Stephanie and Rick Darby spend lots of time and energy choosing healthy foods for their two kids.

“We want them getting the right nutrients for their growth and brain development,” says Rick, who lives in Grand Rapids, MI. Both parents scan food labels for amounts of sugar, protein, and vitamins.

It’s challenging to create nutritious meals that appeal to both Zander, 7, and Zoe, 5, Rick says.

“Zoe would live on fresh fruits, vegetables, and beans. Zander would eat mostly mac and cheese. So they’re two different eaters, and we try to get them to compromise.”

Whether your kid is a picky eater, a snacker, or a try-anything type, the right amount and mix of nutrients helps them grow healthy brains and bodies. Especially between the ages of 4 and 13, kids go through major physical and mental growth. Healthy eating fuels those changes.

“It’s important that children get a balanced diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and a small amount of healthy fats. A balanced diet will provide virtually all the nutrients that children need,” says Susanna Huh, MD, associate director of the Center of Nutrition at Boston Children’s Hospital.

What nutrients are most important for kids’ growth, how much should they eat, and why? Here’s a quick list to help you put together good meals and snacks.

Protein

It builds muscles and other tissues in kids’ bodies. Plus, it helps them boost their immune systems.

How much kids need: 3-5 ounces per day for children 2-8 years old, or 5-8 ounces for kids ages 10-14.

Good sources: Fish, chicken, turkey, lean meats, nuts, eggs, milk, yogurt, string cheese, peanut butter, and edamame.

Iron

This nutrient helps you make red blood cells, which carry oxygen in the body, and it helps children grow. Without it, they can get anemia.

How much kids need: Around 10 milligrams a day for 4- to 8-year-olds. After that, 8 milligrams a day.

Good sources: Red meat, beans, green leafy vegetables, tuna, eggs, dried beans, iron-fortified cereal.

Vitamin D

This builds strong, healthy bones.

How much kids need: 600 international units per day for children of all ages.

Good sources: Vitamin D is rare in foods, but you can find it added to some dairy products and cereals. Kids may need a multivitamin to get enough, says dietitian Kathy Pertzborn, RD. Sunlight can also give children D, but don’t let them get too much -- it raises their risk for skin cancer.

Calcium

It also builds strong bones, which store the nutrient for years.

How much kids need: 1,000 milligrams per day for children 4-8, and 1,300 milligrams per day for kids 9-13.

Good sources: Dairy products like milk, and fortified soy milk, tofu, and dry cereals. Serve kids 2 cups of milk per day. Avoid dark sodas, which have phosphoric acid and make it harder for kids’ bones to absorb calcium.

Healthy Fats

Fat gets a bad rap, but the good kinds are key for brain and nerve growth, especially for infants and toddlers. They also help with healthy metabolism, blood clotting, and letting the body absorb vitamins.

How much kids need: 30% of their overall diet should be fats, mostly unsaturated.

Good sources: Breastmilk for infants; vegetable oils like olive, safflower, corn, or soy, or proteins like fish or chicken for kids older than 2. The fatty acids in salmon, flaxseed, or walnuts are healthy for children, too.

Vitamin C

This nutrient helps kids build their brains and immune systems, promotes healing from cuts and scrapes, and gets their bodies to absorb iron.

How much kids need: 25 milligrams per day for children 4-8, and 45 milligrams per day for children 9-13.

Good sources: Fresh fruits and vegetables like oranges, strawberries, broccoli, kiwi fruit, cabbage, peppers, and fresh juices.

WebMD Feature

NEXT IN THE SERIES

From WebMD

Also In This Destination