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Healthy eating for children

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Healthy eating in childhood reduces your child’s chance of developing health problems as they get older.
  • A healthy, balanced diet includes foods from all 5 food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy.
  • Foods high in sugar, saturated fat and salt aren’t necessary for a healthy diet and should be limited.
  • Cooking and eating healthy foods together as a family can help your child develop healthy eating habits for life.
  • If your child has specific dietary needs or restrictions, your doctor or dietician can help you make sure their diet is healthy and balanced.

What is healthy eating?

Healthy eating is essential for your child's good health, growth and development. Healthy eating in childhood means they will have less chance of developing chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers. It will also mean they feel better and enjoy life more.

To stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight, children need to be physically active and eat the right amount of nutrients to balance the energy they use.

The Australian dietary guidelines recommend children should enjoy a wide variety of foods from these 5 food groups:

  • fruit
  • vegetables, legumes and beans
  • grain (cereal) foods, including breads, rice, pasta and noodles, mostly wholegrain or high cereal fibre types
  • lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives
  • milks, yoghurts, cheeses or alternatives — children under 2 should have full-fat milk, but older children and adolescents should choose mostly reduced-fat varieties
illustration of food groups
Healthy eating from the 5 food groups (above) is essential for all children.

Children should limit their intake of foods that contain saturated fat, added salt or added sugar. They should also be encouraged to choose water to drink.

How much food does my child need?

Children need to eat more as they grow. As a guide, your child should eat these foods every day:

  • 2 to 3 years: 1 serve of fruit; 2½ serves of vegetables; 4 serves of grains; 1 serve of meat/poultry; 1½ serves of dairy
  • 4 to 8 years: 1½ serves of fruit; 4½ serves of vegetables; 4 serves of grains; 1 ½ serves of meat/poultry; 1½ to 2 serves of dairy
  • 9 to 11 years: 2 serves of fruit; 5 serves of vegetables; 4 to 5 serves of grains; 2½ serves of meat/poultry; 2½ to 3 serves of dairy
  • 12 to 13 years: 2 serves of fruit; 5 to 5 ½ serves of vegetables; 5 to 6 serves of grains; 2 ½ serves meat/poultry; 3 ½ serves dairy

How can I encourage healthy eating habits?

Teaching your child how to eat healthily now means they will be more likely to make their own healthy choices as they get older. Here are some tips to encourage healthy eating habits:

  • Sit together as a family at mealtimes, without any screens.
  • Make healthy foods fun, for example by cutting fruit or sandwiches into interesting shapes.
  • Serve a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
  • Learn together about how different foods are grown.
  • Let your children help with food shopping and preparation.
  • Try new foods and recipes.
  • Limit the amount of junk food you keep in the house.
  • Keep a bowl of fruit handy for snacks.

Which foods should I limit in my child’s diet?

Some foods are not essential in children's diets. These are called 'discretionary foods' and are generally high in kilojoules, saturated fat, added sugars or added salt.

While it’s okay to eat small amounts of discretionary foods occasionally as part of a balanced diet, you should try to limit these foods in your child’s daily diet. Eating large amounts of discretionary foods can lead to children becoming overweight or developing diseases in later life.

Examples of foods to limit are:

  • sweet biscuits, cakes and desserts
  • processed meats and sausages
  • ice-cream, confectionery and chocolate
  • store-bought burgers, pizza, hot chips, and fried foods
  • crisps and other fatty and/or salty snacks
  • cream and butter
  • sugar-sweetened cordials and soft drinks

Here are some tips to help you limit foods for children:

  • Instead of using a lot of butter, cooking margarine, cream or coconut or palm oil, choose vegetable oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado.
  • Read labels and always choose low-salt options.
  • Don't add salt to foods during cooking or at the table.
  • Offer water rather than sugary soft drinks, cordial, energy drinks or sports drinks.

What if my child is intolerant or allergic to certain foods?

It may be more difficult to eat a wide variety of healthy foods if your child is allergic or intolerant to certain foods, such as lactose in dairy products. Your doctor or dietitian can advise you about how to manage food allergies or intolerances while maintaining a healthy diet.

Who can I talk to for advice and support?

Visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website for a healthy eating guide for kids to help you make the right choices.

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

Last reviewed: May 2022

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