Healthy eating: What young children need
Got a child of five or under? Find out everything they need for a healthy, balanced diet that meets all of their needs.
As a parent, the nutritional needs of your baby or toddler are obviously a priority, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of differing information out there. The food a child eats in their early years can influence their dietary habits later in life, so it’s important to instil good habits and a healthy relationship with food from an early age. Once your child is eating solid foods, you’re likely to find that some of the meals you so lovingly created are rejected. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal, but it is wise to try to get into a good routine as soon as possible.
Ensure your child’s nutrient requirements are met by aiming for three balanced meals a day, each containing something a food from each food group with up to two healthy snacks. Get into the habit of trying different types of protein with each meal and a couple of different vegetables.
Babies and milk
In the first six months, babies receive all their nutritional requirements from a milk-based diet. Infant formula is the only alternative to breastfeeding for feeding babies below six months of age. Cow’s milk is not recommended as a main drink for infants until 12 months of age. However, from six months, children enter the stage of transitional feeding, and progress from a milk only diet towards a varied, balanced diet of complementary foods from the four main food groups. The food groups that make up this balanced diet are protein foods like fish, meat and eggs, starchy foods supplying carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables and milk and dairy foods.
For more information, read our guide to everything you need to know about weaning.
Why protein is important
Proteins are essential for a number of important functions including growth, brain development and healthy bones. Of the 20 amino acids – or building blocks that make proteins, children need to get 9 ‘essential amino acids’ from their food.
How to get protein into your child's diet
Animal proteins such as lean meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese contain all 9 essential amino acids and are considered the most important for growth. Plant proteins such as beans and pulses are incomplete proteins and need to be combined to achieve the full spectrum of amino acids. Aim to include fish twice a week, with one being an oily variety like salmon, trout or mackerel. Fresh, frozen or canned are fine but remember smoked and canned products tend to be higher in salt.
- Baked dippy eggs
- Cooking with kids: Fajitas
- Cheeky chicken satay
- Homemade fish fingers
- Salmon nuggets with sweet potato chips
- From-the-fridge omelette
Starchy foods supplying carbohydrates
Children need a source of carbohydrate in each meal. However, young children under 13 months may struggle to digest wholegrain varieties, and too much fibre can fill them up too quickly and compromise their appetite and their absorption of important minerals such as calcium and iron.
How to get carbohydrates into your child's diet
Beyond 13 months children can usually tuck into wholegrain breads, muesli and pasta. Some children manage this better than others, so it’s just a matter of seeing how your child responds. Whole nuts and seeds are good sources of fibre as well as important healthy fats, however, they should be avoided until your child is 5 years old or over because of the risk of choking.
- Wholemeal flatbreads
- Bread in four easy steps
- Squished tomato pasta sauce
- Ten-minute pasta
Fruit and vegetables
Aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for children. The poriton size depends on their age, size and physical activity – so there are no set rules. An easy guide is that a portion of fruit or veg is the amount that fits in the palm of your child's hand. Easy tips for keeping on track could be as simple as keeping a bag of frozen vegetables in the freezer or chopping up a piece of fresh fruit for dessert.
How to get fruit & vegetables into your child's diet
- Frozen fruit sticks with lime drizzle
- More veg, less meat summer Bolognese
- Chargrilled veg hummus with dippers
- Easy beef stew with sweet potato topping
- Pumpkin & bean spaghetti
Milk and dairy foods
Children gain a lot of nourishment from dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese. These foods can provide the body with easily absorbed calcium as well as vitamins A and B12, protein and other vitamins and minerals.
How to get dairy and calium into your child's diet
Choose full-fat milk for children under two as it is important for growth and the absorption of essential vitamins and they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat milks. From two years you can make the switch from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk, provided your child is eating a wide variety of foods and is gaining weight normally. Lower fat versions of milk and dairy foods contain just as much calcium as their higher fat counterparts. Calcium is an essential nutrient for all children to develop strong bones and teeth. Processed yogurts are often packed with sugar, colourings and sweeteners – so steer clear of the flavoured ones. Instead, choose natural yogurt and add your own natural flavourings such as fruit compote, stewed fruit or fresh fruit, such as grated pear.
Remember, babies under a year old should not be given condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried milk or any other drinks referred to as milk, such as rice, oat or almond drinks. Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk for the first 12 months of a baby's life.
- Apricot yogurt fool
- Roasted tomato & cheddar rice with garden salad
- Cheese & fruit sticks
- Cheesy corn cakes
What about fats and sugar?
While children need some fat to grow and develop, too much of any sort of fat is not recommended. Butter, spreads and oils contribute to the taste, texture and enjoyment of food. They are important as concentrated sources of energy for young children who are growing rapidly and are physically very active. Fats are also needed to aid the absorption of certain vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. There are some fats which are essential in your child's diet for a healthy immune system and for normal brain function. These omega-3 fats are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils.
Soft drinks, sweets, confectionery, biscuits, sugary pastries and desserts are high in added sugars and often poor quality fats, as well as salt. Children under five should only eat these foods once in a while, for example, on special occasions. The over consumption of snack foods high in added sugar, fats and salt is recognised as one of the major contributing factors to high rates of obesity.
Healthier sweet treats:
- Sugar-free banana cake
- Guava & passion fruit lollies
- The ultimate makeover: Blueberry muffins
The best breakfast for your child
When buying processed cereals read the labels carefully as they are seldom as healthy as they seem. Many contain higher levels of sugar and salt than is recommended per serving. It’s best to choose an unsweetened, simple oat or wholewheat-based cereal and add fruit such as a chopped banana or a small handful of raisins to make it sweet and to add a nutritious-boost.
If you have time to make a more substantial breakfast, there are a lot of healthy benefits from including protein such as an egg, beans or a natural yogurt. Protein will sustain your child's appetite through the morning and will help their concentration levels at school.
Some substantial breakfast ideas:
- Wholewheat flatbreads with beans & poached egg
- Veggie breakfast bakes
- Blueberry & lemon pancakes
Super snacks and smoothies
Proper snacks (not constant grazing) are important to keep your child's appetite satisfied. The more you can help guide your child when they are hungry, the better able they will be to judge how much food they should be eating as they grow older. When children ask for food, check that they're not actually thirsty, as the two are sometimes confused.
- Dried fruit – such as figs and raisins are good snacks when children want a sweet treat
- Raw vegetables such as carrot, cucumber, celery, cherry tomatoes etc. Serve with a little pot of hummus, bean dip, guacamole, tzatiki of some soft cheese
- Chunks of cheese with crackers
- Wholemeal bread or oat cakes with wafer thin ham, cream cheese or nut butter
- Homemade soup with fingers of toast
- Smashed bean dip
- Cheese & marmite scones
- Pea hummus
Smoothies and juices can be a great way to get children to top up your child's vitamin C and folate intake – both are important vitamins for the function of the immune system, energy production and for preventing anaemia. The natural sugar in fruit (fructose) can be better for children (and their teeth) than sugar laden packaged/canned drinks. But this doesn’t mean that children can drink an unlimited amount of these drinks. Some smoothies and juices contain a lot of fructose and this can result in a ‘sugar high’ which can aggravate mood and energy levels. Water should be the main source of your child's liquid intake and one small glass of fresh fruit juice per day is enough. Don't forget to always dilute fruit juice with a splash of water.
This article was last reviewed on 6 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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