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Children’s nutrition

From birth through their teenage years, children continually grow and develop. Good nutrition is the fuel for this development, forming the foundation of good health. Teaching children about their nutritional needs and instilling healthy eating habits early on is important.  These are helpful so that they develop into healthy adults with healthy eating habits for life.

Growing bodies need food variety

Children go through growth and activity spurts that can influence their appetites. Sometimes they will eat a lot, and at other times they may only eat a little. By offering your children a variety of nutritious foods, both at meal times and as snacks, you can help them get enough of the nutrients their bodies need.

Aim for your child’s daily diet to contain a wide variety of foods from the five main food groups:

  1. Vegetables - of different types and colours
  2. Fruit
  3. Grain foods - wholegrain and high - fibre foods such as bread, cereals, rice or pasta
  4. Proteins - lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs and legumes (e.g. beans)
  5. Dairy - milk, yoghurt or cheese.

Remember that you may need to offer small children some ‘new foods’ many times over a few months before they will taste or eat it. It may help if they see you eating the same food too.

It is also important that children drink plenty of water — not fruit juice or sweetened soft drinks — to keep them hydrated.

Limit foods high in saturated fat, added salt and added sugars

While low fat diets are not suitable for children younger than 2 years, sweets and higher-fat snacks such as potato chips, fried foods, confectionery and chocolate are ‘sometimes foods’ only for all children as they offer little nutritional value. Giving your children controlled amounts of these high-energy foods infrequently can help teach them the importance of balanced eating habits and of eating ‘everything in moderation’.

How many serves of each food group?

You can use this table to find out the minimum number of daily serves of each food group recommended for your children based on their age. Additional serves, or an extra allowance of unsaturated spreads and oils, nuts or seeds may be needed to provide extra energy for some children, for example, those who are tall for their age or who are very active.

Serves per day
  2-3 years 4-8 years 9-11 years 12-13 years 14-18 years
(e.g. 1 serve = 0.5 cup of fresh, cooked or canned vegetables; half a medium-sized potato; 1 cup of salad leaves)
Boys 2.5 4.5 5 5.5 5.5
Girls 2.5 4.5 5 5 5
(e.g. 1 serve = 1 medium-sized fruit [e.g. apple or banana]; 2 small fruit [e.g. apricot or kiwi]; 1 cup of canned fruit)
Boys 1 1.5 2 2 2
Girls 1 1.5 2 2 2
(e.g. 1 serve = 1 slice of bread; 0.5 cup of cooked rice, pasta or noodles; 2/3 cup of breakfast cereal)
Boys 4 4 5 6 7
Girls 4 4 4 5 7
(e.g. 1 serve = 65 g cooked lean beef, lamb or pork; 80 g of chicken; 100 g of tuna; 2 large eggs; 1 cup of baked beans)
Boys 1 1.5 2.5 2.5 2.5
Girls 1 1.5 2.5 2.5 2.5
(e.g. 1 serve = 1 cup of milk; 2 slices cheese; 3/4 cup of yogurt)
Boys 1.5 2 2.5 3.5 3.5
Girls 1.5 1.5 3 3.5 3.5

Start your child’s day with a healthy breakfast

Breakfast is a very important meal for children. Eating breakfast helps to replenish their energy stores and helps them to ‘re-fuel’ for the day ahead. Children who regularly eat breakfast tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI), and are less likely to be overweight compared with children who don’t eat breakfast regularly.

A healthy breakfast contains essential nutrients including protein, calcium and fibre as well as energy from low GI (glycaemic index) carbohydrates. Low GI means that the carbohydrate is digested slowly, releasing energy into the body more slowly.

If you eat breakfast cereals, keep in mind that many contain too much sugar, salt or both to be healthy choices for everyday eating. Choose breakfast cereals that have had minimal processing and are low GI. Good choices include oats, wholegrain, bran or puffed wheat cereals.

Some healthy breakfast choices for busy, growing kids include:

  • yoghurt with fruit
  • a fruit smoothie
  • multi-grain toast with a boiled egg or baked beans
  • wholewheat or wholegrain cereal with sliced fruit such as banana or kiwi fruit
  • porridge made with oats.

Lunch boxes – getting the nutritional balance right

Children eat about one third of their daily food at school, which is why it's important that school lunch boxes contain a healthy mix of food. Include the following for a well-balanced lunch box:

  • A sandwich, wrap or crackers - preferably wholegrain, with vegetables and a protein filling such as lean ham, tuna, chicken or egg.
  • Fresh fruit or cut up raw vegetables - to provide a slow release of energy. Dried fruit, fruit juice, and fruit straps and sticks can be high in sugar so these should be an occasional treat only.
  • Dairy food - for kids 2 years and up, reduced fat cheese, yoghurt and dairy snacks can help provide calcium and protein for healthy bones and teeth and for growth. Children aged 6 months to 2 years should have full-fat dairy products.
  • Snack - healthy snacks include wholegrain rice crackers, low-GI muesli bars, plain popcorn, and reduced-sugar, homemade muffins or banana bread.
  • Water - make sure your child drinks plenty of water, rather than fruit juice, cordial and flavoured waters which can be high in sugar.

School lunch tips

  • Avoid including too many packaged snack foods, as they are often highly processed and contain high amounts of sugar, fat and salt.
  • To keep lunch boxes at the right temperature in summer, look for freezer-style cooler packs. Alternatively, try freezing an ice block or small, packaged drink (e.g. a ‘popper’ or tetra-pack) and pack this with your child’s lunch to keep it fresh.
  • To minimise fruit getting bruised in school bags, choose hard fruits such as apples or nectarines. Alternatively, pack a small container filled with berries, grapes or melon pieces.

Healthy snack ideas

Growing children need nutritious snacks each day to ensure they receive all the energy (kilojoules), vitamins and minerals they need for optimal growth and development. Limit the amount of processed foods such as potato chips, confectionery, biscuits and cakes as they contain lots of energy but very little nutritional value.

Ideally a snack food for a primary school child contains between 400–600 kJ. It should also be a source of nutrients such as fibre, carbohydrates, vitamins, protein, calcium or iron.

Healthy and convenient snack ideas for children include:

  • small tub of low-fat yoghurt
  • low-fat ice cream or yoghurt on a stick
  • cheese and crackers
  • corn cakes with spread
  • homemade banana bread or mini muffins
  • vegetable sticks with hummus
  • fruit smoothies
  • fruit or vegetable kebabs
  • cheese sticks
  • plain popcorn
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • wraps with cheese or tuna
  • small wholegrain snack bars
  • low-fat, unsweetened milk.

Another simple way to boost your children’s vegetable intake is to have a bowl of chopped vegetables such as carrot and celery sticks in the fridge. This makes a healthy snack for in-between-meals, and won’t ruin your children’s appetite for the next meal.

Set a healthy example with nutritious family meals

Family meal times should be shared and relaxed. It is also a time when you have the opportunity to model good eating practices and help your children learn what makes a nutritionally balanced meal. Ideally a dinner plate for children and adults alike will be filled with serves of the five main food groups.

Parents control food choices

Remember, ultimately children will eat the foods available to them and you are generally in control of that. They may start rejecting meals if they learn that not eating their vegetables and meat means getting offered more appealing options such as chicken nuggets or toast. Instead, include at least one food option that you know they like each meal. If they still reject the meal, they may not be hungry.

If you do choose to include dessert after dinner, good options include fruit, yoghurt, low-fat ice-cream or custard.

Keep food talk neutral

Begging, cajoling and bribing children to eat their vegetables won’t necessarily work, and can set a precedent for the future. Instead, try and talk about all foods equally. If your child will only eat one or two varieties of vegetable or salad, that is fine. Simply offer these varieties at every meal and gradually introduce other vegetables to help your child expand their choices.

Tips for family friendly meals

  • Enjoy regular family meals at the table with the television switched off to avoid distraction.
  • Allow enough time for a relaxed meal.
  • Water or milk should be the drink of choice at dinner time.
  • Try placing salad or vegetables in the middle of the table so family members can serve themselves.
  • Allow your children to help you prepare meals and help with the shopping. They are more likely to eat what they have helped to prepare.
  • Teach your children simple nutrition facts while you eat, such as ‘milk makes your bones strong’.
  • Place a menu board in the kitchen so the whole family knows what’s for dinner.

Avoiding childhood obesity

In Australia, about a quarter of all children aged 5-17 years are overweight or obese and this is likely to increase. Studies have shown that once children become obese they are more likely to stay obese into adulthood. Being overweight or obese has serious consequences. It increases your children’s chances of developing long-term health conditions including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Helping your children maintain a healthy weight

To help keep your child at a healthy weight, here are some easy tips you can begin at home.

  • Only buy foods you want your child to eat. Rid the fridge and cupboards of soft drink, fruit juice and packaged snack foods.
  • Establish healthy eating routines. Make sure your child starts the day with a healthy breakfast and eats regular meals containing a wide variety of food from all the food groups.
  • Make water the drink of choice as fruit juice, cordial, soft drinks and flavoured water can be high in sugar.
  • Set a good example. Children will model their eating behaviour on your example.
  • Involve your children in meal preparation. Kids are more likely to eat what they have helped prepare so involve them in the shopping, washing, peeling and cooking of their food.
  • Make physical activity part of everyday life. Demonstrate how being active is fun and can be incorporated into every day.
    • Children aged 1–5 years should have at least 3 hours of activity spread over the day.
    • Children aged 5–17 years should accumulate at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous activity per day
    • Children aged 5–17 years should also do activities that strengthen muscle and bone on at least 3 days per week
  • Limit low-activity pastimes such as watching TV, being on the computer and playing other electronic games.
  • Have regular bed times. It is important for children to get a consistent amount of sleep every day, as sleep can directly impact physical health and development. The amount of sleep your child needs every day will vary according to their age. It is best to ensure your child has a set sleep schedule and a consistent bedtime routine that you stick to — every day.

Here are some signs that may indicate that your child has a weight problem:

  • They look much larger than other similar-aged children at school.
  • Their waist measurement is more than half of their height measurement in centimetres. For example, if your child is 120 cm tall, their waist circumference should be less than 60 cm.
  • They need clothes that are two sizes above their age.
  • They are always asking for food.
  • They eat as much or more than an adult.

If you think your child may have a weight problem, ask your doctor to assess your child's height, weight and body mass index (BMI).

Further information

Raising Children Network

Dietitians Association of Australia


Department of Health. Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines, 2013 [online]. [Last updated February 2014; accessed 24 June 2014]. Available from:

Fulkerson JA Neumark-Sztainer D Sory M. Adolescent and parent views of family meals. J Am Diet Assoc 2006; 106: 526–533.

Holand A Dye L Law CL. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nut Res Rev 2009; 22: 220–243.

Kids Health. Kids and food: 10 tips for parents [online]. [Last reviewed February 2012; accessed 24 June 2014]. Available from:

Kids Health. The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. How do I know my child has a weight problem? [online]. [Accessed 24 June 2014]. Available from:

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Healthy eating for children. Teach your child healthy habits for a healthy life. Melbourne: NHMRC, 2013.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults, adolescents and children in Australia. Melbourne: NHMRC, 2013.

Australian Bureau of statistics. Gender Indicators, Australia, Jan 2013 [online]. Overweight/obesity. (Accessed on 16 July 2014). Available from:

Raising Children Network. Preschoolers. Nutrition and fitness: the basics [online]. [Last updated January 2010; accessed 23 June 2014]. Available from:

Raising Children Network. Packing a lunch box [online]. [Last updated December 2009; accessed 23 June 2014]. Available from:

Raising Children Network. School age. Nutrition and fitness: the basics [online]. [Last updated January 2010; accessed 23 June 2014]. Available from:

State Government of Victoria. Better Health Channel. Eating tips for children – preschoolers [online]. [Last updated September 2013; accessed 24 June 2014]. Available from:

State Government of Victoria. Better Health Channel. Eating tips for children – primary school. [online]. [Last updated September 2013; accessed 24 June 2014]. Available from:

Sleep tips for children. Australian Sleep Association, 2011 [online]. [Accessed 16 July 2014]. Available from:

Last updated: 21 July 2014

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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