How Many Vegetables Should You Eat Every Day?

An Age-By-Age Guide for Babies and Beyond

It's no secret that vegetables are a ​vital part of a healthy diet. Like multivitamins that grow on vines (or bushes or under the ground), every type of veggie, from artichokes to zucchini, offers up a variety of nutrients in unique combos of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Vegetables are low in fat and calories and packed with fiber as well.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other health-focused organizations recommend that people include lots of vegetables in their diets. An individual's ideal daily intake of produce depends on factors such as age, sex, and activity level. This age-by-age guide suggests how many cups of veggies everyone from babies to older adults should eat each day.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only one in 10 adults in this country meet the guidelines for vegetable consumption, putting those who aren't eating their veggies "at risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease."

What Counts As a Serving?

serving of broccoli
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For most vegetables, a serving is equal to the amount that will fill a one-cup measuring cup. But one serving of raw leafy greens (like spinach and lettuce) is two cups, and eight ounces of vegetable or tomato juice also counts as a one-cup serving.

If you don't have a measuring cup or kitchen scale handy, or you don't trust yourself to eyeball amounts, here are some rough one-cup equivalents for specific vegetables. 

  • Two medium carrots
  • Five or six broccoli florets
  • One large sweet pepper
  • One large sweet potato
  • One large ear of corn
  • One medium potato
  • One large tomato

Another way to think about vegetable servings is in terms of tablespoons, which can come in handy when calculating servings for babies, toddlers, and very young children who wouldn't be able to down an entire cup of veggies in one sitting. There are about 16 tablespoons in a cup.

Babies

Little child eating meal with bare hands,close up
 

Most babies are ready to begin eating solid foods when they are between four and six months old. There's no ideal order in which to do this, so starting with vegetables is fine. In fact, it could be ideal; babies tend to prefer sweet flavors, so if a little one gets hooked on applesauce and pureed pears, they may not be eager to eat vegetables.

Start with a few teaspoons at a time. Eventually, your baby will eat about three or four tablespoons of baby food (baby cereal or purees) a few times a day, which works out to about half a cup.

By starting your baby with foods like peas, carrots, and squash, you may be able to encourage a preference for these foods that will carry on into adulthood. 

Toddlers (Ages 2 to 3)

Toddlers need about one cup of vegetables per day.
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Young children ages two to three should consume one cup of vegetables each day. If that sounds like a lot of green beans or broccoli to expect a potentially picky little eater to put down, keep in mind that that one cup can be spread throughout the day—it doesn't have to be downed in a single sitting. 

It also means a total of one cup of a variety of veggies, not just one type. In other words, you could offer your child, say, peas at breakfast (why not?), steamed broccoli at lunch, cooked green beans to dip into hummus as a snack, and roasted sweet potatoes with dinner. If each of these servings is four tablespoons, you'll reach a one-cup serving by the end of the day.

And even if the only vegetable your toddler will eat outright is, say, corn, that's okay too. There are lots of ways to disguise vegetables so that a little kid will eat them (spinach or kale disappear into fruit smoothies, for example). One caution: Children under the age of 5 can choke on uncooked fruits and vegetables, so make sure whatever form you offer these foods​ in is safe.

Young Children (Ages 4 to 8)

Children need 1 to 1.5 cups of vegetables every day.
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Both boys and girls in this age group should eat one and a half cups of vegetables each day. In terms of preparation, it's fine for four- to eight-year-olds to eat a combination of raw and cooked veggies.

Keep in mind that four-year-olds are still at risk of choking on raw vegetables, so cut carrots, bell peppers, and so forth into pieces no larger than a half-inch long so that if your child inadvertently swallows one without chewing properly it won't get stuck in his throat. Steamed, baked, and roasted vegetables are healthier than fried. 

Tweens (Ages 9 to 13)

Black family cooking in kitchen
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Once kids reach the tween years, their nutritional needs begin to vary slightly based on sex. The recommended daily amount of vegetables for girls in this age group is at least two cups. For boys, the recommendation is at least two and a half cups. Note that kids of either gender who are especially active would likely benefit from eating more than the suggested minimum of vegetables.

Research shows that boys tend to eat fewer vegetables (and fruits) than girls. So if you have boys in your household, you may want to be especially vigilant about their veggie intake. Offer as much variety in terms of vegetables and preparation as you can to find those that your boys most enjoy. 

Teens (Ages 14 to 18)

Teens need up to 3 cups of vegetables every day.
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Teenage girls should eat at least two and a half cups of vegetables every day. Teenage boys should eat at least three cups of vegetables daily. Teens who are active and get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day may need more.

Of course, as kids get older and spend more time eating away from home it can be harder to monitor their vegetable intake. And even gentle and well-meaning reminders to include vegetables when making meal choices may backfire: Teenagers are notorious for doing the opposite of what parents say. J

Just make sure that all family meals include a variety of healthfully prepared vegetables (raw in salads, steamed, roasted, and baked as a side dish, folded into omelets, added to soups and stews, layers on pizza, and so forth). And make it easy for teens to grab veggies between meals. Keep pre-cut carrots, celery, and bell peppers front and center in the fridge alongside hummus or guacamole for dipping. 

Young Adults (Ages 19 to 30)

Adults need up to 3 cups of vegetables every day.
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For people ages 19 to 30, the recommended daily amount of vegetables is the same as for teens: at least three cups a day for men and at least two and a half cups for women. Those who exercise for at least a half hour every day should include even more vegetables in their diets. 

If you find it tough to get in all the vegetables you need each day due to a busy lifestyle, take advantage of eat-and-run options like smoothies that include vegetables, pre-tossed salads, and prepped-for-cooking vegetables at the grocery store. They're often a bit more expensive than whole vegetables, but if the time saved makes it easier for you to eat your veggies, it may be worth it. 

Adults (Ages 31 to 50)

Woman relaxing on garden bench eating a carrot
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As with younger people, the amount of vegetables you should aim for if you're a woman is at least two and a half cups each day, and at least three cups if you're a man. Shoot for even more if you work out or are physically active for a half hour or more each day.

Continue to stick with raw or healthfully prepared veggies. A baked or roasted potato is much more nutritious and lower in fat and calories than French fries, for example. 

Older Adults (Ages 51 and Up)

Home cooked happiness
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Because the body's metabolism tends to slow with age, people 51 and older are advised to cut calories in general to prevent weight gain. This rule applies to calories from vegetables as well. Women 51 and older should dial back to around two cups of vegetables per day; men of the same age should get around two and a half cups. 

Active older adults should continue to factor in the amount of physical activity they get, however. If you're in this age group, talk to your doctor or see a nutritionist if you'd like more specific guidance about the number of vegetables—and other foods—you should include in your diet each day to live a healthy lifestyle as you age. 

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. Updated Nov 16, 2017.

  2. U. S. Department of Agriculture. All about the vegetable group.

  3. Bere E, Brug J, Klepp KI. Why do boys eat less fruit and vegetables than girls?. Public Health Nutr. 2008;11(3):321-5. doi:10.1017/S1368980007000729

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