- Healthy eating for kids
Healthy eating for kids
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but children in particular need to receive all of the necessary nutrients for growth and development.
A healthy diet and regular physical activity can stabilise energy, sharpen the mind and improve mood - allowing children to maximise their potential both inside and outside of school. The good news - it doesn't have to be difficult either.
All parents want to see their children grow up to be healthy and happy, but often a combination of fussy eating habits and exposure to junk food advertisements can make it seem like an impossible task. Despite this however, there are steps parents can take to impart healthy eating habits and boost their children's relationship with food in order to provide them with the best opportunity to grow into healthy and confident adults.
From the benefits of healthy eating for children through to food groups for kids, 5 a day tips and meal ideas - this page aims to provide information and advice that will help you to encourage and support your child to eat well.
On this page
Benefits of healthy eating for children
Research into the eating habits we develop as children has suggested that a healthy diet during the early years means we stand a good chance of carrying these habits throughout our lives. In short, educating children on healthy eating can lay the path for a healthy life.
Eating well and engaging in regular physical activity can help children to:
- develop strong bones
- grow healthily
- concentrate at school
- maintain a healthy weight
- stay active and alert.
On a long-term basis, maintaining a healthy diet throughout childhood and into adulthood could also hold significant benefits, including helping to lower the risk of the following:
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure
- cholesterol levels
- heart disease
- joint problems
- breathing problems
- being overweight or obese.
Food groups for kids
Just like the rest of the family, kids need to eat a wide variety of foods in order to get the nutrients essential to their health.
There are five key food groups that need to be incorporated into children's diets, and the first step to ensure that you are making the most of each meal and snack is to learn your way around them:
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and veg are a fantastic source of vitamins, minerals and fibre - so whether fresh, frozen, dried or canned, try to incorporate them into every meal.
Top tip - From an early age, try to give your child small amounts of various fruits and vegetables so they learn to like the taste. If they don't seem keen on cooked vegetables, try them on some vegetable crudités or alternatively puree some cooked veg into a sauce.
Aim to incorporate a minimum of five portions of fruit and/or vegetables into your child's diet each day.
Starchy foods - potatoes, pasta, rice, bread
These kinds of foods provide energy, nutrients and some fibre and they should be the main part of each meal.
Top tip - Where possible, opt for the whole-grain options, such as wholemeal pasta, bread and rice - as these choices are higher in fibre. Bear in mind however, that when children are young (under five), they should have fewer high-fibre foods than adults because they can fill up children's small tummies before they've taken in all the calories they need.
Milk and dairy
The calcium present in milk and dairy are essential for the development of strong bones and teeth. Dairy is also a rich source of vitamin A, which can help the body to fight infections while keeping our skin and eyes healthy.
When children reach 12 months old, they can start to be given cow's milk as a main drink - with whole milk recommended to provide optimum benefits. Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of two if your child is eating and growing well.
Top tip - Foods made from milk such as yogurt and fromage frais are great alternatives to drinking milk and help to ensure your child is eating enough dairy.
Non-dairy protein - meat, fish, eggs, beans
Meat, fish, eggs and pulses are a fantastic source of protein and iron - both of which are essential for growth and development.
Top tip - Always opt for lean meat and be sure to check that foods like chicken, pork and sausages are cooked thoroughly all the way through. Try to incorporate oily fish at least once a week.
Fats and sugars
This food group covers butter, cream, chocolate, crisps, sweets, cooking oils and sugary drinks - all of which provide lots of energy but very few nutrients.
While when children are very young (under two), the concentrated energy provided by fat is needed; as children get older they need less fat in their diets. By the time your child is five, they should be eating a low-fat diet like the one recommended for adults.
Top tip - Buy lean cuts of meat, remove the skin from poultry, grill or bake foods and use low-fat dairy produce for children over two.
The eatwell plate
What is the eatwell plate?
The eatwell plate was developed by the Department of Health (DoH) to highlight the different types of food that make up our diet, and the proportions we need to eat them in.
For adults and children over five, a diet based on the eatwell plate is important to ensure we are obtaining the nutrients needed. Children under the age of five however, need a diet that provides more fat and less fibre than the eatwell recommendations.
Based on the eatwell plate, try to ensure your child's diet is made up of:
33% bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
33% fruit and vegetables
15% milk and dairy foods
12% meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
8% foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar.
When planning and preparing meals for your child, bear the eatwell plate in mind and try to achieve the above balance of foods each day (you don't need to do it at every meal).
5 a day
What is 5 a day?
Fruit and vegetables form an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet, which is why it's so important to make sure we're getting enough of them.
The 5 a day concept is based on recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), which advise individuals to eat a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables each day to lower the risk of a range of serious health problems.
When broken down, the 400g guideline amounts to around five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
In order to get the most out of your 5 a day, your daily portions should incorporate a range of fruit and veg - as each will contain different combinations of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Virtually all fruit and vegetables count towards your 5 a day and can be consumed fresh, frozen, dried, canned or juiced.
For further information and tips on how you can get your daily fill of fruit and veg, see our 5 a day fact-sheet.
What is the ideal weight for children?
Children who are a healthy weight are usually fitter, healthier, more focused and more self-confident. They also stand a reduced risk of developing health problems later on in their lives.
If your child is a healthy weight, by encouraging them to stay active and eat well, you can help them to stay healthy as they grow.
While not appropriate or accurate in all circumstances, checking your child's BMI regularly will help you to make sure they stay within a healthy range.
Find information about BMI for children on the NHS Choices website.
Obesity in children
If your child is outside of a healthy weight range there is plenty you can do to help them become healthier.
Encouraging a more active lifestyle and a healthier diet are great places to start. See below for some tips:
- Remember you're a role model - Children learn by example, so ensure you're making a conscious effort to eat healthily and stay active so as to set a good example.
- Get active - From bike riding or skateboarding through to walking or ballet classes - there are lots of ways to encourage your child to get active. Ask them what they're interested in and see if you can find an extracurricular activity that fits the bill and gets their blood pumping.
- Portion control - When you're dishing up the dinner it can be easy to forget that children don't need as much food as adults - remember to adjust their portion size accordingly so they aren't overeating.
- Prepare healthy meals - Use the eatwell plate and 5 a day recommendations to prepare healthy and nutritious meals.
Between the ages of six and 12, children are still growing and require lots of energy for their size. If your child is below the weight range deemed as healthy, they might not be consuming enough calories.
If you're concerned that your child is underweight, take them to see your GP - who will measure and weigh them before talking to you about your child's diet. Your GP will then be able to provide nutritional advice about how you can help to bring them back up to a healthy weight.
Healthy meals for kids
Knowing about healthy foods for children is one thing, getting them to eat them is another. To avoid any meal time meltdowns, see below for some healthy meals for all the family that are tasty, quick and good value:
- Baked beans on wholemeal toast.
- Greek or natural yogurt drizzled with honey and topped with berries, granola and/or nuts.
- A breakfast smoothie made with blended canned peaches, frozen raspberries, apple juice, yogurt and a little ice.
- Tortilla breakfast wraps - fill a wholemeal tortilla with scrambled eggs, tomato and avocado.
- A boiled egg and soldiers.
- A breakfast milkshake made with a large banana, two tablespoons of malt powder, vanilla yogurt, milk and a dash of honey.
- Top a wholemeal muffin with grilled bacon (fat removed), a poached egg and a little grated cheese.
- Porridge topped with bananas and sprinkled with cinnamon.
- Top wholemeal toast with baked tomatoes and mushrooms and add a little Parmesan cheese and some mixed herbs.
- Top a wholemeal toasted bagel with apricot jam and sliced bananas.
- Fill a wholemeal pitta with homemade coleslaw and ham.
- Fill a wholemeal bagel with sliced hard boiled eggs, watercress and low-fat soft cheese.
- Top a jacket potato with chicken chunks, tomato and spring onion and drizzle over a dressing made with Greek-style natural yogurt mixed with a little pesto.
- Homemade vegetable soup with a dollop of soft cheese.
- Fill a wholemeal wrap with canned pink salmon, finely chopped cucumber, salad leaves and soft cheese. Finish with a squeeze of lemon before wrapping and chopping in half.
- Top crumpets with tomato puree, wafer thin ham and sliced tomato.
- Make an Italian pasta salad by adding tomato, mozzarella, olives and green peppers to cooked pasta.
- Fill a wholemeal wrap with low-fat soft cheese, grated cheese, avocado, grated carrot, onion and salad leaves.
- Make a Mediterranean Bento box by filling a lunch box with chopped peppers, cucumber and pitta strips. Add an accompanying pot of hummus for dipping. Olives, cherry tomatoes and tabbouleh are also great additions.
- Make a delicious roasted veg and couscous salad by chopping roasted peppers, tomatoes, onion and courgette and tossing through couscous made with chicken stock.
- For a hearty sausage and bean stew, add grilled low-fat sausages to a stew made from tinned chopped tomatoes, passata, cannellini beans, chopped potatoes, basil and mixed herbs.
- For a quick supper, serve up grilled salmon with spring onion mash and broccoli.
- For a colourful and healthy dinner, stir-fry chopped spring onions, peppers, courgette, broccoli florets and Quorn chunks with a pinch of Chinese five spice, reduced salt soy sauce and a dash of sweet chilli sauce. Serve with rice.
- Make a tasty and child friendly pasta by cooking dried pasta shapes and stirring through cooked sweet potato chunks, frozen peas, a dash of milk and natural yogurt. Serve topped with a little grated cheese.
- Serve up a cottage pie thatched with sweet potato mash.
- For quick and healthy turkey escalopes, top flattened turkey breasts with a mix of breadcrumbs, chopped chives and grated orange and lime zest (dip the turkey in egg white before coating), serve with fresh salad.
- For a healthy twist on a classic burger, blend a can of mixed beans with a tin of sweetcorn and some coriander. Add egg yolk and bread crumbs to bind, form into patties and grill. Serve in a wholemeal bun with lettuce and tomato.
- For a fishy but tasty twist on traditional tacos, cook white fish fillets of your choice before layering into tacos with chopped avocado, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and a white sauce made from plain yogurt and light mayonnaise.
- Encourage your children to get involved in making these tasty homemade fish sticks. Mix cooked flaked salmon and mackerel with mashed potato and lemon zest. Cool in the fridge before rolling into sausages, dipping into egg yolks and coating in breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven until golden and serve with veg or salad.
For more ideas, please see our separate page on lunch box ideas for kids.
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