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Healthy eating for your child

14-minute read

Key facts

  • Children need a variety of foods from the 5 food groups.
  • The 5 food groups contain the nutrients necessary for growth and development.
  • You can encourage your child to eat a healthy diet by involving them in food decisions and making mealtimes fun.
  • Organising healthy meals can be difficult, but planning ahead and working to break unhealthy habits can help.

What is healthy eating?

Your child needs different nutrients to grow and develop, such as:

  • energy
  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • antioxidants
  • fibre
  • water

They can get these nutrients by eating a wide variety of fresh foods from the recommended 5 food groups.

Encouraging your child to eat healthy food helps them to make healthy choices as they get older. This reduces their risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Fruit and Vegetables

Most fruits and vegetables are low in energy and high in fibre and water. This makes you feel full. Fruits and vegetables provide fibre, folate and vitamin C.

Fruit and vegetables are 2 different food groups.

Grains (cereals)

Grains contain lots of fibre which helps maintain your digestive system and prevent constipation. Grains provide you with carbohydrates, protein, fibre, and vitamins and minerals — like folate and zinc.

The high fibre in wholegrain cereals also assist in the maintenance of the digestive system and can help prevent constipation.

Grains include:

  • wheat
  • barley
  • oats
  • polenta
  • quinoa
  • rice
  • pasta

It is best to choose wholegrain or high-fibre varieties of grain-based foods.

Lean meat, fish, poultry and meat alternatives

Protein sources are important for your child’s brain, nerve and muscle development. As well as protein, they provide iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Such foods include:

  • lean meat such as steak and pork
  • fish
  • chicken or turkey
  • eggs
  • beans (legumes)
  • tofu
  • nuts

Dairy

Milk, cheese and yoghurt made from milk or milk alternatives give your child protein and calcium. Dairy foods are a good source of:

  • calcium
  • protein
  • iodine
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin D

Reduced fat dairy is recommended for children over the age of 2 years.

How much should my child eat?

The number of serves of food your child needs from each of the 5 food groups depends on their age. You can find out more about serving sizes on the Healthy Eating for Children poster.

The standard Australian Government dietary guidelines are as follows:

Recommended number of serves per day.
2-3 years 4-8 years 9-11 years 12-13 years 14-18 years
Fruit 1 serve 1½ serves 2 serves 2 serves 2 serves
Vegetables 2½ serves 4½ serves 5 serves 5-5½ serves 5-5½ serves
Grains and Cereals 4 serves 4 serves 4-5 serves 5-6 serves 7 serves
Lean meats, fish, poultry,
egg, tofu, nuts and seeds,
and beans/legumes
1 serve 1½ serves 2½ serves 2½ serves 2½ serves
Dairy 1½ serves 1½-2 serves 2½-3 serves 3½ serves 3½ serves

Find out more about how much food your child needs each day.

What is a healthy drink?

Drinking water is the best way to quench your child’s thirst. A glass of milk is another healthy option.

Drinks to limit

Other drinks may have added sugar and energy (kilojoules). These drinks should be limited and enjoyed in small amounts:

  • flavoured mineral water
  • fruit juice drinks
  • soft drinks
  • sports drinks

Fizzy (carbonated) water or soft drinks are acidic and can lead to tooth decay.

What foods should I avoid?

‘Sometimes foods’ are also called junk food or 'discretionary' foods. They get their name as they are not essential for your child’s dietary needs. They are usually processed foods that are low in nutrients and high in salt, saturated fat and sugar.

‘Sometimes foods’ include:

  • cake
  • chips
  • chocolate
  • fast foods and fried foods
  • ice-cream
  • lollies
  • meat pies
  • pastries

These foods increase the risk of weight gain that can cause childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Limit these foods to special occasions and small amounts.

Foods to avoid

Foods with too much saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease as it increases your blood cholesterol levels.

Some products with high saturated fat content are:

  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • sausages
  • bacon

Try to choose products that do not contain trans fats.

Instead of butter, try using a reduced fat spread for sandwiches, or canola or olive oil when cooking.

Remember, fat is important for young children. Full fat dairy products should still be given to children under 2 years of age.

How can I manage a healthy diet?

Families are busy, so it helps to organise your food for the week. Stock your cupboards with quick, healthy choices for the week and plan your meals. Always have basic foods available to prepare fast, simple and nutritious meals.

Plan healthy meals

Writing out a shopping list is a useful way to plan meals. It can also remind you to eat healthily. Some things to put on your shopping list include:

  • eggs, low-fat or skim milk, yoghurt, low-fat cheese
  • fresh or canned fruit (in own juice or light syrup)
  • fresh, frozen, or low-salt canned vegetables
  • fresh or frozen lean meats, such as convenient canned fish
  • healthy snacks, like fruit, cheese and yoghurt
  • leafy vegetables
  • low-sugar, high-fibre cereals
  • nuts and seeds
  • whole-wheat bread, rice (brown is best), pasta and other whole grains

Handy breakfast ideas include:

  • boiled egg and toast
  • cereal with fruit and yoghurt
  • oatmeal (porridge) made with milk
  • scrambled eggs on toast
  • toast with peanut butter, fruit and milk
  • cottage cheese and sliced tomato on wholegrain toast

You can make preparing healthy dinners easier by:

  • keeping meals simple
  • prepare what you can the night before, such as marinating or thawing out meat
  • using a slow cooker to put together a soup or stew in the morning, so dinner is already prepared in the evening

Most children do not get enough fruits or vegetables. When planning healthy meals, try to include fruits and vegetables in all your meals. You can try:

  • keeping a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter
  • storing baby carrots in the refrigerator for snacking
  • offering your child vegetables to dip in low-fat dressing, hummus or Greek yoghurt
  • making vegetable soups and colourful salads
  • using a variety of different vegetables in your meals as they contain different vitamins and minerals

You can find meal plan suggestions through The Department of Health and Ageing — Cooking for Children and Eat for Health.

Change your habits

You should try to change your shopping habits if you usually buy:

  • processed baked goods such as pies and sausage rolls
  • high-fat, high-sugar snacks such as chips and lollies
  • soft drinks
  • sugary fruit drinks

Children get used to having these foods available and will often choose them over healthy snacks such as fresh fruits or yoghurt. You can try to:

  • swap chips or biscuits for fruit, vegetables or popcorn
  • switch from high-sugar cereals to those that have less sugar and are high in fibre
  • buy wholegrain versions of your usual breads and cereals

Avoid eating at fast food restaurants. If you do eat out avoid high-fat side dishes such as garlic bread and soft drinks. Try including fresh fruit, vegetables such as corn on the cob and milk or juice in the meal.

How can I encourage healthy eating habits?

Healthy eating is usually a family affair. Many parents realise that rushed schedules and too many dinners from fast food restaurants affect the way their children eat and see foods.

The best ways to get your kids to eat well are to model healthy eating habits and to get them involved in planning meals.

Healthy snacks

Healthy snacks can help your child to meet their daily nutrition requirements.

Always keep a variety of healthy snacks in the home, such as:

  • fruit
  • healthy homemade muffins or muesli bars that are low in refined sugars
  • popcorn
  • rice crackers
  • nuts
  • natural yoghurt with chopped fruit
  • vegetable sticks with healthy dips such as hummus

Avoid giving your child ‘sometimes foods’ as snacks. They’re a poor source of nutrients.

Making food fun

You can encourage your child to eat healthily by making mealtimes fun, social and interesting. You can:

  • cut sandwiches, fruit and vegetables into interesting shapes
  • eat with your children at the dinner table
  • encourage them to try new foods and recipes
  • teach them about how foods are grown and where they come from
  • use a variety of vegetables and fruits in meals

When trying new foods, realise that children will react to textures and flavours. Many kids won’t try a new food until it has been offered many times.

Continue to offer a variety of food but try not to become frustrated or force them to eat new foods.

Involving your child

Including your child in food making decisions will make them feel more excited about healthy eating. Let your child:

  • control the amount of food they eat — let them serve themselves or clear their own plate
  • help write the shopping list
  • help with shopping, cooking and preparing foods, as appropriate for their age
  • make up new food combinations

Try serving smaller portions at mealtimes. Encourage your child to ask for more if they are still hungry.

Food intolerances and allergies

Some children have allergies or intolerances to certain foods, such as dairy, eggs, nuts and seafood.

For your child’s safety, it’s best to confirm an intolerance or allergy with your doctor or an accredited dietitian.

They can advise you on how to manage an allergy so your child doesn’t miss out on any key nutrients for their growth and development.

What should I do if my child is overweight?

Children often gain too much weight from drinking too much soft drink and juice, eating too many high-calorie snack and fast foods and not getting enough exercise.

If you are concerned that your child is overweight, talk to your child’s doctor. A quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese.

Children are rarely given calorie-restricted diets because it can affect their normal growth. A child may be overweight during their development while their height catches up.

The healthy meal planning tips given here are appropriate for both normal weight and overweight children.

Along with healthy eating, you should encourage your child to be physically active every day.

If you are concerned about your child’s weight, speak to your doctor or find an Accredited Practising Dietitian on the Dietitians Australia website.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: February 2023


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