Balance your diet, balance your health Balance your diet, balance your health

Understanding the Five Food Groups for Kids

Food pyramids are so passe! Today’s kids are learning about food groups in a much more relatable way – using a plate.


In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture introduced MyPlate to help people better visualize and estimate how much of the different food groups they needed in a day. The plate is organized into four nearly equal quadrants: Fruits, Vegetables, Protein and Grains, with a cup-like circle off to the side to depict Dairy.


The plate method is an easy-to-understand way to help kids and adults visualize the different food groups and how to balance them out. The food groups for kids are the same as adults – the only difference that older teens and adults tend to need larger amounts within each food group while younger kids tend to need less, since the number of servings depend on a person’s daily calorie target.


The Five Food Groups for Kids


Food Groups for Kids


Here’s a closer look at each food group, why it’s important and what it includes:

  • Fruits. This is an important food group for kids because it often provides key nutrients that many people don't get enough of, such as potassium, fiber, vitamin C and folate. Fresh fruit is an obvious choice, but frozen, canned, dried and 100% fruit juice also count as fruit servings. Just watch those portion sizes – one cup of fresh, frozen, canned or 100% fruit juice is equivalent to one-third to one-half of dried fruit. To squeeze the most nutrition out of every serving, choose options with no added sweetener, or, in the case of canned, are packed in their own juices. Kids should have around 1 to 2 cups of fruit per day.
  • Vegetables. Much like fruit, vegetables provide important nutrients that kids need and often don’t get enough of, like fiber and potassium. Choosing from a variety of colorful vegetables helps make sure you get different vitamins and minerals. For example, orange vegetables like carrots and pumpkin provide beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A that’s important for healthy vision. Green leafy vegetables tend to supply iron, vitamin K and a bunch of B vitamins for overall health and well-being. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and beans are also great sources of nutrients. Kids need anywhere from 1.5 to 4 cups of vegetables per day, depending on age and gender.
  • Grains. Grain foods are a great source of energy, vitamins and minerals. The grains group can be broken down into two types: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains tend to have more fiber, since the entire grain is used. Refined grains have the bran and outer germ removed, but 80 percent of the grain – the starchy middle – is still there and some vitamins are often added back (but not fiber). At least half of your grains should come from whole grains. Kids need anywhere from about 4 to 10 ounce-equivalents of grain foods.
  • Protein. Kids need protein every day. It builds and maintains muscle, helps support a healthy immune system and is instrumental when recovering from an injury. There are many sources of protein: some that comes from animals, like beef, chicken, seafood and eggs; as well as plant-based proteins like soy (tofu and edamame), nuts, lentils and beans. (If you noticed that beans are both a protein and a vegetable – you’re right!) Kids need about 3 to 7 ounce equivalents of protein per day.
  • Dairy. But wait, aren’t dairy foods also great for protein? Yes, but dairy gets its own category because calcium is so important in these food groups for kids. Both kids and adults need about 3 cups of dairy each day (a little less for the younger ones). Milk, yogurt, cheese and calcium fortified soy drinks all count as a dairy serving.


When packing your kid’s lunch or making a meal, keep the MyPlate method in mind. Aim to make that meal loaded with fruits and/or vegetables, have equal-sized portions of grains and protein, and include some dairy. These don’t have to be portioned out like the plate – mixed dishes count, too! For example:

  • Whole-grain, low sugar cereal (Grains) with low fat milk (Dairy) and banana slices (Fruit) plus a protein drink (Protein).
  • Turkey (Protein) sandwich made with whole-grain bread (Grain), cheese (Dairy), lettuce and tomato (Vegetables) plus apple slices (Fruit)
  • Pizza on a whole-grain pita (Grain) with canned crushed tomatoes (Vegetables), mozzarella cheese (Dairy) and Canadian bacon (Protein)
  • Spaghetti (Grain) with meat sauce (Protein and Vegetables) and green beans (Vegetables) plus parmesan cheese (Dairy)


If you’re still in a mealtime rut and need some ideas, or you just want to make eating healthy fun for your kiddos, check out the MyPlate resources for kids and teens.


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