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.
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:
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.
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’.
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)
(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)
(e.g. 1 serve = 1 slice of bread; 0.5 cup of cooked rice, pasta or noodles; 2/3 cup of breakfast cereal)
(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)
(e.g. 1 serve = 1 cup of milk; 2 slices cheese; 3/4 cup of yogurt)
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To help keep your child at a healthy weight, here are some easy tips you can begin at home.
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).
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Dietitians Association of Australia
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Last updated: 21 July 2014
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