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A child choosing between donuts and veggies.

A child choosing between donuts and veggies.
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A balanced diet

5-minute read

Simple guidelines from qualified experts make it easy to have a balanced diet and nutritious and healthy food.

The 5 food groups

The best way to eat for health is to choose a variety of foods from each of the 5 food groups every day:

  • vegetables and legumes (beans)
  • fruit
  • grains and cereals
  • lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans) tofu, nuts, seeds
  • milk, cheese, yoghurt or alternatives

Each food group has important nutrients.

The amount of each food you need will vary during your life, depending on factors such as how active you are and whether or not you are growing, pregnant, breastfeeding and more.

Vegetables and legumes (beans and peas)

Vegetables and legumes have hundreds of natural nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.

To get the most from this group:

  • choose vegetables and legumes in season
  • look for different colours:
    • greens like beans, peas and broccoli
    • red, orange or yellow vegetables like capsicums, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin
    • purple vegetables like red cabbage and eggplant
    • white vegetables like cauliflower, mushrooms and potatoes

How much?

  • 1 to 3 year-olds, 2 to 3 serves a day; 4 to 8 year-olds, 4½ serves a day
  • adults and children aged 9 and over, 5-6 serves a day
  • breastfeeding women, 7 ½ serves a day

One serve is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw.

You can include vegetables at lunch (salads, raw vegies or soups) as well as dinner. Cherry tomatoes, snow peas, green beans, red capsicum, celery or carrot sticks with hummus makes a great snack.

Fruit

Fresh fruit is a good source of vitamins and dietary fibre. It’s best to eat fresh fruit.

How much?

  • 1 to 2year-olds, ½ piece a day, 2 to 3 year-olds, 1 piece a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ pieces a day
  • adults and children over 9, 2 pieces a day

If you want to have fruit juices, do it only occasionally. Half a cup is enough. Fruit juices lack fibre and they’re not filling. Their acidity can also damage tooth enamel. Commercial fruit juices are often high in sugars.

Dried fruit also has a high sugar content. It is only suitable as an occasional extra.

Grains and cereal foods

Grain foods include rolled oats, brown rice, wholemeal and wholegrain breads, cracked wheat, barley, buckwheat and breakfast cereals like muesli.

Wholegrains have protein, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. In processed grains, some of these nutrients are lost.

How much?

  • 1 to 8 year-olds, start with 4 serves a day
  • 9 to 11 year-olds, 4-5 serves a day, 12 to 13 year-olds, 5-6 serves; 14 to 18 year-olds, 7 or more serves
  • adults, 3 to 6 serves a day depending on age and sex
  • pregnant women 8 ½ serves a day; breastfeeding women 9 serves a day

A serve is equivalent to:

  • 1 slice of bread, or
  • ½ cup cooked rice, oats, pasta or other grain, or 3 rye crispbread, or
  • 30g of breakfast cereal (⅔ cup flakes or ¼ cup muesli)

Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans) tofu, nuts and seeds

These foods provide protein, minerals and vitamins. Legumes, nuts and seeds also have dietary fibre. It’s good to choose a variety of foods from this group.

How much?

  • 1 to 3 year-olds, 1 serve a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ serves a day
  • 9-18 year-olds, 2½ serves a day
  • women, 2-2½ serves; men, 2½ to 3 serves a day
  • pregnant women 3 ½ serves a day; breastfeeding women 2 ½ serves a day

A serve is 65g cooked red meat, or 80g poultry, or 100g fish, or 2 eggs, or 1 cup legumes, or 170g tofu, or 30g nuts, seeds or pastes (peanut butter or tahini).

It’s recommended to have no more than 7 serves of lean read meat a week.

Milk, cheeses, yoghurts

Milk gives you protein, vitamins and calcium. Soy drinks with added calcium can be used as a milk substitute for children over 1.

Some nut or oat milks have added calcium but they lack vitamin B12 and enough protein. Check your child’s total diet with a doctor or qualified dietician before using them.

Children should have full-cream milk until aged 2. Reduced-fat varieties may be suitable after that.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on introducing allergy foods to babies and children.

How much?

  • 1 to 3 year-olds, 1 to 1½ serves a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ serves to 2 serves a day
  • 9 to 18 year olds, 2½ to 3½ serves a day
  • men, 2½ to 3½ serves a day, women 19-50, 2½ serves a day; women over 51, 4 serves a day
  • pregnant and breastfeeding women, 2 ½ serves a day

A serve is 1 cup of milk, or 2 slices of cheese, or 200g yoghurt.

If you use plant-based alternatives to milk, like soy milk, check that they have at least 100mg calcium per 100 mL.

Drinks

Apart from milk, the ideal drink for children is tap water.

Discretionary choices

Foods that are not included in the 5 food groups are called ‘discretionary choices’ or ‘extras’. Some of it could be called junk food.

You can eat small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads. These may be from olives, soybeans, corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, sesame or grapeseeds.

Other ‘discretionary choices’ are not needed in a healthy diet. This includes:

  • biscuits
  • cakes
  • ice cream
  • ice blocks
  • soft drinks
  • cordials, sports, fruit and energy drinks
  • lollies and chocolates
  • processed meats
  • potato crisps
  • savoury snack foods
  • commercial burgers
  • hot chips
  • fried foods
  • alcohol

These foods and drinks often provide excess energy, saturated fat, sugar or salt. They are often described as ‘energy-rich but nutrient-poor’.

They also often replace healthier foods in the diet.

In Australia about 40% of children’s food energy come from discretionary foods. This is too high for their good health.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020


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