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 to encourage your children to eat nutritious food.
A healthy balanced diet for children
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.
Starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta 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
- wholegrain breakfast cereals and whole oats are a great way to start the day as they are a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals, and fibre - choose ones low in salt and avoid sugar-coated cereals as these can cause tooth decay and encourage children to develop a sweet tooth
- 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.
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.
Children need protein and iron to grow and develop. Try to give your child one or two portions from this group daily.
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.
Nuts also contain protein, but whole nuts, including peanuts, shouldn't be given to children under five years of age in case they choke.
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.
It's recommended that boys have no more than four portions of oily fish a week, and girls no more than two portions a week because oily fish contain pollutants that can build up in the body.
The health benefits of eating oily fish are greater than the risks, so do try and encourage children to eat fish regularly.
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
Dairy 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.
Babies and children under five
Breast milk is the best drink for babies for the first year and beyond. The only alternative to breast milk in the first six months is infant formula.
Choose an infant formula based on cow's milk unless you have been advised differently by your health professional.
You should continue to give your baby breast milk or formula milk until he or she is at least a year old.
Cow’s milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is a year old, as it doesn't contain the right balance of nutrients to meet your baby’s needs.
Full-fat cow's milk can be used in small amounts for cooking in foods such as cheese sauce and custard from six months.
Babies under one year old should not be given condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried milk, or any other type of drinks often known as milks, such as rice, oat or almond drinks.
Children should drink full-fat milk until they are at least two years old because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat milks.
After the age of two, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a main drink as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.
Don't give skimmed or one per cent fat milk to children as a main drink until they're at least five years old, because neither of these contains enough vitamin A and skimmed milk doesn't contain enough calories.
Children between the ages of one and three need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. About 300ml milk (just over half a pint) would provide this.
Goat's and sheep's milk
Like cow's milk, goat's and sheep's milk are not suitable as drinks for babies under a year old because they don't contain the right balance of nutrients.
Providing they are pasteurised, ordinary full-fat goat and sheep milk can be used as drinks once a baby is a year old. They can be used for cooking in foods such as cheese sauce and custard from the age of six months.
The importance of iron
Iron is essential for your child’s health and can be found in animal sources (meat and fish) and plant sources (wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, pulses and dried fruits).
The body absorb iron from meat and fish more easily than from vegetables. However, if your child does not eat meat or fish they can still get enough iron from foods such as fortified breakfast cereals, pulses and dark green leafy vegetables.
It is important to have some foods or drinks containing vitamin C when eating iron rich vegetable sources as this helps with the absorption of iron.
If young children fill up on milk, they may eat less food due to feeling full. This could make it difficult for them to get the calories and nutrients they need from a balanced diet.
This might lead to iron deficiency anaemia which can affect their physical and mental development.
Snacks and drinks
When choosing snacks for children, you can make healthier choices by checking nutritional labels.
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
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.
- sandwiches with cheese filling or processed meats like ham
- crumpets spread thinly with unsaturated margarine or butter
- cheese and crackers
- cubes of cheese
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.
These should only be given occasionally and include snack foods such as:
- ice cream
- 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
- 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, including last thing at night
Milk and water are the best drinks to offer.
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.
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 old: 2g of salt a day
- four to six years old: 3g of salt a day
- seven to 10 years old: 5g of salt a day
- 11 years old and over: 6g of 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.
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:
- four to six years old: no more than 19g per day
- seven to 10 years old: no more than 24g per day
- from 11 years old: no more than 30g per day
There is no guideline limit for children under four years of age, but it is recommended to avoid sugar sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.
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.
Some practical tips for parents dealing with fussy eaters are:
- 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
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.
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.
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.
Children following a vegan diet should also be given supplements of vitamin B12 and riboflavin (another B vitamin).
Further advice to make sure your child is getting enough nutrients, including protein and iron, is available at:
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.
For practical tips on how to pack an appetising, healthy lunchbox, visit: