Essential Vitamins & Minerals for Kids: Assessing the Necessity in Growing Children

What You’ll Learn: In this blog, we will talk about the National School Lunch Program and why they set specific nutrient standards for kids ages 4 through 18, or grades K-12. Let’s deep dive into school lunches and identify areas where we can expand upon our children's nutrition.

Did you know that the National School Lunch Program provides over 29.6 million meals to children each school day during the fiscal year?1 During my very early days as a registered-dietitian-to-be, I learned the importance of the National School Lunch Program and that it’s specifically designed to support the nutritional needs of growing children!

Let me tell you something, there’s more to our lunch ladies than just providing warm, cooked meals for our children while they are off at school. These school lunches are specifically designed within the National School Lunch Program to help ensure that the meals being provided to our children meet their growing needs so they can be well-nourished to take on their school day!

In addition to learning more about the National School Lunch Program, let’s take a closer look at the vitamins every parent should consider for their children’s needs.

What Is the National School Lunch Program?

If you have a child currently enrolled in the school system, you’ve likely already heard of the National School Lunch Program, often abbreviated as NSLP. The National School Lunch Program truly transcends the prevailing mischaracterization of bland, unappetizing school lunches. It is a federally funded program that provides nutritionally backed meals at low or no-cost for school children.2 The National School Lunch Program is a joint effort administered by the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) within the larger, more well-known United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This program is usually available and operated by public and non-profit private schools.2

How Does It Work?

Since this is a federally funded initiative, there are specific guidelines required in order for schools to participate and reap the benefits of this program. In simpler terms, any school or school district participating in the National School Lunch Program receives cash subsidies from the USDA. The USDA reimburses each meal that the school serves so long as these meals meet the nutritional requirements set forth by the National School Lunch Program.2

What Are the Nutrition Requirements for the National School Lunch Program?

The National School Lunch Program is designed with the intention of providing age-appropriate meals to specific age and grade groups. These regulations are essential to help meet the dietary specifications for calories, micronutrients and macronutrients for children grades K-12.3

The National School Lunch Program can get very complicated with lots of numbers and serving sizes. So, we decided to keep this very straightforward for you. Ultimately, the National School Lunch Program requires a total of five food components, each with daily and weekly minimums to help meet the needs of school children. These five food categories include:

  1. Fruits
  2. Vegetables
  3. Grains
  4. Meat / Meat Alternates
  5. Fluid Milk 

Quick side note, vegetables have a specific requirement for vegetable variety to also encompass five additional subgroups. These subgroups consist of dark greens, red/orange veggies, beans/peas (also known as legumes), starchy vegetables and “other” veggies.3

Why add further regulations on veggies, you ask? The answer is surprisingly simple. Each vegetable provides a wide array of vitamins and minerals, some with higher quantities of specific nutrients than others. For example, carrots and vegetables that tend to be orange in color are a rich source of vitamin A, while green-leafy vegetables like kale or spinach are an excellent source of vitamin K.4, 5 Without this subgroup requirement, a school system could theoretically provide french fries from the starchy vegetable, potato, every day and still meet the vegetable requirement for a qualifying reimbursable meal… as much as I love a nice serving of french fries, I know that potatoes aren’t my go-to source for when I want a serving rich in vitamin K.

The National School Lunch Program Nutrient Requirement Chart

If you’d like to really be impressed, you can find the National School Lunch Program meal pattern chart here.6 This chart sets the specific requirements for each nutrient category per each grade group. As you can see, the National School Lunch Program sets the guidelines, but each school or school district participating in this program has the liberty to generate their own unique menus to qualify within the National School Lunch Program standards.

See, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, those lunch ladies and cafeteria staff sure do work hard to create healthy meals for our children.

Key Nutrients for Growing Children

If you clicked on the National School Lunch Program Meal Pattern Chart earlier, you may have noticed that the nutrient requirements for certain categories like vegetables and fruit increase as children get older and within their grade leveling group. Why? Because the nutritional needs of children change as they get older.7 Let’s talk about zinc, it’s a great example to showcase how micronutrient needs change as children grow.

  • Zinc is an essential trace element and needed for many metabolic processes in the body, including DNA synthesis and insulin function.8‡
  • The RDA or Recommended Dietary Allowance for children ages 9-13 is 8 mg of zinc per day.
  • This increases to 11 mg of zinc per day for males ages 14-18 and 9 mg of zinc per day for females ages 14-18.8

This change in mineral need is part of the reason why the National School Lunch Program includes subgroups of vegetables known to be plentiful in helping children meet their growing micronutrient needs.

You want to know what else may help meet the growing needs of children? Our Junior Nutrients! This formulation is specifically designed to help support daily wellness for both teens and children ages 4 and up.How does Pure Encapsulations® help supplement the needs of growing children? Like the National School Lunch Program, we go by serving size.

  • For children ages 4-13, we recommend taking 2 capsules per day.
  • But, for children ages 14 and older, we recommend 2 capsules twice daily.

These changes in serving size help meet and supplement the growing nutritional needs of our children.

Those Picky Eaters

I know, children can be picky when it comes to food, and we run the risk of them becoming even more picky when it comes to supplements in a capsule. That’s okay! We also offer our Pure Encapsulations® LiquiNutrients which is a liquid version of a multivitamin and mineral complex to help meet your child’s needs. For those picky kiddos out there, try mixing two teaspoons daily with either yogurt, applesauce or maybe their favorite smoothie – it’s worth a try!

When I was doing my practicum experience at the elementary school in Vermont and teaching children about fruits and vegetables, my biggest hurdle was teaching them to become familiar with and accustomed to different foods. Helping children become familiar with different fruits and vegetables helps handle picky eating behaviors in children.9

Key Nutrients in Fluid Milk

The National School Lunch Program takes milk very seriously. Growing up, I had milk at all meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was mixed in with either my oatmeal or cereal in the morning, it was my drink of choice at lunch and mom and dad always made sure it was on the menu come dinner time. Milk is incredibly nutritious. According to the U.S. National Dairy Council, milk is the leading source of calcium, vitamin D and potassium for children ages 2-18 years old and it’s also the leading food source of calcium and vitamin D for all Americans over the age of two.10

However, the National School Lunch Program is specific in that school qualified reimbursable meals must offer 5 cups of fluid milk across all grade levels per day. It also is specific in that other dairy products such as cheese (also a good source of calcium) and yogurt (a good source of calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins and probiotics) do not count as an appropriate substitution for fluid milk and cannot be used to satisfy the fluid milk category.10, 11

The reason behind this? Milk provides a wide variety of nutrients for children’s growing needs and comparable quantities are not always available in commercially sourced yogurts and cheeses. That’s why the National School Lunch Program sticks to fluid milk.11

Why Are Calcium and Vitamin D Important?

I know what you may be thinking… 5 cups of milk per day for children grades K-12?! That’s a lot of milk! If I were milk, I’d have stage-fright. That’s a lot of pressure on milk to perform. But, we have confidence in milk. Milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D for both children and adults.10 Calcium and Vitamin D are important for children because calcium is one of the main mineral components of bone tissue and needed for bone formation.12 While vitamin D plays an important role in the metabolism (or body’s use) of calcium by impacting the skeleton’s process of developing and growing bones.12 There is so much emphasis on children getting adequate calcium and vitamin D because it helps them start their adult lives with stronger bones, setting the stage for healthy bone mineral content as they age.13‡

Our Cal/Mag/D Liquid is another kid-friendly liquid formula to help support healthy bone mineral composition. One serving of our Pure Encapsulations® Cal/Mag/D Liquid provides 1,000 IU of vitamin D3, 350mg of elemental calcium and 175 mg of elemental magnesium. Magnesium is another essential bone matrix mineral that promotes healthy bone metabolism.14‡

What About Probiotics?

You may have noticed, the National School Lunch Program doesn’t require a category for probiotics and despite being a dairy product, yogurt isn’t an allowable substitute for fluid milk. Why such a lack of probiotics for children? Well, there really isn’t necessarily a “lack,” rather, yogurt is allowable under the “meats / meat alternates” category. However, each school or school district has the liberty to create their own menus and may choose to select or not select yogurt as a meat alternative item on their menu.15 This means that there could be the potential your child may not be getting as much exposure to yogurt as you may like.

Yogurt is a type of fermented food which contains live cultures of bacterial strains known as probiotics. Probiotics have been found to be safe and healthy in children and effective in supporting healthy bowel consistency in children while also helping make up a healthy and diverse microbial ecosystem in the G.I. tract.16‡

Currently, there is no set RDA or Recommended Daily Allowance for probiotic intake among children. But, if you’re looking to help support your child’s intestinal microflora, you can take a look at Pure Encapsulations® Probiotic 123. It is a shelf-stable probiotic blend of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains to help support intestinal comfort and support for occasional diarrhea in children.17, 18‡

Nourishing Your Child’s Journey

We know there’s a lot of factors that come into play when going back to school. From getting your outfit ready for the first day of school to deciding if you’ll have the school lunch or pack a lunch that day, we know just how important this time can be for you and your family.

Ensuring that your child gets the top essential vitamins and minerals necessary to support their growth is also super important. From calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium, we’ve got the top essential vitamins and minerals available all within our Children’s Formulas, uniquely designed to support your children’s nutrient needs through every step of childhood.What’s holding you back? Check out our Children's Formulas today!

    1. USDA ERS - National School Lunch Program. (2018).
    2. The National School Lunch Program. (2022).
    3. USDA: Meal Requirements Under the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program (2022).
    4. Harvard School of Public Health. (2019, July 2). Vitamin A. The Nutrition Source.
    5. 21 Foods for Your Vitamin K Fix. (2023, April 12). Cleveland Clinic.
    6. National School Lunch Program Meal Pattern Chart | USDA-FNS. (2022, February 24).
    7. Mayo Clinic. (2017). What nutrients does your child need now?Mayo Clinic.
    8. Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. (n.d.). Zinc (
    9. Healthy Tips for Picky Eaters | WIC Works Resource System. (n.d.).
    10. Science Summary Nutrient Contributions of Dairy Foods Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2023, from
    11. Nutrition Requirements for Fluid Milk and Fluid Milk Substitutions in the CACFP, Q&As | Food and Nutrition Service. (n.d.).
    12. Bueno, A. L., & Czepielewski, M. A. (2008). The importance for growth of dietary intake of calcium and vitamin D. Jornal de Pediatria84(5), 386–394.
    13. Calcium and Your Child - Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. (n.d.).
    14. Dimai HP, et. al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 Aug;83(8):2742-8.
    15. Crediting Tofu and Soy Yogurt Products in the School Meal Programs and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. (2016, August 16).
    16. Kligler, B., et al. (2007). Probiotics in Children. Pediatric Clinics of North America54(6), 949–967.
    17. Aponte G, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Aug 20;8:CD007401.
    18. Johnston BC, et. al. CMAJ. 2006 Aug 15; 175(4): 377–383.