An Age-by-Age Guide to Nutrition for Kids

Here’s what parents should to know about the top nutrients their children need from infancy to the teen years.

By Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.

At every age and stage, little ones need the right nutrients to help them play, learn, and grow. For many, eating a varied and balanced diet is enough to meet those needs. For kids with extreme pickiness or health issues that impact their ability to eat or use nutrients, supplements or a feeding tube could be required to stay well nourished.

Your pediatrician, along with a pediatric registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), can help you understand your child’s nutritional requirements, and what tools you can use to help them get the vitamins and minerals their bodies need to thrive.

Here are some of the top nutrients to make sure babies, toddlers, and kids are consuming every day.

Vitamin D

This vitamin helps support bone health at all ages; in the early years it helps kids build strong bones that will benefit them for life. It also has other roles in the body, including reduction of inflammation, and improved immunity. While we can get vitamin D from food and supplements, our bodies also produce vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Those with darker skin and people who don’t get a lot of natural sunlight may be more likely to need to get vitamin D from sources other than the sun.

Food sources: Trout, salmon, vitamin D fortified milk, fortified cereal.

0-6 months: “In the first 6 months of life, human milk can provide all nutrient needs except for Vitamin D,” says Amy Reed, MS, RD, pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Shortly after birth, infants who are fed human milk, as well as those being fed less than 27 ounces of formula per day, need to be started on a vitamin D supplement that provides at least 400 IU per day.

Infants: It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from food sources, says Reed. Infants older than 6 months may continue to need a supplement—talk to your child’s pediatrician.

Toddlers and young children: As kids get older, they are typically eating more foods that contain vitamin D; they may not need a supplement as a result, says Reed.

Older children and teenagers: “The recommended amount of vitamin D is 400 IU per day, but older children will sometimes get their vitamin D level checked,” says Reed. If your provider finds your child’s vitamin D level is low, they may recommend supplementation.

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Iron

This mineral carries oxygen in the red blood cells to help the body produce energy. When iron levels are low, a person may feel weak or tired. Babies in particular need iron for brain development and growth.

Food sources: Meat, seafood, poultry, spinach, beans, fortified cereals. Eating iron with a source of vitamin C like citrus fruit and red bell peppers can help increase iron absorption.

0-6 months: Most newborns have stored up enough iron for about the first 6 months of life.

Infants: “At 6 months, the need for iron increases from .27 mg/day to 11 mg/day,” says Reed. This is the perfect time to introduce foods that are good sources of iron like iron-fortified cereals, meats, and beans.

Toddlers and young children: Too much cow’s milk at this age can crowd out other foods, resulting in a child not getting enough iron, says Reed (that’s 7 mg/day at ages 1-3, and 10 mg/day from 4-8). Limit your little one to no more than 20 ounces of cow’s milk per day.

Older children and teenagers: “Iron continues to be important, especially for teenage girls who experience monthly blood loss from menstruation,” says Reed. Keep in mind that, around age 9, kids often start to decrease their intakes of protein-rich foods that are also good sources of iron.

Omega 3s

“This essential fatty acid is especially important for kids’ brain health,” says Marina Chaparro, M.P.H., RDN, diabetes educator and founder of Nutrichicos, a bilingual pediatric nutrition practice in Miami. Omega 3s are important during pregnancy; they are also one of the key nutrients needed for the rapid brain development that happens in the first 2 years of life, says Chaparro. After the first 2 years, omega-3s remain important for the central nervous and cardiovascular systems, as well as healthy eye function.

Food sources: Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil.

0-6 months: Human milk contains the omega 3 DHA, as do most commercial infant formulas. From 0-12 months, .5 grams/day is considered an adequate intake.

Infants: Babies this age will still get some omega 3s through human milk and formula; introducing foods like fish and muffins baked with flaxseed can help them develop a taste for foods that include omega 3s as well.

Toddlers and young children: From 1-3 years, the adequate intake increases to .7 grams/day; from 4-8 years it goes up to .9 grams/day. Snacking on chia pudding, adding flaxseed oil to smoothies, and having salmon burgers for dinner are all kid-friendly ways of getting in omega 3s.

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Older children and teenagers: After 9 years of age, the adequate intake for omega 3s increases to more than 1-1.6 grams/day.

Zinc

This mineral is needed for healthy growth and development. It is important for the immune system to function, to help with wound healing, and for healthy senses of smell and taste.

Food sources: Meats, dairy, fish, shellfish, legumes, fortified cereals.

0-6 months: At this age, human milk and formula provide an adequate amount of zinc.

Infants: The amount of zinc in human milk can decrease, says Reed. If your baby is mostly consuming human milk, be sure to offer complimentary foods that are good sources of zinc starting at 6 months of age.

Toddlers and young children: If a child has a varied diet, they will typically eat enough zinc. “If children are vegetarian, they may need to consume higher amounts of plant-based sources of zinc or zinc-fortified grains to achieve adequate intake,” says Reed.

Older children and teenagers: While adequate zinc intake is still important, it was not identified as a nutrient concern for this age group by the 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, says Reed.

Calcium

While calcium plays other roles in the body, it is best known for helping build strong bones and teeth. Up to 90% of your child’s peak bone mass will be built before they hit their twenties—meaning the early years are the most important time to build bone density.

Food sources: Cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, almonds, broccoli, kale, spinach, fortified plant-based milk.

0-6 months: Babies at this age get the calcium they need through human milk or formula.

Infants: Calcium needs increase after 6 months; however, children under 1 year of age should still not drink cow’s milk to meet those needs. The calcium in human milk and formula, as well as complementary foods that are appropriate for the age like yogurt, tofu, and broccoli, can help meet those needs.

Toddlers and young children: “At this age, children need 700-1000 mg of calcium per day,” says Reed. At 300 mg per 8 ounce glass, cow’s milk is one possible source. But drinking milk isn’t necessary—calcium is also available in foods like cheese and yogurt, as well as nondairy sources like leafy greens, almonds, fortified plant-based milks, and tofu.

Older children and teenagers: Calcium is especially important at this age, because it is when your child’s body is storing calcium to ensure strong bones for decades to come. At age 9, the recommended calcium intake increases from 1000 to 1300 mg per day. “This is also the age that intake of dairy foods decreases,” says Reed.

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Potassium

This electrolyte mineral helps nerves to function and muscles to contract, including helping your heartbeat stay regular. It aids maintaining normal levels of fluid inside our cells. It can also help flush sodium from the body, counteracting some of that mineral’s harmful effects on blood pressure. Most of the time, a balanced diet is enough to maintain healthy potassium levels. However, if your child loses fluid through vomiting or diarrhea, talk to your pediatrician about how to meet their increased needs.

Food sources: Orange, grapefruit, melon, grapes, spinach, potato, banana, lentils, dried fruit, winter squash, sweet potatoes, milk.

0-6 months: Human milk and infant formula should contain the right balance of potassium for a baby this age.

Infants: According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, potassium is a nutrient of concern for older infants. As you add in supplementary foods, be sure you are including plenty of produce—bananas, melon, and oranges are all good sources of potassium that can be safely introduced at this age.

Toddlers and young children: Potassium continues to be an important nutrient at this age. Fruits and vegetables are important sources; whole grains and dairy foods can be part of a balanced diet that also provide potassium.

Older children and teenagers: “This mineral is especially important for very active kids who are losing sweat,” says Chaparro. Eating and drinking foods high in potassium is important to help maintain proper fluid balance, she says, especially during periods of high activity or hot weather.

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