Anyone who’s ever tried to feed a child (something other than cereal or ice cream) knows they don’t always eat what you want. Trying to figure out what to make to nourish their tiny bodies is stressful. Plus, just because it gets served doesn’t mean your kids will eat it. But kids need nutritious food—healthy fats for their brains, calcium for their bones, and all the vitamins and minerals vegetables offer—and more.
To take out some of the stress and make sure you’re offering your child nutrient-dense foods, we compiled expert tips for mealtimes and a list of the top 10 healthy foods for kids. These foods are not only healthy for your kids (and for you!) but are also versatile and easy to prepare.
“Yogurt is a wonderful option for breakfast, a snack, or even a dessert but you have to watch the added sugar content,” says Katie Andrews, M.S., RD, a childhood nutrition coach and owner of Wellness by Katie. “It’s a healthy, filling snack that checks the boxes on protein and vitamin D, a nutrient many kids lack in their diet.”
Yogurt also delivers probiotics, good bacteria that are important for maintaining a healthy gut. Looking for an easy way to pick out a healthy yogurt? Buy plain Greek yogurt, which has zero added sugars plus twice the protein of regular yogurt. Most yogurt that’s flavored has added sugar; some new products are flavored with just fruit, but plain is always a safe bet. It’s easy to add flavor yourself by adding berries and sprinkling whole-grain cereal on top or creating a fun parfait with fruit. Dress up yogurt even more for kids by turning it into frozen yogurt pops or frozen yogurt bark.
Pictured Recipe: Toaster-Oven Tostadas
Beans are a very nutritious food. They’re loaded with protein and fiber, plus they’re cheap and take little time to prepare. Buy low-sodium canned beans such as black beans, chickpeas or kidney beans. Simply open the can, rinse them to remove extra sodium and add to any dish.
“Replacing ground beef with beans in a quesadilla or tossing beans with pasta helps maintain high-quality, lean protein while adding a key nutrient: fiber,” says Andrews.
There are pastas made from beans too. “Kids ages 4 to 8 need around 25 grams of fiber a day, and most products marketed directly to kids, like fruit snacks and cheese crackers, contain little if any. Fiber helps promote healthy digestion and helps your kids feel fuller, longer, so they aren’t asking you for a snack 5 minutes after dinner ends,” says Andrews.
Pictured Recipe: Spinach & Egg Scramble with Raspberries
One large egg has 6 grams of protein and delivers vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron, per the USDA. Some eggs are also fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in kids’ brain development. Don’t worry about the cholesterol—saturated and trans fats have a bigger impact on raising bad cholesterol than eggs.
At breakfast, skip the pastries, fried foods and processed meats and scramble some eggs for your kids instead. If your kids aren’t fans of scrambled, try different presentations like egg salad or egg casseroles.
Eggs also make a great starter food for babies. Doctors used to recommend not giving eggs until babies were 12 months old. However, as of 2020, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology states that allergenic foods like eggs can be introduced when babies are ready for solid foods, and in fact, might help prevent food allergies.
Pictured Recipe: Avocado-Bun Turkey Sliders
Avocados are full of healthy benefits and are an easy way to get healthy fats into your child’s diet. They are high in monounsaturated fats, which decrease inflammation and keep cholesterol levels healthy. Fat moves through the digestive tract slowly, so it keeps kids full longer. But the best part of avocados? Their versatility. You can eat them with a spoon, mash them on toast, throw them into a smoothie, mix them into chicken or tuna salad or make a pasta sauce like avocado pesto.
5. Sweet Potato
Pictured Recipe: Oven Sweet Potato Fries
Short on time and need something nutritious? Wash a sweet potato, poke some holes in it and microwave it for 3-5 minutes (depending on its size). Slice it lengthwise, let it cool, then scoop it onto your child’s plate.
Whether your kid is 6 months, 6 years old or 16 years old, sweet potatoes are appealing across the board (because they’re sweet!). They’re packed with beta carotene that the body uses to make vitamin A, fiber and potassium, per the USDA. Adequate potassium intake keeps blood pressure and hearts healthy.
Milk helps build strong bones because it’s full of calcium and vitamin D. According to the USDA, one 8-ounce glass of whole cow’s milk is also high in phosphorus, vitamin B12 and potassium, and has 8 grams of protein.
Babies shouldn’t have cow’s milk or milk alternatives until age 1. Offer whole milk until age 2 but keep it under 16 ounces for the day or they might be too full to eat their food, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If your child doesn’t like cow’s milk, there are a variety of alternatives on shelves. But check the nutrition labels and choose unsweetened or plain varieties for your kids. Plain may have some added sugar to match the sweetness of dairy milk, which may be more palatable to tiny taste buds. Every alternative milk has a different nutrition profile, and some provide very little protein and low levels of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and vitamin D. Soymilk has the most protein, and you’ll get the same calcium and vitamin D benefit as long as the milk is fortified.
7. Nuts and Seeds
Pictured Recipe: Salted Coconut-Caramel Energy Balls
Swap the low-fiber, crunchy kid snacks (you know the ones that are practically air) for nuts and seeds to deliver a healthful trio of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Mix it up by offering cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and more. If your child has a tree nut allergy, seeds may be a safe choice and a good way to get important nutrition.
Nuts are high in magnesium, a mineral that’s crucial in bone development and energy production. Walnuts, pecans, chia seeds and flaxseeds are high in alpha-linolenic (ALA) acid, a type of omega-3 fat that the body can’t make (so you have to eat it).
Offer nuts alone or with dried fruit, throw flaxseed into smoothies, sprinkle chia seeds on peanut butter toast, use sliced almonds to “bread” chicken instead of breadcrumbs or make your own granola bars.
8. Whole Grains
Pictured Recipe: One-Pot Spinach, Chicken Sausage & Feta Pasta
Whole grains deliver a nutrient lacking in most kids’ diets: fiber. Fiber keeps them full and regular, in addition to other health benefits. Kids need about 25 grams per day, but many snacks only contain 1-3 grams per serving. Look for 100% whole wheat or whole grain in the ingredients list and at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving.
High-fiber whole-grain foods for kids include oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole-wheat tortillas and whole-wheat bread. If your kids don’t tolerate whole-wheat pasta, try half whole-wheat, half-white. You can also use whole-wheat flour or white whole-wheat flour when making pancakes, cookies or pizza dough.
One cup of berries has 4 (or more) grams of fiber and is high in vitamin C and other antioxidants like anthocyanins. Blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are also lower in sugar than many fruits. Fresh berries make an excellent snack for kids or a great topping for yogurt. If berries aren’t in season, buy unsweetened frozen berries and mix them into a jar of overnight oats or a smoothie.
10. Vegetables, Any Kind!
Pictured Recipe: Maple Roasted Carrots
Kids and adults alike don’t eat enough veggies. If you can get your child to eat any vegetable—kudos! And the more color and the greater the variety of vegetables, the better. Each color delivers different nutrients: Leafy greens like spinach and kale are high in vitamin K, orange and red vegetables have vitamin A, peppers are packed with vitamin C, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower contain cancer-fighting compounds and feed good gut bacteria.
“Really it is about taking the ‘fear’ away from veggies. While a slice of pizza is very approachable, a stalk of broccoli can seem intimidating,” says Andrews. “So make veggies easy and accessible. Wash and cut celery, carrot and cucumber sticks and keep them in the fridge for snacking. If you have some green space available, plant a small garden with cherry tomatoes and sweet baby peppers; when kids grow their own food they are proud of the results, and therefore more willing to indulge in the bounty.”
Andrews also recommends introducing new vegetables along with ones that your child is already familiar with. “Make-your-own taco bars or pizza night at home are great ways to encourage young chefs!” says Andrews.
Don’t give up after offering a vegetable a few times. It takes repeated exposure. Switching up how you serve the vegetables can help too. Some kids won’t eat raw tomatoes but will eat cooked diced tomatoes in a pasta sauce.
Tips for Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy Foods
How can you get your kids to eat more of these healthy foods? Try these ideas.
- Use MyPlate as a guide. Aim to make half of their plate fruits and vegetables, one-quarter whole grains like bread or whole-wheat pasta, and one-quarter protein like eggs, meat, cheese, beans or nuts.
- Offer variety. Remember that your job as the parent is to offer a variety of food, it’s your child’s job to eat it.
- Get your children involved in the cooking. A 2018 study in Appetite found that when kids were included in preparing the food, they tended to eat more of it. This extended to both healthy and unhealthy foods.
- Serve food family-style. This way, kids can choose what and how much they would like to eat from the food on the table, recommends Emma Fogt, M.B.A., M.S., RDN, owner of The Biome Kitchen. “Always have one food on the table that the limited-eater child likes,” she says. “The child may eat a lot of bread, but you will also have your other foods on the table for them to try.”
- Be a healthy-eating role model. “Kids are watching your every move!” says Fogt. “Sit down with your kids, eat every 3-4 hours yourself, enjoy healthy snacks and meals, make mealtimes fun and relaxing, play games at mealtime, get chatting, get rid of phones at mealtimes, take the pressure off the food and make it a time to connect. In our busy lives this downtime is sacred—it’s not about the food.”
- Take off the pressure. Kids who are forced to eat certain foods as kids could grow up to dislike or avoid those foods as adults. Coercing kids to eat foods makes mealtime stressful for them and you. “Keep calm and carry on,” says Fogt. “It’s a long process—I hate to say it, but often can be years—as parents. You have to be so ‘chill.’ No pressure on the child to eat and no pressure on you to force-feed.”
- Be consistent and patient. It can take many exposures to the same food for a child to finally decide to try it. When they’re ready, they’ll try it—and still might not like it, and that’s okay.
- Remove negative language from the dinner table. “Saying ‘you’re probably not going to like it but give it a try’ tells a child that the food isn’t worth trying!” says Andrews. Introduce new foods along with those with which they are familiar.
- Remember you’re not alone. Seek help if needed. Registered dietitians, pediatric psychologists, pediatricians and feeding specialists can help.