Information on basic nutritional needs for children

Dec 29, 2008 at 1:09 p.m. ET

Children grow and develop at such a rapid pace that it's sometimes hard just to keep up with them. The most important thing a parent can do is make sure their kid is getting all of the necessary nutrients to have a happy and healthy childhood.

Exposure to healthy foods early on means they're more likely to make smart decisions later in life. Children especially need plenty of protein, iron, calcium and Vitamin A. It's important to note, too, that variations in their appetite are normal and will increase during speedy times of growth. As a general rule, though, children between two and three years old need about 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day and children four to eight years old need 1,400 to 1,600 a day. The exact amount depends on your child's activity level. Consult your doctor for an exact, more personalized amount.In terms of meal portions, the Food Guide Pyramid suggests that children between the ages of four and six can usually have serving sizes of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats recommended for adults. For example, breakfast could include one ounce of grain such as oatmeal, a 1/2 cup of fruit and a 1/2 cup of low-fat milk. A good dinner option for children between four and six would be a 1/2 cup of vegetables, a 1/2 cup of low-fat milk, two ounces of meat and beans, and two ounces of grains such as whole-grain bread. Younger children with their tinier tummies need smaller portions but all kids need at least the minimum servings outlined for each food group. According to the Food Guide, grains and starches should be the foundation of the diet. Whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta and bread, oatmeal and enriched breakfast cereals are full of iron. Your child should eat six servings of grain daily, three of which should be whole grain. Check out MyPyramid has more examples of ideal meal portions by age.Fresh fruits and vegetables should be worked into your child's meal plan whenever possible. Vegetables with strong flavors like broccoli or Brussels sprouts have never been a kid-favorite, so opt for sweet potatoes, green beans and cooked carrots. Vitamin A is especially prevalent in brightly colored produce, so mix in a lot of strawberries, melons and sweet peppers. And it's always a good idea to limit fruit juice intake. One serving daily or 3/4 cup of 100 percent fruit juice is the right amount. And remember, watered-down natural juice drinks are a healthy alternative to sugary juice cocktail beverages.Building strong bones would be impossible without calcium so make sure your kid is getting the proper amount of milk and cheese and protein is essential for growing tissues. Good options full in protein include lean meat, chicken, turkey and fish, or dry beans and peas. Finally, one daily sweet for a child on a healthy meal plan is fine but limit the amounts and always check labels.Other good resources include, and