Healthy family meal planning

It can often be difficult to find nutritious family meals that children will also eat without a fuss. Ensuring children eat healthy meals that provide the right nutrients will help:

  • improve mental health and wellbeing
  • improve academic performance
  • provide long-lasting energy
  • improve emotional and social connections at school
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • enhance concentration and memory
  • reduce the risk of chronic disease development.

Meal planning on a budget

Feeding a family can be difficult while trying to:

  • accommodate every member's food preferences, especially fussy toddlers
  • stay within a budget
  • provide enough food to match the increased appetites of children going through growth spurts
  • provide healthy meals
  • reducing weekly food wastage.

Creative, tasty and healthy meals can still be provided while having a food budget. Shopping within a food budget can help reduce food wastage and better plan healthy meals throughout the week. 

Consider the following tips next time you go grocery shopping or are planning meals.

Meal planning

When meal planning try to plan based on the ingredients used for one or two of the meals, rather than focusing on individual meal options for the week.  By choosing meals based on ingredients it is easier to use those ingredients in multiple meals across the week. Using this approach will:

  • allow you to buy food products, like meat, chicken, or fish in bulk leading to cost savings
  • reduce the amount of food wastage of certain products like fresh herbs or vegetables for salads
  • help repurpose perishable ingredients only needed in small quantities providing additional snacks or meals.

For example, the ingredients needed to make simple and healthy Mexican chicken burritos could include:

  • chicken 
  • wraps or tortillas
  • lettuce
  • tomato
  • cheese
  • spice mix
  • tinned corn 
  • salsa
  • natural or fat-free Greek yoghurt - instead of sour cream.

If bought in bulk some of these ingredients could be used to make additional snacks or meals with a few additional staple ingredients, including:

  • chicken salad, with additional ingredients of lemon juice and olive oil to make a dressing
  • toasted tortillas or wraps can be cut into triangles are eaten as a snack with leftover salsa
  • toasted cheese and tomato wrap
  • yoghurt, with the additional ingredients like fruit or muesli
  • overnight oats using leftover yoghurt and additional ingredients of oats and milk
  • cheese and tomato omelette using additional ingredients of egg and milk. 

If you can plan for all or part of your week before going food shopping, it is more likely that you can be creative and use all the food that is bought to make more nutritious meals for the family.  

Reducing food wastage

A third of all food in the home is wasted.  

Food wastage can be reduced, providing your family with more meals and cost savings. Planning meals, using all ingredients and knowing how to keep food fresh and safe will ensure efficiency in your food budget. 

Keeping food fresh for longer

The way food is stored can have a big impact on the freshness, quality, and time in which it remains safe to consume. For example:

  • store bagged salad greens in an airtight container
  • arrange older food items to the front of the fridge and cupboard so they are eaten first
  • wrap iceberg lettuce in paper towel and put it into a ziplock bag
  • wrap the root end of celery in paper towel and put it in an airtight container
  • leave cheese in its original package and wrap it tightly either in a cheese bag, beeswax cloth, or cling wrap
  • wash strawberries in 1 part vinegar, 3 parts water, then dry and store in an airtight container lined with paper towel
  • use produce draws where relevant to help maintain freshness.

Some reusable and sustainable fruit and vegetable bags will also help keep fruit and vegetables in the fridge fresher than if they were not placed in any bag or container.

Always consume food before the use-by date unless otherwise directed on the safety label. For more information see Food Safety.

Scrappy cooking

Many foods and certain parts of fruits and vegetables are wasted or thrown out, unnecessarily. Skins and stalks of vegetables and fruit are often discarded but they contain a beneficial nutrient called fibre. Fibre can help children have regular bowel movements, make them feel fuller for longer, and support the healthy growth of good gut bacteria.

Some ideas to reduce food wastage include:

  • Leaving the skins on vegetables, like potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and cucumbers, will increase the fibre of the meal and will reduce food wastage. Washing produce is still a good idea before preparing and cooking.
  • If the skins of some vegetables are removed, put the scraps in a ziplock bag and freeze them.  Once the bag is full boil the scraps in water and strain the liquid.  This will provide you with fresh vegetable stock that can be used for soups, sauces and other meals.
  • Stalks of broccoli, cauliflower and leeks can be chopped, boiled, pureed and used in a green sauce for pasta or a vegetable soup.
  • Foods that have been bought in bulk such as a block of cheese, can be grated or cut into smaller portions and frozen for use at a later date.
  • Excess amounts of herbs can be chopped or pureed and mixed with either oil or water. Pour the mixture into an ice cube tray and freeze them. These can be used as an addition to future cooked meals.
  • Refresh limp foods like lettuce and celery by placing them in ice water.  This will make them crisp and extend the time in which they can be eaten.

To further reduce food wastage keep the root end of foods like celery and spring onions and grow more.

Tips for cost savings

Frozen foods

Canned and frozen fruit and vegetables can be just as, or even more nutritious than fresh produce. 

Frozen vegetables are usually snap-frozen, meaning they are frozen very quickly after being picked or cooked. Freezing fruit and vegetables keeps them fresh, and maintains their nutrients, flavour, and texture. Frozen fruit and vegetables also have a longer shelf life. 

If you find certain food products are always being wasted in your household, canned or frozen fruit and vegetables may be a more convenient option. 

Cheaper cuts of meat, chicken and fish

Some cuts of meat and different types of fish tend to be cheaper.  Most of these alternatives are just as nutritious as more expensive cuts. 

To compare similar products, look at the cost per 100g or the cost per 1kg which will be located on the food label or ticket. Comparing products will help identify which foods are cheaper. 

For example:

  • a 1.1kg packet of chicken breast may cost $15.40 and an 800g packet of chicken thigh may cost $13.60 
  • If the cost per kg is compared, then it will show a packet of chicken breast costs $14 per 1 kilogram and a packet of chicken thigh costs $17 per 1 kilogram. 

Generally, there are some cheaper cuts of meat such as: 

  • chicken drumsticks or thigh cutlets
  • lamb leg roast, pork mince or beef mince
  • basa, nile perch, barramundi or ling fish.

Meat-free meals

Many recipes use meat or more expensive cuts of meat as the main protein source. Swapping these meats for a meat-free alternative is a great way to reduce the food shopping budget. Some simple swaps for meat, chicken, or fish, may include using meat alternatives such as:

  • tinned lentils in dishes like beef stroganoff, spaghetti bolognese or curries
  • tinned chickpeas in salads, curries or pasta
  • tofu in stirfry.


There are often brands of products that are regularly cheaper than other brands. It is important to shop around for the best deal but sometimes the nutritional content may vary.  

Use the label reading tool to compare similar food products. This tool will help compare the products from a nutrition perspective. If products are nutritionally similar then the cheaper option can be chosen. 

Seasonal and sale items

The cost of some foods change over certain times of the year. For fruit and vegetables, these changes occur during different seasons. Buying fruits and vegetables when they are in season will generally mean they are cheaper. When food is seasonal there is more available, when food is out of season these foods may be imported causing them to be more expensive. Frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables may be a cheaper alternative for out-of-season produce.

It is important to take a grocery list to the supermarket, this can help reduce the risk of impulse buying. Impulse buying can lead to going over your shopping budget. However, if there is a sale on staple items regularly used in the home or have a long shelf-life, buying them on sale will also reduce the overall budget in the long term.

Navigating the supermarket

Supermarket layout

Supermarkets are generally set out in a certain way. To navigate the supermarket and to make healthy food choices, try to shop around the edges. Most fresh produce and staple foods are located on the perimeter of the supermarket and include: 

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • bread
  • meats
  • dairy products
  • frozen fruit and vegetables.

Some aisles contain other staple foods like pasta,  flour, cereals, tinned fruit and vegetables. 

Product positioning

Products in a supermarket are carefully placed.  Particular items are placed at eye level or close to the counter to grab your attention first. Consider where products are placed and look around for similar products that are more nutritious and lower in cost.

Certain items are also intentionally placed at the eye level of children. This increases the likelihood of pester power, which is the ability of a child to pressure their parent or carer into buying an item. These items are more child-friendly and will appeal or be attractive to them. It is important to check if these are as nutritious as similar products.

Finding healthy foods

Finding healthy food options for children or families, from a supermarket or when eating out can be difficult. Using a food label reading tool can help for some packaged foods but it can be more difficult for other foods including:

  • cuts of meat, chicken or fish
  • pre-prepared meals such as fresh mixed salads or hot meals
  • takeaway meals
  • meals eaten at a restaurant.

Where possible try to choose healthier everyday foods in meals, such as wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and legumes. Some ways to help choose healthier foods for your child and your family include:

Healthy food in the supermarket

Look for small, healthy, fatty fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy brain development of babies and children. Certain types of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids including:

  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • canned salmon and tuna
  • herrings
  • sardines.

Swapping out red meats for these omega-3 rich fish is a great choice for overall health and development. Consuming 2-3 serves (150g) per week or 2-3 serves (75g) per week for children under 6 is recommended for the above fish.

The chemical element Mercury can often be a cause for concern in fish consumption. Mercury from most fish in Australia is not seen as a health risk though. The fish high in Omega-3s mentioned above have lower levels of mercury and are seen as health-promoting foods.

When Mercury builds up in seafood, including fish, and is consumed in large amounts, it can lead to negative health outcomes. Fish that tend to be high in mercury include:

  • shark (flake)
  • swordfish
  • barramundi
  • orange roughy.

If consuming these fish, the recommended portion size is 1 serving of 150g per week with no other fish that week or 1 serving of 75g per week (for children under 6) with no other fish that week.

If your child doesn't like fish and seafood, or has a fish, mollusc or crustacea allergy, there are other foods which are high in omega-3s.

Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are good non-animal sources of omega-3.  These can be added to yoghurt, cereal or smoothies.

Choose meats with less fat

If children eat large amounts of meat or poultry that are high in fat, including saturated fat, it can lead to gaining unhealthy amounts of weight and put them at risk of future health concerns.

Fat in meat or poultry can sometimes be seen as white parts:

  • throughout - marbled effect through steak or mince, for example, wagyu beef
  • on the outside - the rind on the steak
  • skin - chicken skin or pork belly.

Generally, the less white or visible fat means the cut of meat or chicken is leaner and healthier. Some packets of minced beef, pork or lamb may say how much fat is on the label and list it typically as:

  • 82% meat, 18% fat or regular mince
  • 90% meat, 10% fat or lean mince 
  • 95% meat, 5% fat or extra lean mince or Heart smart mince.

If lean meat or poultry is not an option there are still ways to reduce the amount of fat from meat, including:

  • cutting off visible fat before or after cooking
  • reducing the amount of oil needed for cooking as the meat has a higher fat content
  • removing the skin.

Look for reduced salt or reduced sodium options

Common foods like bread, cheese and some breakfast cereals contain salt. Children have lower salt needs than adults and do not need added salt in their diet. Some food products are labelled as reduced salt or reduced sodium, try to choose these products if available. 

Other foods are higher in sodium due to how they are processed or cooked, so where possible should be limited. This includes meat, fish or poultry that are:

  • cured - bacon
  • smoked - ham
  • in brine -  tuna in brine
  • salted - corned beef.

Rinsing vegetables or fish tinned in brine can reduce the amount of salt that is consumed.

Stick with the basics

Some of the most basic food items can also be some of the most nutritious foods. Having basic and staple food products in the home can help create a healthy foundation for other ingredients. These include:

  • eggs
  • fresh, tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables
  • wholemeal bread
  • milk or milk powder
  • tinned beans or legumes
  • tinned fish
  • oats.

Try healthy swaps

There are many ways to make small and easy food product swaps or additions to increase the nutrition in your child's diet. Some ideas include:

  • Replacing traditional corn chips with pita bread.  Cut the pita bread into triangles and either put them in the oven, air fryer or toaster until they are crisp.
  • Swapping sour cream for low-fat Greek or natural yoghurt.
  • Instead of using bacon bits or croutons in salads replace with toasted nuts or seeds for crunch and texture.
  • Add peas to avocado mash to increase the volume.
  • Use chopped-up mushrooms in spaghetti bolognese to decrease the amount of mince used and increase the vegetables.
  • Swap coconut cream or coconut milk for light-evaporated milk or light-evaporated coconut milk.

Healthy food at restaurants and cafes

Meal options for children at restaurants and cafes can be limited in choice and less nutritious. Many child menus at restaurants and cafes offer:

  • battered fish and chips
  • cheeseburgers
  • chicken nuggets
  • pizza
  • pancakes. 

Consider the following when eating out at restaurants and cafes with children:

  • order one or two dishes from the list of side options
  • ask for additions to meals from the child menu. Ask for lettuce and tomato to be added to a cheeseburger or vegetables to be added to chicken nuggets
  • share a main meal between children or with your child
  • order a small healthy entree or ask for a half portion of a main meal instead of a less nutritious meal from the child menu
  • ask for chicken nuggets to be swapped with grilled chicken if available
  • if having a dessert try to choose one that has fruit or yoghurt, or share one between the family to reduce the portion size
  • ask for salt not to be added to a child's meal, including chips.

Healthy food from takeaway outlets

Eating from takeaway outlets can be a nice occasional treat for the family. More takeaway outlets are putting healthier choices on their menu but it can still be difficult to manage healthy options with children.

Kilojoule labelling scheme

Australia has introduced a kilojoules (kJ) labelling scheme to make choosing healthy foods from restaurants and cafes easier. This scheme requires the amount of kilojoules (kJ) in a food or drink to be included on menus, food labels or price tickets. On average, consumers purchased and consumed 15% less kJ per meal when at outlets with the Kilojoule labelling scheme. 

Certain franchises must follow this scheme, including:

  • traditional fast food chains
  • café and coffee chains
  • bakery chains
  • snack food chains
  • juice bars
  • ice-cream chains
  • salad chains.

A kilojoule (kJ) is a measure of how much energy is in food. Calories (Cal) are also a measure of how much energy is in food, however kilojoules are used more often in Australia. 1 calorie is equal to 4.2 kilojoules.

The amount of energy a baby, child or teenager needs daily depends on many things including their age, weight and birth gender. Energy requirements for children are estimates and may change on whether the child is going through a growth spurt. Knowing the estimated energy requirements of a child can help to choose suitable meals and foods when eating out and a food label is not available.  

Tips for ordering

If ordering from takeaway outlets for children, try:

  • offering two or three healthy options from the menu that your child can choose rather than from the whole menu
  • avoiding upgrading the meal, ordering a burger without chips and a soft drink or choosing a healthier side dish with water
  • swapping soft drinks, sugary drinks or milkshakes for water
  • choosing grilled, baked, steamed or braised dishes
  • choosing options that contain more vegetables like salads, rice paper rolls, baked stuffed vegetables
  • limiting beige or white-coloured foods like creamy pasta, fried chicken, pizza, battered fish and chips, and cheeseburgers.

If choosing a pizza, try order thin crust, choose a variety with lots of vegetables, share with the family and add a side salad.

Understanding food labels

It can be difficult to know what to look for when reading food packaging in the supermarket. Some claims on packets are regulated and some are marketing tactics, making it difficult to make healthy food choices. 

In Australia, packaged foods must follow certain labelling laws. This includes packaged foods having a Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), an ingredients list and allergen warnings.  These food labels help:

  • compare similar food products, making it easy to choose healthier options
  • identify what is in the product
  • identify if a food contains an allergen which may cause an allergic reaction.

How to understand food labels

How to understand food labels

Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)

It is important to always compare similar products, for example, one brand of yoghurt to a different brand of yoghurt.

When comparing similar packaged foods: 

  • use the per 100g column to compare the different products as serving sizes can differ between brands
  • find foods with less than 10g of total fat per 100g 
  • find foods with less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g 
  • find foods with less than 15g of total sugar per 100g 
  • choose low-sodium options, foods less than 400mg are good, and less than 250mg are better.

When looking at total fat content, oil, cheese, nuts and seeds are an exception as they are generally higher in fat but can contain healthy fats too. Look for cheese that has less than 15g of total fat per 100g or the lowest amount of total fat, saturated fat and sodium. When choosing nuts, choose unsalted options and limit nuts that have been caramelised or honey-coated.

When looking at total fat for milk products including yoghurt, ice cream and milk, aim for less than 2g of total fat per 100g.

Not all products include fibre in the NIP. Food products with more than 3g of fibre per serve are generally a healthier choice. This is usually the only exception to using the per 100g column to compare products.

Food packaging labels

Ingredients lists

Ingredients have to be listed by the weight of the ingredient in the food, from most to least. Check the ingredients list for foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, especially within the first three ingredients.

Foods like cereal or yoghurt may contain fruit or dried fruit. When looking at the ingredient list, if fruit is listed before any added sugar, it is a healthier choice than if sugar is listed before fruit.

Ingredient lists must also show if there are any allergens present in the food product. For information on understanding allergen labelling read the Plain English allergen labelling (PEAL) section.

Health star ratings (HSR)

The Health Star Rating (HSR) is a label on the front of packaged food products which provides a rating between ½ and 5 stars. A higher star rating means the product is healthier compared to other brands of the same product. Having a HSR on packaged food is not compulsory.   

When comparing similar products, for example, one brand of cereal to another brand of cereal, the HSR can be a quick way to choose a healthier product. Packaged food with a HSR of 3.5 stars and above is a better choice. 

Image removed.

Health claims

Food products must follow certain laws before they are allowed to have health claims on their products. A health claim shows that the product or an ingredient in the product has been shown to have a positive effect on a health outcome in humans. Three accepted health claims that can be found on a food package include: 

  1. Nutrition content claims refer to a certain amount of an ingredient in a food product, for example, milk may have a claim saying it is a good source of calcium.  
  2. General health claims can be made after extensive research has shown an impact of a food or nutrient on overall health, such as calcium helping to develop strong teeth and bones.
  3. High-level health claims can be made when there is extensive research showing a food or nutrient has an impact on a serious disease, for example, diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Plain English allergen labelling (PEAL)

Allergen labelling on food products began in 2021. By February 2024, food manufacturers and businesses must have plain English allergen labelling (PEAL) on food products. Stock without the new PEAL will not be allowed on shelves for purchase from February 2026. During this transition, it is important to understand the difference in labelling to make safe food choices for children with allergies.

Some foods and substances have been assessed by the Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) and are deemed suitable for people who have allergies. These products are exempt from the allergen declaration.

Plain English allergen labelling requires allergen information to be declared in a certain way. Some of the changes include:

  • plain English words used for allergens
  • allergens to be bolded in format
  • general terms like nuts or tree nuts cannot be used and specific nut types must be named - cashew, hazelnut, almond
  • general terms like cereals cannot be used and specific cereal types must be named - oats, wheat
  • wheat must still be declared even if it does not contain gluten
  • size font of allergens must be the same as other text
  • declaration of allergens used in processing aids
  • shellfish being replaced by two separate categories - crustacean and mollusc
  • a 'contains' summary statement placed near the ingredients list
  • a separate allergen statement in addition to allergens declared in the ingredients list.
Allergen label

Visit Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand for more information on allergen labelling requirements. 

See Food Allergy Aware for more information on allergen information.

Good to know: other names for added sugar

Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar.

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024