Putting the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children into Practice
By Ann Rosenthal

Early childhood teachers and care providers play an important role in the lives and development of the children in their care. In many cases, children eat more meals with care providers and other children than they do with their parents. Teachers and providers can promote healthy diets by offering children a variety of food choices and food experiences. Children who learn early in life how to make wise food choices and develop good eating habits and healthy attitudes about food will enjoy the benefits for the rest of their lives.Making food choices today, however, can be difficult due to an overabundance of fast food and prepared food, busy schedules, the media's coverage of diet fads and unrealistic role models, and television advertisements. To help us develop and practice healthy eating habits, the federal government created the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992. It categorizes foods into groups by order of importance, nutrient value, serving size, and number of servings. While appropriate for use with children, the original pyramid was designed to provide guidance for the diverse needs of the general population.

Activity Is Important!
The Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children graphic also features illustrations of children playing actively around the pyramid to emphasize the importance of physical activity for good health. Teachers can lead by example here also!

No Bullying, Bribing, or Begging
The serving sizes outlined in the Food Pyramid are guidelines for teachers. Always remember that they are only guidelines. Instead of teaching children serving sizes, teach them to know how to tell when they are hungry and when they are full. Teach them how to feel comfortable refusing food politely, and give them the right to refuse. One care provider I know of taught her children to say, "I'm sorry, but I don't think I like this food!"

How Much do Kids Really Need to Eat?
It varies widely with every child. Research shows that children who are allowed to eat as much or as little as they want are less likely to become overweight. If food is withheld, a child may overeat when given the opportunity. Finally, never use food as a bribe for behavior. Children who are rewarded for behavior with food or who are rewarded with dessert for cleaning their plates become adults who reward themselves with food and become obese.

Putting the Pyramid into Practice
It is most important that children develop healthy attitudes about food and eating, and a healthy respect for differences in body sizes and types. It is not important for children to learn rules about appropriate serving sizes and how to classify food into groups. Developmentally, it is impossible for young children to translate this information into food choices and meal planning. It is the teacher's job to make decisions about what foods to offer and when to offer them. And it is always the child's job to decide if he is going to eat the offered food, and how much he will eat.
Teachers should ensure that children are exposed to a large variety of foods in a non-judgmental way. Children may need to be exposed to a new food several times before they like it or decide to try it. They may mouth it and spit it out or ignore it altogether the first five times they encounter a food. Work with children to explore color, shape, size, texture, and flavor in new foods. Tell them about where the food comes from or how it is grown. Appreciate the culture it originates from by reading appropriate stories.Involve children in the planning, purchasing, organizing, preparation and serving of food. Take them to the grocery store and visit restaurants. Watch cooking shows with them and role-play chef, waiter or waitress with them.Along the way, teach children about food safety. Young children can learn that the health of others depends on safe food handling and storage and hand washing. Teach them about different utensils and measuring. They even love to wash dishes!


Food Pyramid for Young Children
In 1999, the United States Department Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children. This adaptation of the original pyramid is intended to simplify the educational messages for teachers and parents to use with two to six year old children. Although the graphics have been changed to reflect the unique eating behaviors and nutritional needs of young children and simplified to be more interesting and appealing to young children, the basic nutritional advice has not changed.

What Do Young Children Really Eat?
In developing the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children, the USDA studied the diets and eating behaviors of young children and adapted food pyramid recommendations to meet their needs. Using nationwide food consumption surveys, nutritionists identified what foods young children in the United States actually eat. They found that most children, like most adults, don't consume enough fruits and vegetables. Young children are more likely to eat green beans than the lettuce salads that adults prefer, and they prefer juice rather than whole fruit. In addition, children consume more ready-to-eat cereal and tend to obtain their protein from ground beef and lunchmeats.

The Main Message is Still Variety, Balance, and Moderation
Since no single food or food group supplies adequate amounts of all nutrients, a healthy diet needs to include a variety of foods from each of the five major food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat. (Note that the names of these groups have been simplified.) Teachers can set a good example and encourage healthy eating habits by selecting and eating a wide variety of foods with their children.
The Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children graphic was designed to reflect nutrient requirements using both foods that are familiar to young children and foods that children could be offered more often. These foods are drawn in a realistic style and shown in single serving amounts. For example, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and green beans are the most frequently eaten vegetables. The most commonly consumed version of the potato, however, is french fries. The whole potato is illustrated to encourage more healthful versions of this vegetable. The dark green, leafy vegetables were included in the illustration to encourage children to eat them more often. In the fruit group, juice is included because it is the most popular form of fruit, and whole fruits are illustrated because children should be offered them in addition to juice.

The number of recommended servings has been shortened in the children's version of the pyramid. These numbers actually reflect the lower end of recommended servings shown on the original Food Guide Pyramid. Two to three year old children should be offered the same number of servings as four to six year olds, but their portions should be smaller. A good rule-of-thumb regarding portion size is one tablespoon of food per year. An appropriate serving size for a one-year-old, for example, would be one tablespoon of each food offered at the meal. Two- to six-year-olds need two servings, or about two cups, of milk per day.



Eating is one of life's greatest pleasures. Feeding is the very first expressions of love, and continues to be social and cultural experience throughout life. Children should learn that good nutrition can improve how you look, how you grow, how you feel, and how long you live. Perhaps more importantly, children should learn to experience the joy of eating lots of different kinds of foods. The Food Pyramid should be used as a tool to help children to develop relaxed and positive attitudes about food and eating so they can develop into adults with healthy eating habits and healthy bodies.


Ann Rosenthal is a lecturer in the Food and Nutrition Department, College of Human Development, at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
To learn more about the Food Pyramid for Young Children or to download the "Tips for Using the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children 2 to 6 Years Old" curriculum guide, click here http://www.usda.gov/cnpp/KidsPyra/.