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Five food groups

10-minute read

What are the five food groups?

The best way for your child to eat healthy is to serve a variety of foods from each of the five food groups every day. Each food group has important nutrients that contribute to a healthy diet.

Children need healthy and nutritious food for growing minds and bodies. Eating a variety of foods from the five food groups provides them with enough nutrients that are essential for good health, growth and development.

The five food groups are made up of:

  • vegetables, legumes and beans
  • fruit
  • lean meat, fish, poultry and meat alternatives
  • grains and cereal
  • milk, cheese, yoghurt and dairy alternatives

Vegetables, legumes and beans

Vegetables and legumes have hundreds of natural nutrients as well as vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. They are an essential part of your child's daily dietary needs for growth and development.

To get the full value from this food group you should choose veggies that are in season and look for different colours:

  • greens veggies like beans, peas, broccoli and spinach
  • red, orange or yellow like capsicums, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin
  • purple like red cabbage and eggplant
  • white including cauliflower, mushrooms or potatoes

Most vegetables can be eaten raw, but some are better when cooked.

Legumes

Legumes, sometimes called 'pulses', are included in this food group because they are the seeds of plants and are high in fibre, protein and other vitamins and nutrients. They include baked beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, lentils and soybeans. Legumes can be used in a variety of different ways, such as salads, stir-fries, pasta sauces and soups.

How much veggies does my child need?

By age 2, your child should be having 2½ serves a day of veggies and legumes/beans. From age 4 years, they should eat 4½ serves a day and then 5 serves from age 9 onwards.

A serve is ½ cup of cooked veggies or 1 cup raw.

Tips for serving vegetables

The reality is that not all kids are fans of veggies. Fussy eaters can make meal time difficult, so here are a few tips on making vegetables more interesting:

  • Add chopped vegetables to a bolognaise sauce.
  • Veggies like cherry tomatoes, snow peas, green beans, red capsicum, celery or carrot sticks are great to dip with hummus.
  • Load vegetables into soups with beans or pasta.
  • Most kids like mashed potato, but you can include different mashed veggies for different colours and flavours.

Fruit

Fruit is a good source of vitamins and dietary fibre. There is a huge variety of fruit grown in Australia and choosing in-season fruits means better value and quality.

It’s best to eat fresh fruit rather than juices as juices lack dietary fibre and they’re not filling. Their acidity can also damage tooth enamel. Dried fruit can stick in the teeth too and is only suitable as an occasional extra.

Some fruit favourites, like apples and bananas, are available for most of the year. Varieties of berries, like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are best in the warmer months of spring and summer. Autumn and winter is good for kiwifruit, peaches and pears.

What fruit should children eat?

Children should eat fruit in a variety of colours:

  • green (like applies and kiwi fruit)
  • orange (like oranges and mangoes)
  • yellow (like bananas)
  • red (like strawberries)
  • purple (like blueberries and grapes)

How much fruit a day?

Fruit is a great snack to have on-the-go and easy to pack in a lunchbox.

  • 2 to 3-year-olds should be having 1 serve of fruit a day (1 serve is equivalent to 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear, 2 small apricots, kiwi fruit or plums, or a cup of diced or canned fruit).
  • 4 to 8-year-olds need 1 ½ serves a day.
  • Everyone over age 9 should be having 2 serves of fruit a day.

Fruit juice (125ml or 1/2 cup) and dried fruit (equivalent to 4 dried apricot halves) is only suitable as an occasional extra.

Tips for serving fruit

There are a number of things you can do to serve fruit to your kids to make it a bit more fun:

  • Chop up their favourite fruit into a healthy fruit salad.
  • Serve fruit with some yoghurt.
  • Slice some fruit to add some different flavours to breakfast cereal.

Lean meat, fish, poultry and meat alternatives

The protein food group offers the most variety when it comes to preparing and eating healthy foods. It includes lean meat, fish, chicken and vegetarian protein sources – such as eggs, beans (legumes), tofu and nuts.

These foods give your child iron, zinc, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and protein for growth, and brain, nerve and muscle development.

Lean meat, poultry and fish

Lean meat, poultry and fish provide protein and a variety of minerals and vitamins. There is also a lot to choose from and can be prepared in many different ways.

  • lean meat — beef, lamb, pork, veal, kangaroo and lean sausages
  • poultry — chicken, turkey and duck
  • fish and seafood — fish, prawns, crabs, mussels, scallops

Alternatives to meat

A variety of foods that provide the same amounts of protein as meat and seafood. These include:

  • eggs
  • legumes — beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu
  • nuts — almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and walnuts
  • seeds — pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds

Legumes, nuts and seeds also have dietary fibre, so it’s a good idea to choose a variety of foods from this group.

How much protein should my child be eating?

  • 2 to 3-year olds should have 1 serve a day
  • 4 to 8-year olds should have 1 ½ serves day

A serve is 65g cooked red meat (not more than 455g per week), 80g poultry, 100g fish, 2 eggs, 1 cup legumes, 170g tofu, 30g nuts or seeds or pastes (peanut butter, tahini).

To put in practical terms, a serve of meat or chicken is about the size of a deck of cards.

Tips for serving protein

  • Legumes can be added to pasta and stir-fry dishes.
  • Lean meats and poultry can be used in soups, stews, stir-fries, bakes and pasta dishes.
  • Eggs can be used for breakfast, lunch and dinner - scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, in a quiche or an omelette.
  • Nuts make a great snack or can be used in salads, main courses or breakfast cereal

Grains and cereal

Grains give your child the energy they need to grow, develop and learn. They include a variety of vitamins and nutrients as well as protein and fibre.

Healthy options include mostly wholegrain or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, oats, quinoa and barley.

Wholegrains have protein, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. Some of these nutrients are lost when grains are processed, so wholegrains are preferred. These include rolled oats, brown rice, wholemeal and wholegrain breads, cracked wheat, barley, buckwheat and breakfast cereals like muesli or bran cereal.

How much grains should my child be eating?

From the age of 2, young children should be having 4 serves of grain a day. Energetic kids might have a bit more as it will give them the extra energy they need. From the age of 9, boys will need 5 serves and this will increase as they get older.

A serve is equal to:

  • 1 slice of bread or ½ medium roll or flatbread
  • 1 crumpet or English muffin
  • ½ cup cooked rice, oats, pasta or other grain
  • 3 rye crispbread
  • 2/3 cup (30g) of breakfast cereal flakes or ¼ cup muesli
  • ¼ cup of flour

Tips for serving grains

Grains come in many different varieties, so kids would normally have some type of grain for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks throughout the day.

  • Baked beans on toast or peanut butter on a muffin.
  • Small bowl of breakfast cereal with milk.
  • Any variety of fillings in a sandwich or wrap.
  • Including 1/2 cup of rice, pasta or noodles with dinner

Milk, cheese and yoghurt

Children should have some dairy products every day. Milk, cheese and yoghurt give your child protein and calcium. Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth.

From birth to around 4 to 6 months, babies should only have breastmilk or formula. At around 6 months, you can start to introduce solid foods. Until the age of 2, children should have full-cream milk. Reduced fat dairy is then recommended for children over the age of 2.

Milk provides protein, vitamins and calcium. Soy beverages with added calcium can be used instead of milk for children over 1 year of age. Some nut or oat milks may have added calcium but they lack vitamin B12 and sufficient protein, so check your child’s total diet with a doctor or qualified dietitian before using them.

Alternatives to dairy

If you need an alternative to serving dairy, there are some foods that contain the same amount of calcium as a standard serve (see below) of milk, cheese or yoghurt:

  • 100g almonds with skin
  • 100g firm tofu
  • 60g sardines (canned in water)
  • ½ cup canned pink salmon with bones

How much dairy does my child need?

  • 2 to 3-year-olds, they should have 1½ serves a day — so that could be a cup of milk and a slice of cheese.
  • 4 to 5-year-olds, girls should still have 1½ serves a day and 2 serves for boys — a tub of yoghurt and 2 slices of cheese.

A serve is equal to 1 cup milk (check plant alternatives have at least 100mg calcium per 100ml), 2 slices (40g) of hard cheese such as cheddar or a tub of yoghurt.

Tips for serving dairy

  • yoghurt on cereal or with freshly cut fruit
  • cottage cheese or ricotta on wholegrain toast
  • make smoothies with milk or yoghurt and fresh fruit
  • grated or grilled cheese on veggies or pasta for lunch or dinner

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2020


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