Overhead of turkey dinner on white table.
Kids, Nutrition, Tips / How-Tos

How to Create a Healthy Thanksgiving Plate for Kids

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, which means family-filled moments sharing a meal around the dinner table. While this food-centered holiday creates an opportunity to prepare family recipes or highlight seasonal vegetables, it can often lead to overconsumption. While excess eating every once in a while is nothing to frown upon, it often increases during Thanksgiving and persists through the holiday season. We want to provide dietitian-driven advice on how to help your child combat overeating and how to create a balanced plate for you and your kids this Thanksgiving.

Once the turkey is stuffed and the table is set, it’s time to give thanks for all that you have, fill your plate and dig in. Here are some important tips for creating healthy, balanced plates this holiday season.

Prepare for a healthy Thanksgiving meal with your kids

The Thanksgiving meal begins with deciding what dishes to serve. This is a great time to engage children to be a part of the process. When children are included in meal planning, they have a chance to express their favorite dishes, which may increase engagement at mealtime. While it may seem easier to let the adults take on all of the cooking, involving kids can be helpful for completing simple tasks. Whether it’s washing vegetables, measuring ingredients or assisting in mixing, getting your kids get involved with Thanksgiving prep builds confidence in their cooking skills and furthers their interest in what will be served.

Portion control with age-appropriate plate sizes for your kids

As children have different nutritional needs than adults, they should have different portion sizes. Choose a plate that is suitable for their age, which will promote age-appropriate portions. A typical adult-sized plate is 12 inches. Aim for a six-inch plate for toddlers and a nine-inch plate for kids and early adolescents. If you have a picky eater who prefers that their food not touch, consider using a sectioned plate for their meal.

Using age-appropriate plate sizes allows your kids to build a proportionate meal themselves. Rather than limiting them verbally when they are taking heaping scoops of mashed potatoes, give them a smaller plate at the beginning to limit their total servings to an appropriate amount. Changing plate size to suit your kid’s needs, in addition to active conversations with your child about balancing food groups on their plate, will help them establish a positive relationship with food.  

Fill your kid’s plates with fruits and vegetables

When building your child’s plate, start with fruits and veggies. Go directly for the green beans, sweet potatoes, fruit medley or any fresh produce that is served. You can ensure that vegetables do not go unforgotten among the other delicious offerings by filling the plate with these options first. Not only will this provide a colorful plate, but your child will also get a dose of vitamins and minerals.

Stick to lean meats

When it comes to protein, turkey is typically the main star of Thanksgiving. While turkey is delicious, dark meat tends to be higher in fat and calories than white meat. When selecting turkey for your child, go for smaller pieces of skinless, white meat. If you have a picky eater on your hands, this will be a particularly suitable option because it is fairly neutral in both flavor and color, making it an approachable food for them to consume. A small side of gravy is helpful for adding flavor to the meal. Treat it as a dipping sauce to avoid excess gravy on the plate.

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Desserts in moderation

It would be unrealistic to expect your child to avoid desserts during Thanksgiving. Instead, try to moderate them. Allow your kids to have a small portion of dessert at the end of the meal, no larger than what can fit in the palm of their hand. In addition, try waiting to enjoy dessert until the the end of the meal as they should already be satisfied from dinner and will hopefully indulge in a fewer amount of sweets. Lastly, try adding a glass of milk to the dessert course as it’ll secretly fill them up and give them that extra dose of calcium.

Use Thanksgiving dinner to teach kids about food and healthy eating

Because many foods eaten at the Thanksgiving dinner table are consumed annually, this holiday provides an excellent opportunity for your child to learn about and try new foods. Aim for a colorful plate of vegetables, fruit, carbohydrates and lean protein. Our suggestion is to incorporate a green vegetable such as Brussels sprouts or green beans, choose a seasonal fruit such as stewed apples or cranberries, select bright orange sweet potatoes, butternut squash or another starchy vegetable as the carbohydrate, and round out the balanced plate with white turkey meat as a source of lean, high quality protein. It is important to focus on the balance of these food groups as holiday meals can often be carbohydrate heavy. MyPlate guidelines demonstrate a great visual representation of food groups. By encouraging children to eat new dishes, they are able to expand their palate and hopefully incorporate these new foods routinely throughout the year.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to spend time with family and friends and express appreciation for all the loved ones in your life. While nutrition is always important, it’s also important to have your kids understand that occasional indulgences still can be incorporated into a healthy diet. By involving your kids in the meal planning process and teaching them effective strategies on how to balance their Thanksgiving plate, your family can find a balance between eating healthy and consuming delicious food this holiday.

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RJ Bio

Rachael Janas

Rachael joined the Nurture Life team as the Marketing Production & QA Manager. From menu design to nutrient analysis, she covers all things food. Rachael is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with a strong foundation in clinical nutrition and a keen interest in nutritious food with phenomenal flavor. Her passion for incorporating whole foods and creative cuisine while focusing on age-specific nutrient needs of children is essential to Nurture Life’s menu design. Rachael has been practicing dietetics since 2011, with the bulk of her experience in clinical nutrition at Loyola Medical Center, specializing in patients with cystic fibrosis as well as critical care nutrition related to lung disease and lung transplant. She also has experience in cardiac health and nutrition during pregnancy. Rachael received her B.S. from Saint Louis University in Missouri and completed a dietetic internship with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Rachael’s interests include creative cooking at home, using a variety of ingredients, spices and herbs for a unique meal each night. She truly believes nutrition and food should be enjoyable and that all food can be enjoyed in moderation.