What Makes Up a Healthy Diet?

A healthy diet includes whole, nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Food, however, is not the only part of a healthy diet. It also includes:

  • Living a balanced lifestyle
  • Eating a variety of colorful foods
  • Enjoying treats in moderation
  • When and where you eat
  • Being mindful of what is on your family’s plates

A Note About Breakfast...

Healthy choices start with breakfast. It sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Why Are Whole Foods So Important?

Whole foods are foods that have not been changed much or at all from their original form. Fresh, raw fruits and vegetables are a great example. Whole foods also contain higher amounts of important nutrients our bodies need to look and feel their best. This includes vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients (chemicals that give plants their color and protect against disease).

What Are Whole Grains and Why Are They Important?

Whole grains are grains that contain all the healthiest parts of the grain, such as fiber.

In comparison, refined grains (grains that are not whole grains) have been processed to remove the nutrient-rich parts of the grain. This leaves only the carbohydrates and sugar. Examples of refined grains include white rice, white pasta and white flour.

What if My Family Likes the Taste of Refined Grains?

Eating whole grains will be a change if you do not eat them now. Below are tips to help you transition from refined grains to whole grains:

  • As with all changes, it is good to start small.
  • To start, have brown rice instead of white rice once a week.
  • Mix brown rice with white rice. Half brown rice and half white rice is a good amount to start with.
  • Try different whole grain breads. There are many kinds. This is an opportunity to try them and see what your family like. You might find thatthey enjoy the taste of whole grains after this change.

What Are the Most Important Nutrients to Include in My Family’s Meals and Snacks?

The most important nutrients to include in meals and snacks are:

  • Fiber (helps keep you full and regulates blood sugar levels). You can find fiber in whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Protein (helps build and repair muscles, organs and other tissues)
  • Dairy (helps build strong bones and teeth). If your child does not have dairy in their diet, fortified soy milk has plenty of important nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D.
  • Healthy fats (helps you feel full and lowers cholesterol and the risk of heart disease)

What Is a Good Portion Size for Whole Grains on My Plate?

Fill ¼ of your plate with whole grains. Aim to have at least half your grains be whole grains. This will provide lots of fiber, quick energy and help your child feel full.

Graphic of MyPlate

How Do I Measure Food Portions?

Use MyPlate to learn proper portions. Remember that serving sizes are measured by your child’s age. A child does not need as much food as an adult.

What Is Fiber and Why Is It Good?

Fiber is good for many reasons, such as:

  • Keep your heart healthy
  • Help you feel full
  • Regulate how your body uses sugar for energy. This manages hunger and blood sugar levels.
  • Helps your digestive system work properly for regular bowel movements and preventing constipation.

The best sources of fiber are whole grain foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts.

Tips to Help You Eat More Fiber:

  • Swap white rice, bread, and pasta for brown rice and whole grain products.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices.
  • For breakfast, choose cereals that have a whole grain as the first ingredient.
  • Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers or chocolate bars.
  • Use beans or legumes in place of meat 2-3 times a week in chili and soup.

How Much of Each Nutrient Should My Child Have for Each Meal?

How much fiber your family should have at each meal depends on age. The chart below shows much fiber a person needs at each meal:

Fiber Protein Dairy Healthy fats
  • Age 2-3 (3g per serving)
  • Age 4-6 (5g per serving)
  • Age 9-13 (6g per serving)
  • Age 14-18+ (8g per serving)
  • Age 2-3 (2g per serving)
  • Age 4-6 (4g per serving)
  • Age 9-13 (5g per serving)
  • Age 14-18+ (6.5g per serving)
  • Age 2-3 (2 servings per day)
  • Age 4-6 (2.5 servings per day)
  • Age 9-13 (3 servings per day)
  • Age 14-18+ (3 servings per day)
  • Age 2-3 (3 tsp per day)
  • Age 4-6 (4 tsp per day)
  • Age 9-13 (5 tsp per day)
  • Age 14-18+ (6 tsp per day)

What Is the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Fats?

Healthy fats are also called unsaturated fats because they help lower the risk of heart disease. They also help lower cholesterol (a waxy fat in the blood). They are liquid at room temperature.

Saturated fats are unhealthy and solid at room temperature. They can raise cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease.

Is Where My Family Eats Important Too?

Yes. The best place to eat is around a dinner table with no electronics or other distractions.

Here are some tips on how to set up a good environment during meal and snack times:

  • Be a role model. Set a good example for your child to follow.
  • Eat at the table. Do not eat in the car or in bed.
  • Put electronics aside during meal and snack times.
  • Keep healthy foods in plain sight and within reach. Children are very visual. They are more likely to eat when they see an interesting food, see others eating or think screens and food go together.
  • Prepare and eat meals and snacks together. This is a fun way for children to not only spend time with you, but to also learn about healthy, delicious cooking.

What Are Some Healthy Drink Options?

Drinks are often the greatest sources of extra sugar. Water (including naturally flavored seltzer) and milk are the best choices.

When Is the Best Time to Eat?

Children should eat every meals every 3-5 hours and snacks every 1-2 hours between meals. Be careful about letting your child graze throughout the day. Grazing can often lead to overeating or losing awareness of natural signs of hunger.

Did You Know...?

Soda, fruit juices (including 100% fruit juice), sports drinks, sweetened drinks and lemonade all have similar sugar content. Extra sugar can cause blood sugar levels and triglycerides (fats in the blood) to rise and fall quickly. This can lead to mood changes and damage to the liver.

MyPlate graphic used with permission. Mass General for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.