Sandra Ryan R.D. / Elisabeth Schafer Ph.D.
Nutritionist /Associate Professor – Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist
Iowa Department of Public Health / Iowa State University

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Nutrition refers to how bodies use food. Good nutrition, growth, health, and learning go together. Good nutrition is especially important for young children because they grow so quickly. Nutritious food fosters proper development and enhances learning. The child who eats poorly
loses interest quickly, lacks energy, is sick more often, and is irritable.

Providers who understand the basics of healthy food planning will find it easy to serve a nutritionally balanced diet. Good nutrition means feeding a variety of foods in the right amounts to help the child grow and maintain health.

Because no one food has all the nutrients a child needs, it is important to feed a variety of foods. Variety ensures that a child gets all the nutrients needed for good health.

The amount of food needed depends on the child's age, size, and physical activity. One good guideline is to offer the child one tablespoon each of meat, fruit, and vegetables for each year of age up to age 5. For instance, a 3-year-old might eat 3 tablespoons each of meat, fruit, and vegetables. More food may be needed during growth spurts. Appetites vary greatly from child to child. Let children decide how much they need to eat to satisfy hunger.

All foods are acceptable, but some foods need to be eaten every day while others should be chosen less often. Sweet foods make good treats but should be offered only for special occasions.


  • Proteins are needed to build body cells, help break down food into energy, fight infection, and carry oxygen to body cells.
  • Carbohydrates are the body's most important source of energy. They help the body to use fat and to use protein to build and repair tissue instead of turning it into energy. Carbohydrates come in the forms of sugars, starches, and fiber. It is best to eat more starches and fiber and fewer sugars. High starch and fiber foods supply more vitamins and minerals. High sugar foods have little nutritional value.
  • Fats provide energy that is easily stored in the body. They are important in helping the body to get and use some of the vitamins it needs. Fats also protect the body from injury.
  • Calcium helps to build bones and teeth. It also is important for blood clotting and for good nerve, muscle, and heart function.
  • Iron is essential for building healthy blood and for carrying oxygen to body cells.
  • Vitamin A helps the eyes adjust to dim light, aids growth, keeps skin healthy, and helps prevent infections.
  • Vitamin C holds body cells together and strengthens the walls of blood vessels. It helps the body heal wounds and absorb iron and is important for building strong bones and teeth.
  • Folate, one of the B vitamins, is needed for growth and development of body cells. Lack of this vitamin also causes anemia.


The USDA Food Guide Pyramid is an easy tool to use while planning meals for adults and for children beyond infancy. Different kinds of foods are grouped together in different levels of the pyramid.

Children should eat foods close to the base (bottom) of the Food Guide Pyramid frequently, while foods at or near the tip should be eaten less often or in smaller amounts.

The pyramid is designed to help provide the nutrients that children and adults need by helping them choose a variety of foods from each food group in the amounts recommended. No one food provides all the nutrients a child needs; children can be healthy only by eating a variety of foods from all the groups.

Each food group has a range of recommended servings to allow for differences in appetite and nutrient needs. Most of the children you care for will eat the minimum number of servings from each food group, but some may need to eat more. Children will generally eat the minimum number of servings from each food group each day. This may sound like a lot of food, but serving sizes are small, and if children eat these foods, they will not be hungry for sweets.

The Food Guide Pyramid is intended for general diets for the whole U.S. population. The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), while similar, has unique regulations about which foods are to be served in order to receive credit.

BREADS, CEREALS, RICE, AND PASTA (6 to 11 servings per day)

At the base of the pyramid is the Breads, Cereals, Rice, and Pasta Group. Grains and foods made from grains form this group.

Foods in the Breads, Cereals, Rice, and Pasta Group provide complex carbohydrates (starches), vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Grains include wheat, rice, oats, rye, millet, and corn. Enriched flour, cereal, whole-grain breads, macaroni and other pasta, oatmeal, cornmeal, and grits are some of the least expensive and most nutritious foods made from grains.

Even young children need six or more child-sized servings of whole grain or enriched grain foods daily.

VEGETABLE GROUP (3 to 5 servings per day)

At the next level of the pyramid are the vegetable and fruit groups.

Vegetables provide vitamins A and C and folate, as well as iron. They are low in fat and high in fiber.

It is easy to select foods from this group since any vegetable may be chosen. Some thrifty but nutritious choices include tomatoes, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash. Fresh vegetables purchased during the growing season may be less expensive and more acceptable to children than frozen or canned products.

Dark green and deep yellow vegetables should be served several times each week. These vegetables are especially rich in vitamin A.

FRUIT GROUP (2 to 4 servings per day)

Fruits and vegetables share the same level on the pyramid. Fruits (and their juices) provide vitamins A and C. They are low in fat and sodium.

Choose any fruit from this group. Some thrifty but nutritious choices include peaches, bananas, apples, and oranges. Purchase fresh fruits during the growing season. They may be less expensive and more acceptable to children than frozen or canned products. Citrus fruits, melons, or berries should be served daily. These fruits are rich in vitamin C.

MEAT, POULTRY, FISH, DRY BEANS, EGGS, AND NUTS GROUP (2 to 3 servings per day)

One of the two groups near the top of the pyramid is the Meat, Fish, Poultry, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts Group. Foods in this group provide protein, vitamins, and iron.

Shop wisely when you choose foods from this group, as foods in this group are usually the most expensive. Some plant foods such as dried beans, peas, lentils, and garbanzos (chickpeas) have a high protein content, are inexpensive, and are included in this group. Some other thrifty choices might be chicken, turkey and other poultry products, ground beef, fish, eggs, liver, picnic ham, and peanut butter.

It is best to serve the plant foods in this group with some animal protein, such as cheese or milk. Proteins in plant foods are slightly different from those in animal foods, and young children need both types of protein. Serve children under 5 ground or chopped nuts or seeds as part of a meal or snack. They can choke on large pieces of nuts or seeds.

Nuts and seeds may be used for only one-half of the meat requirement in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Plain or sweetened and flavored yogurt may be used as the meat or meat alternate for a snack.

MILK, YOGURT, AND CHEESE GROUP (2 to 3 servings per day)

The other group near the top of the pyramid is the Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese Group. As in the meat group, many of the foods in this group come from animals and contain cholesterol. Some are high in fat. Foods in this group provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are the best sources of calcium.

Milk and milk products contain very little iron. Therefore, children whose diets consist mostly of milk run the risk of poor growth and anemia.

Milk is an important food for people of all ages but especially for children. Other foods that belong in the milk group include dry and evaporated milk, buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, puddings, custards, hot cocoa, and soups made with milk.

Young children need at least 2 cups of milk each day, but they cannot drink a cup of milk at one time. Offer smaller servings of milk more often, and cook with milk to get enough into the diet. Use dry milk for cooking as it is economical and equally nutritious for children older than 2 years. Toddlers need whole (homogenized) milk; its cholesterol, fat, and vitamin E are needed for the earliest development of the brain and nervous system.

If you are a child care provider on the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), you may serve only fluid milk. Whole milk, buttermilk, or other allowed substitutes should be served at all meals and snacks to help children get the milk they need each day. Yogurt is allowed as a meat alternate at snack time on the CACFP, and cheese may be served as a meat alternate at any time.

FATS, OILS, AND SWEETS GROUP (use sparingly)

The tip of the pyramid contains foods that provide calories but few nutrients. These are foods such as butter, margarine, oils, salad dressings, cream, sugars, jellies, soft drinks, candies, and sweet desserts. Serve these foods only in small amounts.

Some foods from other Food Guide Pyramid groups may also contain large amounts of fat and sugar. For example, some cuts of meat are high in fat, as are cheeses, whole milk, or yogurt. Cakes, cookies, and some other sweet desserts may count in the pyramid as part of the breads, cereals, rice, and pasta group, but they are high in both sugar and fat. Some foods are higher in fat because they are fried.

Select foods low in sugar and fat when planning meals for children.


CHILD-SIZED PORTIONS: A child cannot eat very much at one time. Planning balanced meals and snacks for children requires some guessing about how much food they can eat. In general, preschoolers can eat a serving about half the size of an adult serving. Offer small portions several times a day. The number of servings from each of the Food Guide Pyramid groups should be similar to those for adults, but serving sizes need to be smaller. Start with small servings of each food, and offer second helpings. Children who are hungry will accept your offer.

An eating schedule like that shown in the following chart is appropriate for young children. Servings conform to the Child and Adult Care Food Program requirements.



(Indicates the amount of food that equals one serving size for an adult in each of the food groups.)

1 slice bread
1/2 hamburger bun
English muffin or bagel
1 small roll
4 crackers
1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice, or pasta
1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal

1 cup leafy raw vegetables
1/2 cup chopped vegetables (cooked or raw)
3/4 cup vegetable juice

1 medium whole fruit (such as apple, banana, or orange)
3/4 cup fruit juice
1/2 cup berries, cooked, or canned fruit
1/4 cup dried fruit

2 to 3 ounces lean cooked meat, poultry, or fish
2 eggs
1 cup cooked dried beans
4 tablespoons peanut butter

1 cup milk or yogurt
11/2 ounces natural cheese
2 ounces processed cheese
2 cups cottage cheese

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service
Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce
these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of
reproduction) provided that the author and Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care- NNCC. Oesterreich, L. (1995).The food guide pyramid. In L. Oesterreich, B. Holt, & S. Karas, Iowa family child care handbook [Pm 1541] (pp. 163-168). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.

Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved by the author .

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