Food Groups Background Information for Teachers and Parents

Grade Levels: K-3

Nutrition is an important part of every child’s education. Many of today’s school cafeterias offer a wide variety of foods, but not all are healthy. By learning the importance of health and nutrition, children will be able to make better choices about the foods they eat and take more responsibility for their health and bodies. We highly recommend exploring the Eating Right topic to help students apply what they learn about healthy foods. This movie discusses the food groups—vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy—and how to use them to maintain a balanced, healthy diet. It also models balanced meals, emphasizing the FDA-recommended proportion of servings from the food groups.

Review the food groups with children and begin exploring each one. Remind children that vegetables have important nutrients we need to grow and stay healthy. Have children explain what vegetables they ate at their last meal and keep a list. Vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, squash, and cabbage are loaded with different vitamins that our bodies use to grow. For example, carrots are a good source of vitamin A, which our eyes use for vision. They are also a good source of vitamin C, which promotes healthy teeth and gums. Dark green vegetables–including broccoli, spinach, kale, and collard greens–are rich in calcium, which our bodies use to build strong bones. Beans are also part of the vegetable group because they are loaded with the vitamins and fiber typically found in vegetables. Explore different types of vegetables with children and learn about their nutritional information. Kids ages 4-8 who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day should get about one and a half cups of vegetables a day. (Children who are more active should increase the recommended amounts slightly, but keep the proportion of each food group the same.) A child might have a small salad during lunch and a helping of vegetables at dinner.

What is your favorite fruit? Discuss with children. Explain that fruit is an important part of a balanced diet. Fruits are loaded with vitamins and minerals, and many are good sources of fiber, which helps our digestive systems. You may want to watch the Digestive System movie to extend children’s’ understanding of the topic. Some vitamins in fruits help promote healthy skin and cell development. Many fruits are also good sources of anti-oxidants, which help the body repair and protect itself. Kids ages 4-8 who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day should get about a cup to a cup and a half of fruit a day. A child might have fruit over oatmeal in the morning and orange slices for an afternoon snack.

Help children understand that bright fruits and vegetables are often loaded with nutrients. Everyone should eat different colors of fruits and vegetables to vary the type of nutrients they get in their diets. Help children understand that half their meals should be made up of fruits and vegetables, with slightly more vegetables than fruit.

Remind children that bread, cereal, pasta, rice, and oats are part of the grains group. Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains. Help children be aware of food labels and choices and look for breads that are whole wheat. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, which promotes healthy digestive tracts. Kids need about 5 ounces of grains a day. A child might have half of a whole wheat bagel at breakfast and a small portion of pasta at dinner. About a quarter of a meal should be made up of grains, preferably whole grains.

Protein is also an important part of a balanced meal. Meat, fish, and seafood are sources of protein, but so are tofu, nuts, eggs, and beans. Some children will recall that beans are part of the vegetable group as well. Our bodies use protein to build strong muscles, but our bodies also use protein for important functions, such as transporting oxygen. Kids need about 4 ounces of protein a day. A child might have peanut butter with a piece of wheat toast in the morning, a salad with chicken at lunch, and a small piece of fish at dinner. Help children understand that they should get their protein from different sources since they have different nutrients. The FDA recommends making fish your protein source at least twice a week. Eating a wide variety of foods means taking in different types of vitamins and minerals. Less than a quarter of a meal should be protein.

Remind children that milk, cheese, yogurt, and soy milk are part of the dairy group. Dairy foods have calcium, which our bodies use for healthy bones, teeth, and hair. In general children should pick milk that is lower in fat. They should avoid chocolate milk or strawberry milk, which are loaded with sugar. Kids need about two and a half ounces of dairy a day. A child might have yogurt with fruit in the morning, a small carton of milk with lunch, and some cheese and crackers for a snack.

It is important for children to learn how to make healthier choices at mealtimes. Help them understand the proportions of the food groups they should be eating. Remember, half of everyone’s meals should be made up of fruits and vegetables! Remind children that it is not possible to eat a perfectly balanced plate at every meal, so they should take note of the food groups they have eaten less of in recent meals and try to have more of them at their next meal. Encourage children to take an active part in their health and think about what they put into their bodies.