Healthy eating for children

What children eat and drink during their early years can affect their health for many years to come. General eating habits are formed in the first few years of life, so it is important that we encourage our children to eat nutritious food.

What to give

Children need a healthy balanced diet containing foods from each food group so they get a wide range of nutrients to help them stay healthy.

Children’s appetites vary depending on age, growth spurts, and how much activity they have done so it's important to provide appropriately sized portions. Start small and if a child wants more, then offer it to them.  

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

The foods in this group are a good source of energy, which is particularly important for children as they are very active. They also contain fibre and essential vitamins and minerals, which are needed for growth and development.

Children should have a wide variety of foods from this food group and they should be offered at each meal time. When offering children these foods, remember:

  • try to offer a wide variety of bread such as high fibre white version of bread, wholemeal, granary, tortilla, pitta and potato bread
  • breakfast cereals are a great way to start the day - they are a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals,  and fibre. Choose one low in salt and avoid sugar-coated cereals as these can cause tooth decay and encourage children to develop a sweet tooth. Opt for wholegrain breakfast cereals and whole oats
  • Pasta, noodles and rice can be served at mealtimes, but avoid snack noodles as these are usually high in fat and salt - try using brown rice and wholewheat pasta
  • boil, mash or bake potatoes - choose oven chips instead of fried, or try homemade wedges

Fruit and vegetables

You should encourage your child to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. They should eat a variety of fruit and vegetables as this will make sure they get the full range of vitamins and minerals.

Choose from fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced, but remember fruit juice and smoothies only counts as one portion no matter how many pieces of fruit are in it and should only be consumed once a day at a meal time (a small glass is enough, about 150ml).

A child-sized portion is roughly half of an adult portion or the amount that would fit in the palm of their hand. Children should be encouraged to gradually increase the portion size to that recommended for adults.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other proteins

These foods are rich sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Protein is needed for lots of functions throughout the body; therefore we all need protein in our diet.

Beans, pulses and lentils are good alternatives to meat, are low in fat and high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Try adding these to dishes to add colour, flavour and texture such as casseroles, chilli or pasta sauces.

It's recommended that children eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish, for example, salmon, sardines, mackerel or trout.

Eggs are a convenient alternative to meat and are extremely versatile. They can be scrambled, boiled, poached or made into an omelette.  

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamin B12 and iron. A diet rich in iron will help prevent iron deficiency anaemia.

Processed meat (such as sausages, bacon, cured meat and reformed meat products) and chicken products are often a real favourite with children. They should be limited, as they are high in fat and salt.

Dairy and alternatives

Milk and dairy foods (and alternatives) are important during childhood as they are a good source of calcium, vitamins A and D, protein and fat.

Calcium is needed to help children build strong bones and for nerve and muscle function. Vitamin D is needed to help absorb calcium and therefore plays an important part in strengthening bones.

Whole milk should be given to children up until the age of two. If a child is eating a varied diet from two years, semi-skimmed milk may be given.

When buying dairy alternatives, such as almond or soya, go for unsweetened, calcium-fortified varieties.

Snacks and drinks

Green choices- go for these

The best between-meal snacks and drinks are those that are sugar-free. Tooth-friendly drinks and snacks to offer between meals include:

  • milk or water
  • chopped fruit and vegetables, for example, apple, pear, banana, orange, carrot, peppers or cucumber
  • bread or toast (preferably wholemeal or wholegrain) with a small amount of butter, margarine or a low-fat spread (without jam, honey or chocolate spread)
  • plain breadsticks or plain unsalted rice cakes
  • pitta bread or a plain bagel served with a small amount of butter, margarine, low-fat spread or low-fat soft cheese
  • natural yoghurt or plain fromage frais – add your own fresh, frozen or tinned fruit for extra flavour
  • wholegrain and unsweetened cereals ( don't add sugar to cereal)
  • sandwiches with sugar-free fillings, such as tomato, banana, tuna, lean meat or egg

Amber choices

These foods are nutritious but still contain some sugar, fat or salt. They are best taken at meals (when they are less damaging to teeth) and should not be taken too often as snacks between meals. Choose low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt varieties where possible.

These include:

  • sandwiches with cheese filling or processed meats like ham
  • crumpets spread thinly with unsaturated margarine or butter
  • cheese and crackers
  • cubes of cheese

Red choices

These are the least healthy choices. Most are high in sugar and may also be high in fat or salt or both.

If eaten, they are best taken at the end of a meal (when they are less damaging to teeth) and not between meals. The foods in the red section should only be given occasionally. 

This includes snack foods such as:

  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • chocolate
  • sweets
  • puddings
  • crisps
  • ice cream
  • pastries
  • dried fruit, like raisins

If your child does eat these sorts of foods:

  • try to make sure they eat them only occasionally or in small amounts, so they only make up a small part of the overall diet
  • check the label and choose those options lower in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt
  • help and encourage your child to clean their teeth twice every day - brushing last thing at night and on one other occasion.

Drinks

Milk and water are the best drinks to offer.

Sweet drinks damage teeth, especially if drunk very often or sipped from a bottle over long periods between meals.

Limit drinks such as fruit juice or squash to mealtimes and if possible encourage your child to drink water or milk at mealtimes and in between.

Salt

There’s no need to add salt to your child’s food. The maximum amount of salt your child should have depends on their age.

As a guide:

  • one to three years - 2g salt a day
  • four to six years – 3g salt a day
  • seven to 10 years – 5g salt a day
  • 11 years and up – 6g salt a day

If you’re buying processed foods, even those aimed at children, remember to check the information given on the labels to choose those with less salt.

Try replacing salt with pepper, herbs and spices to add flavour to your favourite dishes.

Sugar

Eating too much sugar can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay, so it's important to avoid giving your child too much sugar.

The maximum recommended sugar intake for children is:

  • 4-6 years old – no more than 19g per day
  • 7-10 years old – no more than 24g per day
  • from 11 years – no more than 30g per day

There is no guideline limit for the under 4’s but it is recommended to avoid sugar sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

Fussy eaters

Most children go through phases where they stop eating foods that they used to eat or reduce the variety of foods that they would have eaten. For a lot of parents this can be a very worrying time.

Children are quite resilient and will not harm themselves if they don’t eat enough for a few days. If the problem continues and your child’s weight and growth are affected, ask your doctor to refer you to a paediatric dietitian for further advice.

Here are some practical tips for parents dealing with fussy eaters:

  • never force feed a child
  • remove the food without making a fuss and don’t offer an alternative, wait for the next snack time or meal time before offering food again
  • give small portions of food at meal times
  • try offering finger foods as these are often easier for little ones to manage
  • squashes and milk can fill a child up, so avoid big drinks before meal times
  • snacking on crisps, chocolate, biscuits and cake can also fill a child up so avoid giving snacks too close to a meal
  • try to eat in a calm and relaxed environment, turn off televisions and radios, tidy away the toys, and don’t rush meals
  • sit together as a family at the table and enjoy your meals together, showing your child that you enjoy meals might encourage them to eat a little more
  • use brightly coloured plates and cutlery

According to the British Dietetic Association’s paediatric group, new tastes or textures may need to be offered several times, for example 16 or 17 times before your child will take them, so don’t give up too soon.

Healthy weight

Keep an eye on your child’s weight. If you feel your child is overweight and you want to talk to someone about this, make an appointment with your school nurse or doctor.

It's best to take action early to help your child to improve their eating habits and activity levels as this will help guide him/her on a lifelong path of eating well and being active.

If you encourage your child to eat a healthy balanced diet with only small amounts of foods containing sugar and fat, and you encourage your child to get plenty of physical activity, they should maintain a healthy weight.

Vegetarian diet for children

Vegetarian or vegan diets can be healthy, providing that a wide variety of foods are eaten. When meat and animal products are avoided, extra care will be needed to make sure that your child gets all the protein, vitamins, iron and other minerals needed. This is particularly important if your child is following a vegan diet.

It's more difficult for children following a vegan diet to get all the vitamins they need. Therefore they should also be given supplements of vitamin B12 and riboflavin (another B vitamin).

Getting enough protein

Make sure you find an alternative to meat, fish and chicken as the main sources of protein. These could include:

  • pulses, for example, lentils, butter beans, kidney beans, haricot beans or chickpeas
  • bean curd (tofu)
  • soya protein (texture vegetable protein)
  • mycoprotein - a fungal protein source
  • nuts, either finely chopped or ground (unless there is a family history of allergy)
  • milk
  • cheese
  • egg

Getting enough iron

You need to make sure your growing child is getting enough iron. Good sources of iron include:

  • wholegrain cereals
  • leafy green vegetables such as spinach and watercress
  • pulses
  • dried apricots or figs

Eating foods containing vitamin C with iron-rich foods might make it easier to absorb iron from our food.

You should also avoid giving your child tea and coffee because it reduces the amount of iron they can absorb.

Packed lunches

It's important to include a balanced variety of foods in your child’s lunchbox so they get all the nutrients they need to reach their full potential. Packed lunches offer a valuable contribution to your child’s diet, so it's worth spending a little time planning and preparing what goes into them.

Recent surveys looking at children’s lunchboxes showed that they were too high in fat (especially saturated fat), salt and sugar, and just under half the lunchboxes contained no fruit.

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