Staying Healthy: Nutrition and Physical Activity

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    Good nutrition and physical activity are important parts of staying healthy. They can prevent obesity and some chronic illnesses. You can play an important role in encouraging and modeling healthy habits for school-age children. This lesson will help you understand portion control, meal components, food safety, and ways of promoting lifelong physical fitness.

    • Identify tools you can use to promote healthy habits like fitness and good nutrition.
    • Describe guidelines for preparing and serving food in school-age programs.
    • Practice and promote portion control for children and youth.
    • Provide opportunities for active play and physical fitness.




    Healthy lifestyle attitudes begin in the early years. You can help school-age children develop healthy habits for life. Understanding what to eat and how much to eat are important skills for children and youth to learn. At the same time, understanding the importance of physical activity and how to achieve it is equally significant for children. Establishing and maintaining healthy lifestyle attitudes ultimately affects children's learning and reinforces the significance of the mind-body connection.

    Childhood obesity is an issue that is becoming more prevalent than ever in today's society. The number of children who are considered obese has nearly tripled since 1980. In 2008, the number of children 6 to 11 years old who were considered obese was a staggering 20 percent. When we compare this number to the mere 7 percent recorded in 1980 (CDC), it is clear that children's unhealthy decisions and lifestyles are serious problems.

    Choosing What to Eat

    The U.S. government has developed a tool, known as MyPlate, to guide all of us toward healthier food choices. You can find more information at You can find information about helping children and youth make healthy choices at

    myplate - fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, dairyAll of us need a variety of foods each day. A healthy diet includes a mix of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and protein. The MyPlate guide helps you visualize the relative amounts of food you-and children-need each day. Half your plate should be covered with fruits and vegetables. The other half is split between grains and protein. Filling the plate with this balance of food will help children develop healthy habits.

    Watch an introductory video about the MyPlate initiative on the White House's YouTube channel:

    Choosing How Much to Eat

    It is important to think about how much food, in addition to what types of food, to eat. With obesity on the rise, portion control is an essential skill to teach children and youth. Each person has specific dietary needs, and we need a certain balance of calories each day to stay healthy. Depending on their level of physical activity children need approximately 1,200 to 1,600 calories per day, split between the five food groups on MyPlate. The example below from the MyPlan guidelines (see shows a daily food plan for a school-age child between 6 and 8 years old who has at least 30 to 60 minutes of daily activity. This example shows how much of each kind of food this child needs. You can find other examples online.

    My Daily Food Plan

    This food plan provides suggestions for a full day's worth of food. School-age programs can also look to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Child and Adult Care Food Program for nutritional information related to each meal. You can find the recommended daily servings of each food group for breakfast, snack, and lunch attached.

    Tips for Encouraging Portion Control

    Encouraging portion control in school-age programs can be challenging. In open-snack environments, children make choices; they collect their own snack and eat when they are hungry - snack is an option available for them, along with other activities. There are bound to be times during meals or snacks when children take too much or too little, spill, or refuse a particular food. This is part of the process towards healthy eating, and you should respond patiently. To prevent many of these problems you can:

    • Use small, child-sized pitchers and serving dishes. These can be especially helpful for the younger school-age children in your program.
    • Use child-size plates, bowls, and cups; this will help children limit themselves to healthy portions.
    • Remember that children's appetites and tastes change over time; growth spurts happen throughout the school-age years.
    • Encourage children to put a small serving of each available food on their plates or napkins, but do not require children to eat a certain food or a certain amount of food.
    • Model adventurous eating; try each food item yourself even if you know you don't like it.
    • For children who need strict portion control for health reasons, teach them how much of each item to take and monitor their eating.
    • In an open-snack environment, you can also provide a picture and/or words about what one serving of today's snack looks like (e.g., one apple, 1 large gram cracker square, and 1 cup of milk), so children know the appropriate amount to take. You can check back in with those who may need more.
    • Allow second helpings of nutritious foods.

    Diverse Eating Habits and Beliefs

    Some individuals, cultures, and religion follow eating habits that differ from the USDA recommendations. It is important to find out if any children in your care cannot follow the USDA guidelines. Families should notify program staff of any dietary restrictions and note any substitutions or accommodations that need to be made. Staff must ensure that dietary restrictions are posted in food preparation areas and in areas in which children eat. Staff should monitor dietary restrictions daily. When working with school-age children with dietary restrictions because of their religion, it is best to get written instructions from families detailing what they can or cannot eat or drink.

    Some families follow vegetarian or vegan diets, avoiding eating animals (meat) or animal products (milk, cheese, etc.). They may request that their children be served vegetarian or vegan food. Again, it is best to check with the family and obtain written instructions as to what and what not to allow their children to eat while in your care.

    It may be challenging at times to provide children with a balanced and nutritional diet when dietary restrictions rule out many of the foods usually served in your program. Work with families to come up with options to best fit their needs.

    Eating Disorders

    The increased focus on childhood obesity should not lead us to overlook children who may be suffering from an eating disorder. According to the U.S Census Bureau (2000), nearly 1 million U.S youths are using extreme and unhealthy behaviors in attempts to control their weight. As a school-age staff member, it is your job to watch for any signs that a child in your care may be using unsafe methods to control his or her weight. You should do your best to promote self-esteem and positive body image for all children.

    Below are some signs of possible eating disorders (PBS, 2012). The school-age child:

    • Has lost a great deal of weight in a relatively short period of time
    • Wears big or baggy clothes, or dresses in layers to hide his or her body
    • Obsesses over weight and complains of being fat (even if the school-ager is of average weight or thin)
    • Obsesses over the calorie and fat content of foods
    • Exercises obsessively
    • Starves himself or herself, or limits food
    • Eats a lot of food at once, then makes himself or herself vomit
    • Often makes trips to the bathroom right after meals (sometimes you will hear water running; this hides the sound of vomiting)
    • Uses or hides the use of diet pills, laxatives, ipecac syrup, or enemas
    • Avoids eating with or near others

    These are the most common symptoms seen in older school-age children with eating disorders. However, it is important to remember not to jump to conclusions if you see any of these symptoms. If you observe behaviors that seem alarming or cause for concern, bring them to the attention of your supervisor.

    What Does a Program That Promotes Healthy Eating Look Like?


    Healthy eating should be a requirement of your program. Snacks, meals and beverages should all be planned to fit within the federal recommendations.

    Watch this video to learn more about healthy eating in school age programs. Notice that some of the programs engage in family-style dining. Family-style dining is one great way to model good eating habits with school-age children. It involves sitting at the same table with school-age children, in groups, with the children serving themselves and eating together with adults. People pass food to one another from serving dishes. Along with healthy eating, it can promote social skills ask children ask one another for food, use “please” and “thank you,” and language development, as children and adults share pleasant conversations.

    Healthy Eating

    Watch to learn more about healthy eating in school-age programs.

    Physical Activity

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and adolescents should have 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. Children's weekly activity should include a combination of aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, bone strengthening, and stretching. In school-age programs, the National After-School Association suggests that school-age children be offered the choice to engage in at least 30 minutes of active play for every three-hour block in the program.

    As a staff member in a school-age program, you must help the children in your care meet these goals by planning daily physical activities. Encouraging school-age children to be active will greatly improve the likelihood of them leading a healthy lifestyle into their teen and adult years.

    Unfortunately, in 2011 only 18 percent of teen girls and 38 percent of teen boys were physically active for 60 minutes each day (CDC, 2011). Teaching children the importance of physical activity by modeling good behaviors and creating a fun and safe environment will only help those numbers increase in coming years. In the Physical Development course, you will learn more about physical fitness, ways to engage and motivate school-age children, how to encourage motor development, and how to incorporate physical activities into your daily plans. For now, here are some examples of appropriate physical activities for school-age children:

    Aerobic activity

    • Brisk walking
    • Dancing
    • Aerobics
    • Running
    • Sports and games, such as tennis, hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and tag

    Muscle strengthening

    • Gymnastics
    • Push-ups
    • Sit-ups
    • Climbing

    Bone strengthening

    • Jumping rope
    • Running
    • Hiking
    • Sports, such as volleyball, tennis, basketball

    Stretching and flexibility

    • Yoga
    • Martial arts
    • Dance
    • Gymnastics

    Watch this video of ways school-age programs promote children's physical health.

    Staying Fit

    Watch two examples of how school-age children stay fit.


    Encouraging Physical Activity

    To make sure children stay safe and healthy outdoors, follow these precautions:

    • Make sure each child is dressed for the weather. Encourage families to send children in layers that can be easily removed if needed.
    • Have extra clean mittens, jackets, and hats available if a child does not have appropriate gear.
    • Make sure all the clothing a child is wearing is dry.
    • Offer shaded and sheltered areas outdoors.
    • Use sun protection on sunny days. Make sure children wear protective clothing and sunscreen with SPF 15 or greater.
    • Make sure water is available.

    The best way to help children be physically active is to be physically active yourself. Sitting down on the playground or picnic table outside sets a poor example for the children (and it limits your ability to supervise effectively). Instead of sitting or standing still while children play, take an active role. Of course, your first priority is to ensure safety and adequate supervision. When you can do so safely, join in. Here are some ideas:

    • Suggest a game of kickball, create an obstacle course, or take a walk around the playground or outdoor space.
    • Bring music outside and dance.
    • Offer toys like jump ropes, balance beams, and balls. Recognizing there is a wide age-span in most school-age programs, offer a variety of balls, bats, hoops, rackets, etc. for different developmental levels.
    • Make sure you are dressed for the occasion; wear sensible shoes and clothing.
    • Encourage children's activities by recognizing their efforts. Try noticing and commenting positively when children run, throw, jump, dance, or participate in other vigorous physical activities.

    Be a Model for and Encourage Healthy Eating

    Children learn the most from what they see. Help them to make healthy choices by doing so yourself. You can do your part by modeling healthy eating habits.

    • Join the school-age children during meals and snacks. Eat with the children and eat the same food that is served to them.
    • Make sure the size of your portions are appropriate and remember your fruits and veggies!
    • Do not consume any outside foods or drinks while participating in the program.

    Helping school-age children create healthy eating habits can be a fun and interactive process that goes beyond snack and meal times. Here are a few ideas to encourage healthy eating habits in school-age children:

    Cooking Clubs

    Teach basic cooking skills, such as following recipes, measuring, mixing, whisking, etc., to school-age children. Give children the opportunity to work together to create healthy meals. Younger school-age children might enjoy learning some "No-Bake" or Microwave recipes which do not require an oven or stove top. Older school-age children who are allowed to use an oven or stove top should also be reminded of kitchen safety rules.

    Eating Around the World

    Use cooking to learn about other cultures by making multicultural inspired meals. Share information about a specific culture or country and then have the school-age children work together to create a traditional meal that is reflective of the culture. This is a fun way to work on cooking skills, try new foods, and experience various cultures.

    Portion Facts

    Portion control is a big factor in healthy eating. Teach school-age children about proper portion control by sharing information on serving sizes and appropriate portions. Use the MyPlate system as a guide and create actual size maps or place mats to help determine how much food is the right amount.

    Menu Planning

    When possible, allow school-age children to help plan their menu. Work together to brainstorm healthy snack and meal options for your program. You can even encourage children to develop their own healthy recipes.

    Check out some of these recipes developed by children at the Choose MyPlate website: You can also find a number of kid-friendly recipes at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website (select the "recipes" tab). Just remember as you select recipes to make with the children, that you remain aware of any food allergies. You can read more on food allergies in Lesson 7.

    Special Programs

    When possible, plan special programs for school-age children to help reinforce their healthy eating habits. Invite local physicians, nutritionists, or chefs to visit your program to discuss the importance of healthy eating. Another idea is to work with athletes from local high school, college, university or even professional teams to discuss how healthy eating is important for their performance.



    Take some time to explore the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines. You can learn a great deal about your own nutritional needs and the needs of the children in your care. Download and print the Exploring MyPlate activity. Use this activity guide to find important and fun information.

    Taking care of your own fitness is an important way to model healthy habits for children and youth. It can be difficult to squeeze in physical activity during the day. Download and print the Fitness Tracker from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For one week, use this tracking tool to set goals for your own physical activity. Work with others to help you reach your goal.



    Attached you will find resources you can use in your program concerning involving physical activity. Download and print these resources for your program. You can hang them in your room or keep on file as a valuable reference.


    Family style diningFamily style dining is a style of food service in which adults and children eat from a shared supply of food, are responsible for the size of their own portions, and talk together at a shared table
    Cafeteria style diningCafeteria style dining is a style of food service in which children choose their food (or are given predetermined food) on a serving line
    Vigorous physical activityVigorous physical activity raises the heart rate. Examples include running, jumping, skipping, fast dancing, or riding a bike
    Weather permittingChildren should not play outdoors when the wind chill is less than 15 degrees below zero or the heat index is above 90 degrees, but individual policies may prohibit outdoor play even when the weather is not this extreme (e.g., the weather is unusual for the region and children do not have heavy coats). Children should also stay indoors during rain, thunder, or snow storms or during potentially dangerous weather situations




    Which of the following is NOT a way to encourage portion control among school-age children?


    True or False? Wearing baggy clothing or dressing in layers to hide his/her body may be a sign of an eating disorder in a school-age child.


    Finish this statement: School-age children should engage in…

    References & Resources

    American Academy of Pediatrics. (2006). A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Roadmap to Health. S. Hassink [Ed.] American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Nutrition and Fitness. Retrieved from

    Bright Futures (2001). Bright Futures in Practice: Physical Activity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University.

    Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescent and School Health Childhood Obesity Facts. Retrieved from

    Child Care Aware (2018). Health Resources and Links. Retrieved from

    Kansas State University (n.d.). Let's Move, Learn, and Have Fun: A Physical Activity Curriculum.

    National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (n.d.). Motion Moments.

    Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care program. Retrieved from

    PBS Kids. (2009). It's My Life.

    Pica, Rae. (n.d.) Moving and Learning: The Physical Activity Specialists for Birth through Age 8.

    Physical Activity for Children: A Statement of Guidelines for Children 5 - 12, (2nd ed .). Retrieved from

    Sanders, S. (2002). Active for Life: Developmentally Appropriate Movement Programs for Young Children. Human Kinetics Publishers.

    Tips for Kids: How to Lower Your Risk for Type 2 Diabetes : Na­tional Diabetes Education Program. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from

    United States Department of Agriculture Child and Adult Food Care Program. (2014). Information for Child Day Care Centers. Retrieved from

    United States Department of Agriculture: Choose My Plate Initiative: Health and Nutrition Information for Preschoolers . Retrieved from:

    University of Mississippi National Food Service Management Institute. (2015). Information for child care. Retrieved from: