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Food groups may be confusing, but once you get the hang of them, they are your secret weapon for planning balanced, nutritious meals and snacks for your child.

What are food groups?

Food groups are categories of food that are similar in nutrients. There are five main food groups and they include fruit, vegetables, dairy, grains, and protein. The balance and right mix of these food groups, presented at meals and snacks, can help ensure your toddler and preschooler get the right mix of nutrients needed for their normal growth and development.

Why are they important?

All food and beverages your child consumes count towards his or her health and overall growth. Dividing food into categories of food groups helps you not only meet your child’s nutrient requirements, it also helps him or her get the right amount of calories.

What foods are contained in each group?

The five food groups contain a variety of foods and types, offering you endless combinations and possibilities for keeping your child’s diet healthy.

Fruit: A variety of foods count as a fruit, including 100 percent fruit juice, canned fruit, and fresh, frozen, dehydrated, and dried fruit. Examples include 100 percent orange juice, raisins, apple, banana, strawberries, peaches canned in natural juices, and dehydrated raspberries.

Vegetables: Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice is considered part of the vegetable group. Any form of vegetable can be included, such as fresh, frozen, canned, dried, or dehydrated, and may be served several ways, like raw, cooked, mashed or minced. Examples include broccoli or spinach (dark green); carrot or red pepper (red and orange); pinto beans or edamame (beans and peas); corn or potatoes (starchy); cauliflower or cucumbers (other vegetables).

Because there are so many different vegetables with various nutrients, subcategories exist to help children target additional nutrients on a weekly basis.

Grains: Foods made from wheat, rice, oats, barley, cornmeal, or other grains fall into the grain group. The grain group contains whole grain foods, which contain the bran, germ and endosperm (the whole kernel!), all of which are naturally high in fiber, and important nutrients, such as iron and B vitamins.

Refined grains are also included in the grain group (white bread, white rice), and these are processed to remove the grain kernel and while doing so, remove the fiber, vitamins, and iron. Iron and B vitamins are added back through a process called enrichment, but fiber is not.

To reap the immediate and long-term benefits of whole grain foods, serve at least half of all grains as a whole grain source.

Protein: Foods made from meat, poultry, fish, seafood, beans (also part of the vegetable group), nuts, and eggs are considered part of the protein group. Try to choose lean or low fat options.

Dairy: Milk and foods made from milk are considered part of the dairy group. All of these foods are good sources of calcium for your child. Other foods made from milk, such as butter or cream cheese, do not have a good source of calcium and are therefore not included in the dairy group.

Calcium-fortified soy milk is also part of the dairy group. Other calcium-fortified non-dairy beverages such as almond milk may not provide the same level of other nutrients found in dairy products (such as protein); however, they can help your child meet his or her calcium needs.

Oils (Fats): Oils can be inherently present in a food (the skin on chicken or the marbling of meat, for example) or can be added to food (butter on bread). While not an official food group, it is prudent to be mindful of the amount of fat in your child’s diet.

Fat is an important component of a young child’s diet because it aids in the proper growth and development of the brain, and is a calorie-dense nutrient, helping very young toddlers meet their calorie requirements. You will see below suggested amounts of oils and fats to include in your child’s daily diet.

Examples: vegetable oil, olive oil, olives (also part of the vegetable group), nuts (part of the protein group), and avocado (part of the vegetable group).

How much does your child need?

For young children, the number of servings from each food group is tailored to the their caloric and nutrient needs each day. The following servings are outlined for the average toddler and preschooler, highlighting how much to give as you plan your child’s meals and snacks.

Food Group2-3 years4 years
Fruit group1 cup per day1 to 1 ½ cups per day
Vegetable group1 cup per day1 to 1 ½ cups per day
Grain group3 ounce equivalents (ie., 1 slice of bread; ½ cup rice)

*At least 1 ½ ounces of whole grains per day
5 ounce equivalents (ie., 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal; 1 cup cooked pasta)
*At least 2 ½ ounces of whole grains per day
Protein group2 ounces per day4 ounces per day
Dairy group2 cups per day2 ½ cups per day
Oils (Fat)3 teaspoons per day4 teaspoons per day

Takeaways

  • Include a variety of food groups at each meal and snack. Try to represent most food groups at meals and 2 to 3 food groups at snacks.
  • Vary foods within each food group to expose your child to as many different foods and nutrients as possible.
  • Use the daily food group amounts to help plan out balanced meals and snacks that provide the nutrition your child needs every day.

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