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Additional Components of a Healthy Meal

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Protein and Dairy

Lean protein selections can include lean meats (e.g., chicken, turkey, or fish), as well as chickpeas, beans, and nuts. Children should consume about 4 to 6 ounces of protein a day. A single serving (3 ounces) of meat, poultry or fish is about the size of a deck of cards. An ounce of protein equals approximately one tablespoon of peanut butter, or one half cup of dry beans.

food pyramindAs is the case with vegetables, it is possible to purchase organic meats (created from animals raised on organic diets and not subject to frequent antibiotic treatments as is the case with most conventionally raised meats). Many experts consider organic meats to be of higher overall quality in terms of flavor and nutrition, compared to conventionally raised meats.

There are a wide variety of milk products currently on the market, including liquid milks, cheeses, yogurts and cream products including ice cream. Most of the time, milk products imply cow's milk. However, sheep's milk and goat's milk are available in specialty markets. Soy milks made from soy beans and appealing to lactose intolerant or vegetarian children and adults, are also widely available today. All of these milk products are filled with calcium, which is especially important during middle childhood, as bones are growing rapidly. The average 8-year-old needs approximately 2 cups of milk or milk products per day. Children between the ages of 9 and 11 need about 3 cups of dairy a day. One cup of dairy is equal to one cup of milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese, which looks like 4 stacked dice.

Oils and Fats

Children require a little oil or fat in their diet every day. It is seldom necessary for children or other family members to add sources of oil to their diet, however, because in general, they will already be consuming more oil in the foods they eat than is optimally healthy. Most of of these hidden sources of oil will be in the form of saturated fats, or hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) oils, all of which are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats and hydrogenated oils are widely used in baking. Also, many families will think nothing of including bread with butter (a saturated fat) in their meals. Unfortunately, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils are not very good for heart health. For most families, the focus should be on switching to healthier forms of fat and reducing unnecessary sources of fat rather than trying to figure out how to add additional fats into the weekly menu.

An imperfect but very convenient rule for figuring out what fats are healthier and less healthy is to look at them when they are at room temperature. If they are solid at room temperature, they are usually less healthy saturated or hydrogenated fats and should be eaten less frequently. If they are liquid at room temperature, they're more likely to be unsaturated fats. Though unsaturated fats are more or less healthier to eat than saturated fats, they still should not be eaten to excess.

Fish, nut, corn, (non-hydrogenated) soybean, canola, and olive oils, liquid at room temperature, are all considered to be healthy sources of fat which are good to incorporate into meals. In particular, canola and soybean oil contain Omega 3 fatty acids, which promote cardiovascular health in those individuals who are at risk for heart disease. Fatty fish, such as salmon, are also rich in Omega 3 acids. As well, olive oil has high levels of mono-unsaturated fats, which can help reduce LDLs or "bad" cholesterol and raise HDLs or "good" cholesterol. Olive oil is a cornerstone of cooking in Mediteranian countries and features as a part of the heart healthy Mediterranian diet. It is also a good substitute for butter when serving bread during meals (e.g., dip the bread into good quality olive oil instead of spreading butter on it).

As a general guideline, about 25% to 35% of middle childhood aged children's calories should come from healthy fat or oil sources. Parents can determine the amount of calories present in a food by looking at that food's nutritional label and doing some math. If a label says one serving of the food has 100 calories, and 25 of those calories are "fat calories", the percentage of fat calories in that food can be derived by dividing the total amount of calories present (100) by the amount of fat calories present (25). The result in this instance would be 0.25, or 25%, of the total calories were from fat.

Some foods, like fresh vegetables and fruit will contain little or no fat. Meats like beef or chicken, even if purchased as lean cuts, will likely contain far more than 25% to 35% calories due to fat. The trick is, then, to prepare a meal that will contain both high fat and low-fat or no-fat components, so as to have the total meal balance out at something along the lines of 25% to 35% of its total calories due to fat sources.