Healthy living

Food for kids

The right start to healthy eating for pre-primary and primary school children.

Things are changing

When your child starts pre-school and primary school you will notice plenty of changes, including the foods he or she wants to eat.

No longer is it just the family who decides which foods will be served. There are many new influences on their food choices. Schools will teach new skills in preparing and choosing foods. Other children will give your child ideas about foods to try. Messages from TV and food companies marketing to children play a big part in setting trends and promoting particular foods.

You might not always be happy about some of these influences, but children can learn to make healthy food and lifestyle choices with your help.

Experts say…

The world is beginning to open up for children as they start their school life. They learn quickly and there are many influences extending beyond the home environment. Physically, children continue to grow steadily. They need a wide variety of nutritious foods, and to be given plenty of opportunities to be physically active.

Foods children need

Regular meals and a wide variety of different foods will ensure that they have the nutrients needed to grow and develop. Appetites will vary along with their activity, and this influences how much your child will eat.

Breakfast is an important meal if children are to be alert and able to concentrate in school.

Snacks at morning recess and after school are usually needed by busy, active children.

School lunches need to be appetising, nutritious and convenient to eat. Some schools have canteens but your child will probably need some help in choosing a healthy and satisfying lunch. If you are not happy with the choice of foods on the menu you can talk to the school about some healthy alternatives.

Family evening meals are important times for talking and sharing the day’s news and activities. Plan to have meals together without TV or telephone interruptions.

Water and milk are the best drinks for children. Fluids are important for children throughout the day. Thirsty or dehydrated children cannot maintain concentration and activity.

Best food choices for school aged children
  • The early school years are a time of rapid learning and slow and steady physical growth.
  • Children need a variety of foods to meet their nutrient needs. As body size increases so does the amount of food needed.
  • When children are very active they have higher energy (kilojoule) needs. Appetites usually increase to meet these needs.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (external site) will help you select the type of foods to make the best choices for your child.

Amounts are suggested for children aged 4 to 8 and 9 to 11, but remember the amounts your child eats will vary depending on their appetite, activity levels, individual needs, and body size as they are growing.

Healthy food children will love

Tempt your kids with these healthy foods:

  • Frozen fruit, such as grapes, banana, pear or rockmelon, make healthy iced snacks, perfect in hot weather.
  • Blend fruit such as strawberries, banana or mango with milk and a spoon of low-fat yoghurt to make a delicious fruit smoothie.
  • Toast bread, muffins or fruit bread topped with ricotta cheese and slices of banana, dust lightly with cinnamon.
  • Cut vegies into bite-sized pieces and serve in a small container so that children can help themselves.
  • Children prefer vegies raw or lightly cooked as in a stir-fry.
  • Add chopped tomato and green capsicum to a can of baked beans. Use as a ‘topper’ on toast or muffins, or a ‘filler’ for baked potatoes or jaffles. Sprinkle with a little grated low-fat cheese.
  • Scrambled vegetables make a great breakfast or tasty snack. Simply add lightly cooked vegetables – leftovers are fine – to lightly beaten eggs. Melt a little polyunsaturated margarine in a pan, add mixture and cook gently over low heat until eggs are firm. Season with pepper and serve on toast.

Tips for school lunches

  • Keep school lunches cool, fresh and safe to eat by using a cool bag or placing a bottle of frozen water in the lunch box
  • Instead of the same old sandwiches you can expand the variety to include:
    • salads
    • wraps using pita bread or tortillas
    • dips with rolls and cut up vegies.
What drinks are best?

Milk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals

Milk is an important drink for children as it provides calcium needed for their growing bones and teeth. One and a half to 2 serves of diary foods each day are recommended for children 4 to 8. Two and a half to 3 serves of dairy foods each day are recommended for children 9 to 11. If your child does not drink milk, make sure they have yoghurt or cheese. Calcium fortified soy milk is also suitable.

Encourage your child to drink plain water when thirsty

Sweet drinks such as cordials, soft drinks and fruit juice are not recommended and should be limited as:

  • they are all high in sugar and children who have a sugary diet run the risk of tooth decay
  • the extra kilojoules may contribute to unhealthy weight
  • filling up on sweet drinks takes away the appetite for more nutritious foods.

Artificially sweetened drinks are not suitable for children

Fruit juice contains many important vitamins but it lacks the fibre needed to prevent constipation. Limit intake to 125 mL per day. A piece of fresh fruit every day is better for your child than fruit juice.

Got off to a bad start?

Is your child already used to sweet drinks? Start now and break the habit.

  • Be prepared for upsets.
  • Be patient – it may take time.
  • Try watering down the drinks.
  • Ration sweet drinks to once a day only.
  • Don’t buy these drinks.
  • Don’t drink them yourself.
Recommended food for children 4 to 8 years
Table: Recommended daily food serves for children 4 to 8
Food group Daily serves 1 serve is…
Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles

4

  • 1 slice (40 g) of bread
  • half a medium bread roll
  • half a cup (90 g) cooked rice, pasta, noodles
  • half a cup cooked porridge
  • two thirds of a cup (30 g) breakfast cereal flakes
  • one quarter of a cup (65 g) muesli
Vegetables, legumes

4 ½

  • half a cup (75 g) cooked vegetables
  • half a cup (75 g) cooked or canned beans, lentils, chick peas or split peas
  • 1 cup salad vegetables
  • 1 small or half a medium potato
  • 1 medium tomato
Fruit

1 ½

  • 1 medium (150 g) piece, for example apple, banana, orange, pear
  • 2 small (150 g) pieces, for example apricots, kiwi fruit, plums
  • 1 cup diced pieces or canned fruit
  • half a cup (125 mL) 100% juice (no added sugar)
  • dried fruit, for example 4 dried apricot halves, one and a half tablespoons of sultanas
Milk, yoghurt, cheese

1 ½ – 2

  • 1 cup (250 mL) milk
  • half a cup evaporated milk
  • 2 slices (40 g) cheese
  • 1 small carton (three quarters of a cup or 200 g) yoghurt
  • 1 cup (250 mL) soy, rice or other cereal drink with at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml
Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes

  • 65 g cooked lean meat or chicken, for example half a cup of mince, 2 small chops, 2 slices of roast
  • 1 cup (150 g) cooked or canned beans, lentils, chick peas or split peas
  • 100 g cooked fish fillet
  • 2 large eggs
  • 30 g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter or tahini or other nut or seed paste
Additional serves or discretionary choices.
These ‘extra’ foods should only be eaten sometimes or in small amounts.

Limit these extra foods

  • Some foods do not fit into the 5 food groups. They contain too much fat, sugar and/or salt and very few essential nutrients. It is recommended that children are not given these foods (or very occasionally only) as they replace other foods and the essential nutrients needed for growth and development.
  • These foods include chocolate, sweet biscuits, hot chips and icecream.
Recommended food for Children 9 to 11 years
Table: Recommended daily food serves for children 9 to 11
Food group Daily serves 1 serve is…
Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles

4 – 5

  • 1 slice (40 g) of bread
  • half a medium bread roll
  • half a cup (90 g) cooked rice, pasta, noodles
  • half a cup cooked porridge
  • two thirds of a cup (30 g) breakfast cereal flakes
  • one quarter of a cup (65 g) muesli
Vegetables, legumes

5

  • half a cup (75 g) cooked vegetables
  • half a cup (75 g) cooked or canned beans, lentils, chick peas or split peas
  • 1 cup salad vegetables
  • 1 small or half a medium potato
  • 1 medium tomato
Fruit

2

  • 1 medium (150 g) piece, for example apple, banana, orange, pear
  • 2 small (150 g) pieces, for example apricots, kiwi fruit, plums
  • 1 cup diced pieces or canned fruit
  • half a cup (125 mL) 100% juice (no added sugar)
  • dried fruit, for example 4 dried apricot halves, one and half tablespoons sultanas
Milk, yoghurt, cheese

2 ½ – 3

  • 1 cup (250 mL) milk
  • half a cup evaporated milk
  • 2 slices (40 g) cheese
  • 1 small carton (three quarters of a cup or 200 g) yoghurt
  • 1 cup (250 mL) soy, rice or other cereal drink with at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml
Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes

 2 ½

  • 65 g cooked lean meat or chicken, for example half a cup mince, 2 small chops, 2 slices of roast
  • 1 cup (150 g) cooked or canned beans, lentils, chick peas or split peas
  • 100 g cooked fish fillet
  • 2 large eggs
  • 30 g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter or tahini or other nut or seed paste
Additional serves or discretionary choices.
These ‘extra’ foods should only be eaten sometimes or in small amounts.

Limit these extra foods

  • Some foods do not fit into the 5 food groups. They contain too much fat, sugar and/or salt and very few essential nutrients. It is recommended that children are not given these foods (or very occasionally only) as they replace other foods and the essential nutrients needed for growth and development.
  • These foods include chocolate, sweet biscuits, hot chips and icecream.
10 top tips for feeding school aged children

Follow these tips and encourage your kids to eat healthy.

  1. Give your children a variety of different foods at all meals and snacks.
  2. Snacks are important. Offer nutritious foods like bread, crackers, cheese, yoghurt and fruit.
  3. Provide breakfast and allow time for your children to eat it.
  4. Eat together as a family at least once a day.
  5. Pack your child’s lunch from home. Involve your child in the selection and preparation from a range of healthy options.
  6. Don’t make a fuss when your child refuses a new food, but try again several times.
  7. Let your child tell you when they are full.
  8. Encourage children to drink plain water when they are thirsty.
  9. Involve children with planning and preparing healthy meals.
  10. Plan physical activities for all the family to encourage a healthy balance between food eaten and energy needs.
What to do if you your child...

Won’t eat the evening meal

It’s not unusual for busy children to eat very little at the evening meal. Make sure after school snacks are nutritious and varied. Try a sandwich and drink of milk or even a bowl of soup and toast. Then just offer a small serve of the family meal. Let your child tell you when they are full. Don’t argue and force them to finish the food on the plate.

Is a fussy eater

Offer words of encouragement but don’t force your child to eat. Try not to fuss if your child refuses to eat a particular food. Just keep offering that food at other times. Some children need to see a new food 10 to 15 times before they will try it. Seeing others enjoy the food will help. Offer new foods with other foods you know your child likes.

Asks for treats like lollies, chips and take-away foods

Peer pressure and food marketing urging children to try all sorts of foods can be very strong. Most are not the type of food you want your child to eat everyday. Many of these foods replace other nutritious foods. They are high in energy (kilojoules), which can lead to your child becoming overweight if eaten regularly, and they are costly. Let your child try these foods occasionally as a special treat, sharing them with all the family. Treats are not needed in the lunchbox everyday. 

Seems to be gaining too much weight

Limiting the amount of time spent in front of the TV or computer is a proven start to a healthy weight. Encourage your child to do something active – play games or sports, walk to school if possible, or take the dog for a walk. It’s best if the family joins in some of these physical activities every day.

Attention to diet is also important. Limit extra or treat foods that are high in fat and sugar. Reduce usual portion sizes a little.

Weight loss diets are not suitable for children unless carefully supervised by a doctor or dietitian. Foods eaten must be balanced with growth and development needs and daily activity requirements. If you are worried about your child’s weight you might want to talk to your family doctor.

Where to get help

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book.
  • Look in the phone directory under child health centres.
  • Visit your nearest child health centre.

Local family doctor

Dietitians Association of Australia

Meerilinga

Raising Children Network

Remember

  • Children need to eat from each of the five different food groups in the recommended amounts.

Acknowledgements
Child and Adolescent Health Service

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

See also

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