Healthy eating for kids
Encouraging children to eat a nutritious, balanced diet early on is important for a number of reasons. Ensuring they get the right vitamins and minerals in their diet will help them grow and develop optimally. They are also more likely to be energised and motivated, supporting their ability to learn. Educating them on healthy eating during childhood will also help them make healthier choices as they become adults.
Despite the obvious benefits, we recognise that there can be challenges when it comes to healthy eating for kids. We recently surveyed 1,000 parents to find out what sort of challenges they face. The results included fussy eaters, cost of healthy food, as well as convenience and time restraints.
On this page, we will look at what healthy eating for kids means in practice, what your child needs and how to encourage fussy eaters to eat a more varied diet.
What does healthy eating mean for your child?
The term ‘healthy eating’ is very broad and encompasses a range of areas, including the following:
- enjoying a varied diet
- having a healthy relationship with food
- following the Eatwell Guide
- encouraging appropriate portion sizes
As we will explore, healthy eating is not necessarily the same as ‘eating healthily’. It does not just relate to eating a balanced diet at appropriate portion sizes, but the idea extends to the way we feel about food. This can be just as important as the food we are consuming.
Enjoying a varied diet
All foods contain different nutrients, vitamins and minerals. In order to get all the nutrients they need, it is important for children to have a varied diet containing lots of different foods. Aim for three balanced meals a day and up to two healthy snacks. Use different protein sources in each meal and different varieties of vegetables.
For further guidance, visit our balanced diet fact sheet.
As well as a variety of ingredients, it can be beneficial to introduce children to a variety of cuisines. The same ingredient can taste very different depending on the way it is prepared and what other ingredients accompany it. This can be an exciting way for children to learn about other cultures, as well as teaching them the importance of trying different foods before deciding what they do or don’t like.
Having a healthy relationship with food
Ensuring children have a healthy relationship with food will establish a positive attitude to eating in the long-run. Try to teach them about food and nutrition (for example where their food comes from) and get them cooking early on.
As parents, you are their role model so it is really important that you eat well because then you will have more chance of encouraging them to follow suit.
- Alex Gear DIP NT. CNM mBANT, CNHC discusses how to establish healthy eating habits for children.
Very often, we pass on the way we feel about food to our children. So, to encourage healthy habits in children, it is first important that you have a healthy relationship with food yourself.
Following the Eatwell Guide
Getting the right amount of food groups in their diet promotes health and well-being. The Eatwell Guide is a helpful starting point.
The following video from the British Nutrition Foundation provides more information about the Eatwell Guide, including how to implement it for children.
Encouraging appropriate portion sizes
Get used to dishing up ‘me-sized plates’ instead of adult-sized plates as this can encourage overeating. It might be a habit that was encouraged when you were a child but try to avoid forcing your child to clear their plate if they are not hungry.
Every family is different and children will naturally differ in what they require nutritionally depending on age, weight and height. If you are concerned your child isn’t getting a fully rounded diet, you may benefit from professional support.
You can seek tailored advice from a nutrition professional who will look at your child’s diet and suggest helpful tweaks to help them get all the nutrients they need. They can also offer advice for fussy eaters and those with specific health concerns.
Food groups - what does my child need?
There are several food groups and it’s important that your child gets the right amounts of each in their diet. Below we outline what the Eatwell Guide recommends.
Fruit and veg
You should look to include at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Portion sizes will differ depending on age, size and physical activity. As a rough guide, a portion of fruit and veg should be the size of your child’s palm.
In our Loveable Lunchboxes survey, we found that 20% didn’t include fruit in their child’s lunchbox and 41% didn’t include veg. If you’re struggling to get enough fruit and veg in your family’s diet, please see our 5 a day page for ideas.
Children should have a source of carbohydrate within every meal. Where possible, choose whole grain varieties as these provide more fibre and nutrients. They also provide slow energy release which will keep children fuller and more energised for longer.
Protein is always important but is even more so during childhood. Protein encourages healthy bones, growth and brain development. You can get protein from animal products like lean meat, fish, milk, eggs, yoghurt and cheese. These contain all 9 essential amino acids. You can also get protein from plant-based foods like beans and pulses. Aim to include two portions of fish a week (one portion being oily, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines), which can be fresh, frozen or canned.
Dairy products like cheese, milk and yoghurt give children a great deal of nourishment. They provide calcium, vitamins A and B12 as well as being a source of protein. If possible, avoid too many flavoured yoghurts as these can be high in sugar - opt for natural or Greek varieties instead.
Fat and sugar
Fats are important for children, but in moderation. The beneficial fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and can be found in nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish. Some of the saturated fats found in pastries, animal fats and baked goods are often poor quality and come alongside sugar and salt. These types of foods should be kept as occasional treats. Too much sugar disrupts children’s energy levels, damages teeth and can lead to weight gain.
As adults, we shouldn’t exceed 6 grams a day; children should have even less. As a general guide, kids aged 4-11 should have between 3-6 grams a day. Start looking at food labels and keep in mind that many pre-packaged foods contain lots of salt.
Between meals, the best drinks to opt for are milk and water as these are kind to teeth. Drinks containing sugar (fruit juice, squash, carbonated drinks etc.) should be enjoyed as an occasional treat and with meals to limit damage to teeth.
Reference Intakes (RIs) explained
From our survey, we found that 57% of parents did not know the Reference Intakes (RIs) for their children. RIs are another term for Recommended Daily Amounts (RDAs). As everyone differs in their nutritional needs, RIs are used to give a general guideline as to what the average person needs.
These should not be considered targets, but guidelines. If your child is more active for example, they may need more food and nutrients.
Healthy snacks for kids
Including nutritious snacks is important to help keep your child’s energy levels consistent and their appetite satisfied! Below are some sweet and savoury options recommended by Samantha Paget DipION FdSc CNHC, founder of Paget Nutrition:
- slices of fruit with unsweetened nut butter
- natural yoghurt with mango or papaya
- Nakd bars
- unsweetened oatcakes with hummus or unsweetened nut butter
- vegetable crisps with hummus
- raw vegetables (broccoli, carrots, peppers and sugar snap peas) with homemade guacamole
How to help fussy eaters
If your child is a picky eater, it can be difficult to know how to keep their meals healthy, balanced and nutritious. One thing to bear in mind, although it can be really hard, is that it doesn’t often last forever.
Most toddlers go through a fussy stage with their eating. However, it’s a whole different ball game when your eight-year-old-plus child still only eats a handful of foods. Most parents in this situation have tried a million strategies to get their child to eat but find that nothing seems to make any difference. All that happens is everyone gets more and more stressed and relationships start to be impacted.
- Dr Stephanie Fade PhD Dietitian explores three key reasons why children struggle to cope with new foods and what can be done to combat this.
If your child is a fussy eater, getting them involved with the process can help. Ask them to choose what goes into their lunchbox and then let them help you prepare it. Rewarding them when they try something new can also help to encourage them to be more adventurous. Why not make a food reward chart, where they receive a gold star every time they try a new food?
Sometimes it is the amount of food that can be daunting. Children like to feel the food, so preparing snacks that are quite ‘hands on’ may encourage them further. Perhaps look to downsize the main meal and increase the number of snacks they have.
It is common for children to stick to what they know - if they like two types of food, it is likely they will ask for that every day. But don’t eliminate it completely, try to incorporate it with other foods in their meal. For more inspiration, please see our lunchbox ideas page.
All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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