6th Grade Nutrition Guide

6th grade can be a big year for your child. They may be joining middle school and transitioning into a more rigorous academic load, while also becoming more socially active. Your child may become even more influenced by their peers at this age, and if they have poor eating habits, it may be more difficult for you to keep them on a nutritious and balanced diet. Proper nutrition is still important at this age, especially as their body prepares for the growth spurt associated with puberty. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you may notice your son’s appetite increasing at this age, because of that growth spurt, (your daughter’s appetite is likely to increase around age 10). Your child’s diet should still contain many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein to support their growing body.

The following serving suggestions are based on the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guidelines, unless otherwise noted. The recommended servings are for children who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity. If your child is more active, or involved in sports, they may be able to eat more healthy foods. You may notice that some guidelines are different for girls and boys – this is because boys are generally bigger and add more lean muscle mass than girls, and they need more food to support their growing bodies. The guidelines and tips here are a resource for parents, and are not intended as a substitute for speaking with your child’s health care provider.

Vegetables

Vegetables are important to overall health for a variety of reasons. Green leafy vegetables are high in folic acid, which helps the body create new cells, and iron, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is especially important for girls who have gone through puberty, as their bodies lose iron during menstruation. To help your daughter’s body absorb iron from vegetables, serve with food rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits or broccoli, as vitamin C helps the body absorb plant-based iron. Vegetables like potatoes, leafy greens, and beans also have potassium, which helps control water balance in the body, helps muscle function, and helps maintain a healthy blood pressure. Beans and greens also contain calcium, which is a crucial mineral for bone health and development.

Vegetables: How Many?

Your 6th grade son should be eating about 2 ½ cups of vegetables each day, while your child should eat about 2 cups each day. What counts as a cup? Half of a cooked acorn squash is about ¾ of a cup, 5 broccoli florets, and 1 large bell pepper are all about 1 cup.

Fruits

Fruits contain many important nutrients, such as potassium, which promotes proper muscle function and helps the body maintain water balance. Potassium can be found in fruits like bananas and apricots. Encourage your child to eat fruit rather than drink juice. Drinking fruit juice isn't as healthy as eating whole fruit, because the fiber is stripped out and many juices have added sugars. If your child likes orange juice with breakfast, stick with 100% juice and limit how much your child drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends juice be limited to 8 to 12 ounces each day.

Fruits: How Many?

Your 6th grader should be eating about 1 ½ cups of fruits each day. What counts as a cup? One small apple, one medium grapefruit, or about eight large strawberries. For a visual reference, a tennis ball is about the size of one cup.

Protein

Protein helps the body build muscles and cartilage, while iron, which is found in many protein-rich foods, helps the blood move oxygen. Iron is especially important for girls who have gone through puberty, as their bodies lose iron during menstruation. While iron can be found in vegetables, the type of iron found in lean meats, poultry, and fish is easier for the body to absorb.

Research shows that most American children consume more than enough protein in their diet, so it is important for you to focus on the kinds of protein your child is consuming. It’s best to choose poultry without the skin, meats with fat trimmed, and when choosing ground meat, one that is at least 93% lean. Fish, beans, and nuts are also great sources of protein. Keeping your child's intake of fats and extra calories down will help prevent increased risk for obesity, which can lead to heart disease.

6TH GRADE NUTRITION TIPS

Proper nutrition is still important at this age, especially as your child continues to grow and enters puberty.

Protein: How Much?

Your 6th grader should be eating about 5 ounces of protein each day. The ounces should be split between meals and snacks. What is an ounce? One egg is the same as an ounce of protein. Two tablespoons of hummus is 1 ounce. Two tablespoons is the size of a ping pong ball. One small hamburger or veggie burger is the same as 2 to 3 ounces of protein.

Grains

Grains are a good source of fiber, which aids in the body's digestion, and B vitamins, which aid in nervous system function. Many grain products are enriched with iron, which helps move oxygen in the blood. According to the USDA, most Americans consume enough grains, but few consume enough whole grains. Whole grains have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure in adults, so if your child can learn to choose whole grains, they are learning to make choices to help them long-term health. Brown rice, whole wheat bread, and quinoa are examples of whole grains, while processed grains like white bread and white rice are not whole grains.

Grains: How Much?

Your daughter should be eating about 5 ounces of grains, while your child should be eating about 6 ounces of grains each day, with at least half being whole grains. What is an ounce? Half a cup of cooked rice is the same as 1 ounce. One English muffin is the same as 2 ounces. One large tortilla (12 inch diameter) is the same as 4 ounces.

Dairy

Dairy products contain calcium, which is essential for your child's bone growth. Many are fortified with vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of calcium. Your child's bones will continue to grow until about age 18, which means it is still important to make sure they're consuming calcium and vitamin D. Dairy products other than milk may also be fortified with calcium and vitamin D - so make sure you check the label. Try to stick with low (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk for your child to help limit the amount of fat your child consumes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends after age two that children drink only low or nonfat milk. While 2% milk is not recommended, it is still a better option than whole milk, which is about 3%. If your child is lactose-intolerant, fortified low-sugar soy milk and lactose-free dairy milk are good substitutions.

Dairy: How Much?

Your 6th grader should be getting about 3 cups of dairy each day. What counts as a cup? One small container (6 ounces) of yogurt is about the same as one cup. One low-fat string cheese is the same as half a cup.

Oils & Fats

Your child's growing body needs some fats for brain growth and continued sensory development. Fats also help the body absorb other vitamins like A, E, D, and K. But not all fats are the same. There are healthier fats, like olive oil, and unhealthy fats, like lard and butter. Generally, fats that are liquid at room temperature are healthier than fats that are solid at room temperature. Too much fat can lead to weight gain and health complications, so it’s important to limit the amount of fat your child eats.

Oils & Fats: How Much?

Your 6th grader should only consume about 5 teaspoons of fats each day, so try to limit the amount of unhealthy fats in their diet. they are likely to get enough healthy fats from foods they are already eating, like avocados and almonds. For example, half an avocado and 23 almonds have three teaspoons of healthy fats each. In one quarter pound cheeseburger from a fast food chain, there can be 26 to 42 grams (about 7-11 teaspoons) of fat, which is over the daily limit. And of those fats, about 14 to 15 grams (about 8 teaspoons) are unhealthy fats.

How much is a teaspoon of fat? To visualize, one dice is about the same as one teaspoon. Keep that in mind when using butter, margarine, or other spreads.

Sodium & Salt

Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably when talking about food. Salt is actually the combination of sodium and chloride, with sodium being the unhealthy part of salt. Too much sodium can increase your child’s risk for high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. While the body does need some sodium to maintain proper water balance, research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that children in the United States consume twice the recommended amount of sodium.

Sodium is added to foods to increase the shelf life and flavor. Examples of foods that are high in sodium are frozen dinners, canned foods like soup, and fried foods. According to the CDC, most children consume a lot of sodium from processed foods and when eating outside the home. Our experts recommend making as many meals as possible at home and avoiding the salt shaker to keep sodium intake down.

Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably when talking about food. Salt is actually the combination of sodium and chloride, with sodium being the unhealthy part of salt. Too much sodium can increase your child’s risk for high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. While the body does need some sodium to maintain proper water balance, research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that children in the United States consume twice the recommended amount of sodium.

Sodium is added to foods to increase the shelf life and flavor. Examples of foods that are high in sodium are frozen dinners, canned foods like soup, and fried foods. According to the CDC, most children consume a lot of sodium from processed foods and when eating outside the home. Our experts recommend making as many meals as possible at home and avoiding the salt shaker to keep sodium intake down.

Sodium & Salt: How Much?

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your child’s sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams per day. How much is that? For example, an average store-bought frozen supreme pizza can have as many as 900 milligrams of sodium per serving – which is about 1 ½ slices. If your child eats more than that, that’s even more sodium. Remember to check food package labels. Foods with more than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving are considered high.

Added Sugars

Added sugars are found in cereals, sweetened beverages, desserts, and candy. They have no nutritional value and a lot of calories, making them an unhealthy choice for your child. Too much added sugar in your child's diet can lead to obesity, which puts a child at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease. According to the CDC, children today have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. For Hispanic children, that number is one in two.

Added Sugars: How Much?

The USDA recommends limiting your child’s intake of added sugars to less than half of their daily intake of empty calories, or the number of calories your child eats beyond their nutritional needs. This means your child should have less than 5 teaspoons (20 grams) and your child should have less than 4 teaspoons (or 15 grams) of added sugars each day.

How much is a teaspoon of sugar? In one can of soda, there are about 8 teaspoons of sugar, (or 33 grams). Sugars can add up really quickly – in an average chocolate chip cookie, there are 2 ½ teaspoons (or 11 grams) of sugar, about half your child’s limit for the day.

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Research shows that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars and calories for American children, with as many as 88 percent of children consuming sugar-sweetened beverages every day. Sodas, sports drinks, juices, and energy drinks all fall under the sugar-sweetened beverage category. Offering little to no nutritional value and many empty calories, these beverages can put your child at an increased risk of obesity.

Products labeled “diet” or “lite” often have fewer calories and no sugar, because they are sweetened with artificial sweeteners. These products also have limited to no nutritional benefits for your child, and it’s important to keep them from replacing water and milk in the diet. There hasn’t been much research on artificial sweeteners and consumption in children, therefore the American Academy of Pediatrics does not issue a recommendation on their use. Our experts say the best choices for your child’s beverages are water, milk, and limited amounts of 100% fruit juice.

Your child may be more involved in athletics at this age, but sports drinks still may not be necessary. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children rehydrate with water during and after exercise. If your child is involved in very strenuous activity, for longer than 60 minutes, sports drinks may be appropriate. Most youth athletes can get all the hydration, carbohydrates, and protein they need by following a well-balanced diet, eating all recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, and drinking six to eight glasses of water each day.

What About Diet Drinks?

Some sugar-sweetened beverages also offer a “diet” or “lite” version of their products. These are usually made sweeter by adding artificial sweeteners. There hasn’t been much research done on the effects of artificial sweeteners on children, and therefore the AAP doesn’t have a recommendation on their use. Our experts recommend that your children stick with water, milk, and small amounts of 100% juice when drinking. Even “diet” or “lite” versions offer little to no nutritional benefits for your growing child. 

Water

One of the most-needed nutrients for survival, water is crucial for your child's health and can make up as much as 75 percent of their body weight. Water helps transport nutrients throughout the body and regulates body temperature. While you should encourage your child to drink water, water is also found in fruits and vegetables and other liquids.

Water: How Much?

The Institute of Medicine recommends your 6th grade daughter drink about 7 cups of fluid each day, and your 6th grade son drink about 8 cups. This recommendation includes all beverages, including plain water and milk. Our experts recommend about half of your child’s fluid intake come from plain water, meaning about 3 to 4 cups for your child and 4 cups for your son. If your child is still thirty, let them drink as much plain water as your child likes.

Breakfast

For decades, studies have shown the positive impact of breakfast on academic performance. Children who have breakfast in the morning are also more focused, better able to learn, and less likely to be absent from school. Healthy breakfast choices that have whole grains, protein, fruit, and are low in sugar are good ways to keep your child full and focused throughout the day. Not skipping breakfast can also help to keep your child at a healthy weight.

Breakfast: Healthy Choices

What are examples of a healthy breakfast versus an unhealthy breakfast? An egg, fresh fruit, and whole grain toast is a healthy option for breakfast and supplies three of the food groups in one meal. A donut, which is full of added sugars and has virtually no nutritional value, is not a good breakfast option.

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