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Five food groups

16-minute read

Key facts

  • The key to a balanced diet is to eat a variety of nutritious foods from each of the five food groups.
  • If you eat a variety of foods from each of these groups, your body will receive all the nutrients and vitamins it needs to function.
  • Your child does not need to eat from each food group at every meal – check what they are eating over the course of a day or a week to decide if they are getting a good balance of nutrients.
  • As well as the five food groups, the Australian guide to healthy eating recommends drinking plenty of water.

Why is eating from the five food groups important?

Each of the five food groups has important nutrients that contribute to a healthy diet. 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.

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

What are the five food groups?

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

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) also encourages drinking plenty of water and using unsaturated oils and spreads in small amounts, in addition to the five food groups.

Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) (Figure 1)

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.

As different types of vegetables, legumes and beans help nourish your body in different ways, it’s important to choose a variety in your diet. An idea is to choose vegetables that are in season and are different colours:

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

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

What are 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 cannellini beans, chickpeas, lentils and soybeans. Legumes can be used in a variety of different ways, such as salads, baked beans, stir-fries, pasta sauces and soups.

How many vegetables does my child need?

Vegetables are a great snack and easy to pack when you go out for the day.

  • By age 2, your child should have 2½ serves a day of vegetables, legumes and beans.
  • From age 4 years, they should have 4½ serves a day.
  • From the age of 9 onwards, aim for 5 serves daily.

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

Tips for serving vegetables

The reality is that not all kids enjoy vegetables. Fussy eaters can make mealtime difficult, so here are a few tips to help make eating vegetables more interesting for your kids:

  • Eat the rainbow. Focusing on a variety of vegetables of different colours can be a fun way to encourage eating more vegetables.
  • Lead by example. Show your kids you enjoy reaching for a healthy snack. Cherry tomatoes, snow peas, green beans, red capsicum, and carrot sticks with dip all make great snacks.
  • Add vegetables into other foods to increase their nutritional value, for example, add chopped tomatoes, onions or zucchini into a bolognaise sauce.

Fruit

Fruit is a good source of vitamins, dietary fibre, minerals, and many nutrients that are naturally present in plants, and help your child’s body stay healthy. There is a large 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. Juices lack dietary fibre and can also damage tooth enamel due to high acidity. Dried fruit can stick in the teeth and increase risk of dental decay.

What fruit should children eat?

Children should eat fruit in a variety of colours:

  • green — apples and kiwi fruit
  • orange — oranges and mangoes
  • yellow —bananas
  • red — strawberries
  • purple — blueberries and grapes

How much fruit does my child need?

Fruit is a great snack to have when you’re out, and easy to pack in a lunchbox.

  • 2 to 3-year-olds should have 1 serve of fruit a day.
  • 4 to 8-year-olds need 1½ serves a day.
  • Children over the age of 9 should have 2 serves of fruit a day.

A 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.

Tips for serving fruit

There are a number of things you can do to make eating fruit a bit more fun for kids:

  • Chop up their favourite fruit into a healthy fruit salad
  • Serve fruit with some yoghurt
  • Slice some fruit to add flavour and colour 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. These include:

  • 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

There are non-meat foods that are a healthy source of protein. 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 does my child need?

  • 2 to 3-year-olds should have 1 serve a day
  • 4 to 8-year olds should have 1½ serves day
Serving sizes for some foods containing protein
Food Serving size
Cooked red meat
(not more than 455g per week)
65g
Poultry 80g
Fish 100g
Eggs 2
Legumes 1 cup
Tofu 170g
Nuts or Seeds
(Including pastes, like peanut butter or tahini)
30g

As a rough guide, a serve of:

  • red meat or chicken is the size and thickness of your palm
  • fish is the size of your hand
  • tofu would be the size of a deck of cards
  • nuts, about a handful

Tips for serving protein

  • Add legumes to pasta and stir-fry dishes.
  • Use lean meats and poultry in soups, stews, stir-fries, bakes and pasta dishes
  • Include eggs at any time of day, as part of breakfast, lunch or dinner. They can be scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, in a quiche or an omelette.
  • Choose nuts as a snack (never give whole nuts to children under 5 years of age), or add them to 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 wholegrain or high fibre varieties, such as wholemeal and wholegrain breads, brown rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, rolled oats, quinoa, barley and breakfast cereals like muesli or bran.

Wholegrains have protein, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. Some of these nutrients are lost when grains are processed. Cakes or biscuits can be high in added sugar, fat and sodium, so be careful about how often you offer these to your child.

How much grain should my child be eating?

  • From the age of 2 years, young children should be having 4 serves of grain each day.
  • From the age of 9, children will need 5 daily serves of grain (and this will increase to 7 by the time they are 18 years).

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
  • ⅔ 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. Examples include:

  • Baked beans on toast
  • Peanut butter on a muffin
  • Small bowl of breakfast cereal with milk
  • A sandwich, wrap, rice cake or wholegrain cracker
  • Wholemeal rice in sushi or poke bowl

Milk, cheese and yoghurt

Children should have dairy products (or non-dairy alternatives) every day. Milk, cheese and yoghurt give your child protein and calcium. Calcium helps build strong and healthy 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. Low or reduced fat milk, yoghurt and cheese choices are recommended for most people two years and over. Milk provides protein, vitamins and calcium.

Soy beverages with added calcium can be used instead of milk for children over one 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 dairy, there are some foods that contain the same amount of calcium as a standard serve 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 should have 1½ serves a day (for example, a cup of milk and a slice of cheese).
  • 4 to 5-year-olds should have 1½ to 2 serves a day (for example: a tub of yoghurt and 2 slices of cheese).

A serve is equal to:

  • 1 cup of cow’s milk. If you give your child a plant-based milk alternative, check it has at least 100mg calcium in every 100mL of drink)
  • 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

For more information regarding appropriate milk and milk alternative drinks, visit ‘munch and move’.

The Australian Government has more information regarding serving sizes and the recommended number of serves for each of the five food groups to help with developing healthy eating habits.

Where can I find more information?

Visit these resources for more information on the five food groups:

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

Last reviewed: July 2022


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Need more information?

The five food groups | Eat For Health

Guideline 2 recommends we enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five groups every day The key to eating well is to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods from each of the five food groups. These five food groups make up the Australian guide to healthy eating (see right).

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

Healthy eating and exercise for parents | Raising Children Network

Keeping healthy and fit is good for you and good for your children. Eat foods from the five food groups and fit physical activity into everyday activities.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Australian guide to healthy eating | Eat For Health

The Australian guide to healthy eating is a food selection guide which visually represents the proportion of the five food groups recommended for consumption each day.

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

Vitamins & minerals for kids & teens | Raising Children Network

Children need vitamins and minerals for health and development. They can get vitamins and minerals by eating a variety of foods from the five food groups.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Dietary guidelines pictures: early teens | Raising Children Network

What do teens (12-13 years) need to eat each day? Our illustrated dietary guidelines make it easy to serve up the right amount from the five food groups.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Dietary guidelines: children 4-8 years | Raising Children Network

What do children 4-8 years need to eat each day? Our illustrated dietary guidelines make it easy to serve up the right amount from the five food groups.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

How much food does my child need?

Children need a healthy variety of foods from the five food groups to grow up healthy and strong. Learn what types of food and how much according to their age.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Healthy food groups: preschoolers | Raising Children Network

Preschoolers need foods from all five healthy food groups: vegetables, fruit, grain foods, dairy and protein. Try to limit salty, sugary and fatty foods.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

What is a serve? | Eat For Health

The Australian dietary guidelines group foods together that share similar nutrients, this creates the five food groups. For example milk, cheese and yogurt are all good sources of calcium, riboflavin, protein and B12. Within each food group the Australian dietary guidelines identifies the serve size of different foods that have roughly the same amount of key nutrients and kilojoules but that also reflect the amount of food commonly eaten in Australia, for example one piece of whole fruit or one slice of bread.

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

How to add variety to your diet | Eat For Health

The Australian Dietary Guidelines highlights the importance of eating a wide variety of nutritious foods. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating groups similar types of foods together in five different groups. The foods in each group have similar nutrients and are often used the same way in cooking. To make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need, it’s important to eat enough from all the five groups.

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

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