fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt

Limit: Cookies, candy, and other sweets
• Homemade trail mix with whole-grain cereal, pretzels, nuts, dried fruit
• Low-fat chocolate milk
• Peanut butter on graham crackers
• Popcorn sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar

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