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Planning healthy meals for children

5-minute read

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 and to get them involved in planning meals.

How can I get my children to eat healthy foods?

Healthy eating is usually a family affair. Whether your children are very young and you are looking to start them on the right path, or they are already in the habit of eating too many high-fat, high-sugar foods, you can use these tips to help your family eat healthy meals.

Healthy food

You should offer your children a variety of foods from all food groups including: whole grains; fruits and vegetables; low-fat or skim dairy products; and lean meats, fish, poultry and pulses (dried peas, beans and lentils). A good rule of thumb in choosing the healthiest versions of these foods is the less processed the better. Processed foods are usually pre-packaged, like crackers, biscuits, instant noodle and rice mixes, sugary cereals, and breads made with white flour.

Here are some tips for choosing healthy food:

  • Shop healthily. If you usually buy high-fat, high-sugar snacks, soft drinks, sugary fruit drinks and baked goods, you’ll need to change your shopping habits. Children get used to having these foods available and will often choose them over fresh fruits, yoghurt or other healthy snacks. Writing out a shopping list really helps. Let your kids help write the new list.
  • Change cereals. Switch from high-sugar cereals to those that are only lightly sweetened and are high in fibre.
  • Serve more wholegrain foods. Whole grains include whole wheat, whole oats, wholegrain corn, brown rice and wholegrain barley.
  • Serve more fruits and vegetables. Most children don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. Take every opportunity to serve them. Breakfast and snack times are perfect for fruit. Serve vegetables at all lunch and dinner meals, and have a full bowl of fresh fruit on the counter and baby carrots in the refrigerator for snacking. Offer vegetables to dip in low-fat dressing. Vegetable soups and colourful salads are good appetisers. Include the kids in making up new salad combinations.
  • Vary the vegetables. Try to select from all 5 vegetable subgroups — dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables and others — several times a week. They contain different vitamins and minerals.
  • Limit fats. Avoid offering too much saturated fat, such as butter, sour cream and cream cheese. Cook with canola or olive oils and use margarine spreads instead of butter. Look for those without trans fats; all Australian-made margarines should be free of trans fats but imported fat products and processed or takeaway foods may contain some. Choose low-fat dressings and light mayonnaise.
  • If your children are over 2, switch to low-fat or skim dairy products. Children should get used to lean milk products at an early age. Encourage 2 to 3 servings a day.

Healthy drinks

  • Drinking water is the best way to quench children’s thirst. It doesn’t come with all the sugar and energy (kilojoules) found in fruit juice drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks and flavoured mineral waters. Fizzy (carbonated) water or soft drinks are acidic and can contribute to tooth decay.

Habits for healthy eating

  • Avoid eating at fast food restaurants. If you do eat out, skip the fries, high-fat side dishes and soft drinks. Serve burgers with fresh fruit, corn on the cob and milk or juice. Give kids a chance to get used to new foods. When trying new foods, realise that children are not small adults. They 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.
  • Let your kids control the amount of food they eat. Don’t make your children clean their plate when they tell you they’re full. Serve small portions; if your child is still hungry, he or she will ask for more.
  • Schedule meal and snack times. Children, especially younger ones, like to know what to expect. Family dinners are very important and are often the only time when the whole family is together. Turn the television off. Kids will eat healthier meals if the TV is off.

How do I fit a healthy diet into our busy schedule?

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.

Basics for your shopping list include:

  • low-sugar, high-fibre cereals
  • whole-wheat bread, rice (brown is best), pasta and other whole grains
  • fresh or canned fruit (in own juice or light syrup)
  • fresh, frozen, or low-salt canned vegetables, leafy vegetables for salads
  • fresh or frozen lean meats, like skinless chicken or turkey breasts, pork tenderloin, sirloin or round steak and fish (canned tuna is convenient)
  • eggs, low-fat or skim milk, yoghurt, low-fat cheese
  • nuts and seeds
  • healthy snacks, like fruit, cheese and yoghurt

Families are usually busy in the morning when everyone is getting ready for school and work.

Handy breakfast ideas include:

  • cereal, with fruit and/yoghurt
  • oatmeal (porridge) made with milk, glass of juice
  • toast with peanut butter, fruit and milk
  • scrambled eggs with toast
  • boiled egg and with toast

Tips to help you prepare healthy dinners include:

  • Prepare what you can the night before (such as marinating or thawing out meat).
  • Keep meals simple.
  • Use a slow cooker to put together a soup or bean dish in the morning so dinner is already prepared in the evening.

What should I do if my child is overweight?

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 normal growth. Kids often gain too much weight from eating too much high-calorie snack and fast foods, drinking too much soft drink and juice, and exercising too little. The healthy meal planning tips given here are appropriate for both normal weight and overweight children.

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

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Last reviewed: December 2020

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