Proper nutrition makes bodies grow, brains work efficiently and gives kids the energy they need to be,! But as any well-intentioned parent knows, getting tweens (kids ages 8 to 11) to make healthy food choices can be a challenge.

Taking an active role in your child's nutrition may be more important than ever, since our children are part of the first generation in modern history not expected to live as long as their parents because of their weight and health. But armed with some basic information about what growing bodies need, you can get into the driver's seat and act as your child's nutritional GPS. Like the friendly voice in your car that recalculates your route when you take a wrong turn, you can keep your kids on the path of good nutrition and teach them how to navigate any roadblocks they encounter-and you can be sure they will.

To show us the way, QualityHealth turned to two experts-both registered dietitians as well as moms: Sally Kuzemchak, RD, creator of the blog, and Angela Lemond, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and blogger. Here are their tips for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beyond.


Roadblock: Cereal with too much sugar.
In many homes, cereal is the go-to breakfast. It's fast, convenient, and something even younger kids can fetch for themselves. But The New York Times recently cited a study conducted by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found that one cup of a popular cereal that's heavily marketed to kids has more sugar than a Twinkie! The EWG also found 44 cereals with the same amount of sugar as three chocolate chip cookies. It doesn't take a nutritionist to know that's not the healthiest way to start the day.

Detour: Limit sugary cereals and offer calcium-rich alternatives.
Buying cereal with less sugar is an easy way to improve nutrition at breakfast. Lemond recommends reading labels carefully: "Look for brands that are calcium- fortified and contain less than four grams of sugar (the equivalent of one teaspoon) and at least three grams of fiber," says the expert and mom of a 5-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. "The grains should be whole. Whole wheat or whole grain. Not simply, wheat."

Be sure your kids eat their cereal with skim or low-fat milk; it's a good source of calcium and, according to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than one in 10 girls and only one in four boys ages 9 to 13 receive adequate amounts of this must-have mineral. In fact, tweens (ages 9 and up) need twice as much calcium as younger kids. Four to 8-year-olds need 800 mg daily; 9- to 13-year-olds should get 1,300 mg daily. (For reference, three cups of low fat-or fat-free-milk contains about 900 mg of calcium.)

"Calcium is an essential nutrient that's important for the development of strong bones and teeth," says Kuzemchak, whose kids often enjoy yogurt smoothies in the morning. "Adding tofu to recipes is an easy way to sneak in more calcium. Since it has no taste, chances are your kids won't even notice it."

You can make another popular (and convenient) breakfast item—frozen waffles—healthier by spreading them with calcium-rich almond butter instead of syrup, which has virtually no nutritional value. Be sure to wash it all down with calcium-fortified orange juice. One cup contains 120 mg of calcium.


Roadblock: Overly-processed foods that lack nutrients and fiber, and copycat behavior in the lunchroom.
Although recent federal initiatives have resulted in healthier school lunches, Lemond says many lunches from home could also use improvement: "Ready-made lunches and frozen peanut butter and jelly may be handy but they are also heavily processed and full of ingredients nobody needs," explains the dietitian. She encourages parents to choose more foods in their original form.

To get more fiber into those brown bags, Kuzemchak, the mother of two boys ages four and eight, urges parents to pack at least one fresh fruit and vegetable in the lunch box. "Vegetables have important vitamins-such as A, C, E and potassium-that build tissue and promote cell growth," says the expert, who notes research showing that a third of young children don't eat any fresh veggies at all. "For the record, French fries are not vegetables."

Among vegetables' other benefits: they hydrate (broccoli, for instance, is more than 90 percent water), help prevent obesity, and are packed with fiber. Most children do not get enough of the latter. Boys aged 9 to 13 need 31 grams each day; girls the same age require 26 grams of fiber daily. "A diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables also protects against type 2 diabetes and can help lower the risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers later in life."  Which RN says this?

One other factor to consider is the social maneuvering that takes place during lunch. Late elementary and middle school is time when close friendships become very important. "In an effort to belong to the right group, your tween may become increasingly aware of how her friends dress as well as what they eat-both healthy and less healthy foods," Lemond explains. "At this age, the desire to belong can be so strong even eating habits can be influenced, so don't be surprised if your child suddenly announces she is vegetarian because her friend is one, or if you start getting requests to buy unhealthy foods because they are popular at school. "

Detour: Think outside the slice. Another way to up the fiber intake is to choose bread that has at least two grams of fiber in each piece and avoid making sandwiches with cold cuts every day.
"Just because it's brown or has pieces of chopped up seeds on the top, doesn't mean it's healthy," says Kuzemchak. "Read labels and look for the words whole grain as the first ingredient."

Rye and pumpernickel bread are other good options, Lemond suggests. A slice of whole wheat bread has between two and four grams of fiber compared to a slice of white bread, which has less than one gram. Her children love eating hummus (made from fiber-rich chickpeas) and fresh veggies in whole wheat pitas, wraps, flatbreads and tortillas. And she makes regular use of the thermos, too, to send them off with warm, nutritious soups and other hot foods.

Some other good sources of fiber:

  • ½ cup of beans (six grams of fiber)
  • ½ cup of vegetables (two to four grams)
  • a small piece of fruit (three grams)
  • ½ cup of fresh or frozen raspberries (seven grams)

Both experts advocate showing children how to read food labels and evaluate ingredients. "The 100-calorie snack packs are very popular now, but show your kids what kind of nutrition they are getting in those 100 calories," says Lemond.


Roadblock: Lack of variety
The nutrients that are most likely to be deficient in a child's diet are calcium, iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, and vitamin B6. A diet that contains a variety of foods from each of the five food groups, which include

  • Grains, including bread
  • Proteins, such as meats
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy products

will help prevent nutrient deficiencies. But kids can get into a food rut eating the same foods day in and day out. According to the National Institutes of Health, everyone should eat foods from each group every day. But how much depends on age, gender, and activity level. For more information visit, which reflects the USDA's current dietary guidelines.

(Note: Although the American Academy of Pediatrics does not support routine vitamin supplementation for normal, healthy children, there is no significant risk if a parent wishes to give their child a standard pediatric multivitamin.)

Detour: Involving your children in menu planning will give them a sense of control and help end food fights
As Lemond points out, food behaviors can start appearing during the tween years, making food a source of conflict in many families. Parents will be more successful if instead of forcing foods on their children, they collaborate with them. "It's very important for kids this age to feel like they are making their own choices but, parents should control which foods are available to the child at mealtime and between meals," she explains, adding that her family periodically holds MyPlate nights. "My kids choose their own MyPlate, items but they need to choose a lean meat, a grain (preferably whole), a veggie, a fruit and a dairy. It's a great way for them to learn what to include in a healthy meal," says Lemond. "So many people think about what to avoid when it comes to healthy eating, but the MyPlate approach is the opposite."

Snacks and Dessert

Roadblock: Too much of each
Kuzemchak tries to monitor the intake of what she calls sometimes foods throughout the day, but this can be a challenging task. "Even if you are doing your job at home, our society has invented millions of reasons to celebrate with sweets the kids don't need," says the dietician and soccer mom, who has become vocal at games, urging the coach and fellow parents to rethink the team's postgame celebratory snack tradition. "We've programmed them to expect dessert every time they gather in a group or break into a slow jog. It's no wonder there are so many overweight children."

Detour: Rethink sweets and provide health snacks
Lemond agrees: "On average, kids can handle one sometimes food a day. If they have cookies at lunch, then it's best not to allow a sweet after dinner, too."

Kuzemchak believes dessert should be redefined. "For us, slow cooking apples in a crock pot with lemon and cinnamon is a sweet treat." She recommends instituting a desserts-on-the-weekends rule when things get out of hand. "During a period of multiple birthday parties at school or play dates involving sweets, temporarily restricting dessert can make a healthy difference."

In the meantime, get children accustomed to nutritious after-school snacks including

  • edamame (soybeans that come in a pod and are fun to for kids to push out and eat),
  • pistachios
  • popcorn
  • whole grain crackers and cheese
  • low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit
  • peanut butter on celery

Research shows that eating patterns developed during childhood often last a lifetime. "Perhaps the most important contribution we can make is to teach our children the importance of making smart food choices," Kuzemchak says. "Reading food labels and learning to be conscious of what we put into our bodies is a good place to start."




Interviews with Sally Kuzemchak, RD and Angela Lemond, RD "Health & Nutrition for Children Over Five." United State Dept of Agriculture. Web. 27 April 2013.

National Institutes of Health. "Milk Matters: Ideas for Calcium-Rich Meals and Snacks." Web. 27 April 2013.

Mark Bittman, "Cereal? Cookies? Oh, What's the Diff?" The New York Times. Web.  8 Dec. 2011.