Healthy eating for children

As a parent, providing your child with the best start to life is a priority, and nutrition plays a crucial role in their growth and development. 

Providing a well-balanced and nutritious diet for your child can help support their physical growth, cognition, immune system and bone health. Also, establishing healthy habits in childhood and adolescence can last a lifetime. Healthy children grow into healthy adults! 

Don't force it

Parents and carers are responsible for what their children eat and when. 
Children decide when they are full.

Encouraging healthy habits

Every parent wants the best for their children, but it can be challenging for parents to make sure their children are eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

Check out our top tips to encourage your child to eat well.

Plan regular meal times

Having regular and consistent meals and snack times is beneficial for children. It can help children:

  • concentrate while eating
  • understand their hunger cues
  • encourage a better appetite

It can also provide some quality family time in your busy schedule.

Don't force children to finish what's on their plate

When children are forced to finish what’s on their plate, they don’t recognise as easily when they are full or satiated.

Although parents and carers are responsible for what and when children eat, children should control how much they eat. 

Never use food as a bribe or reward

Never use food as a bribe or reward. 

If food is used as a bribe or reward, children are taught to place higher importance on certain foods which are often less nutritious. Children see these foods as more desirable than others and develop a preference for these foods.

Additionally, if food is used in response to children’s behaviours and emotions or as a source of comfort, it can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. Children learn to associate behaviours with eating, which can lead to emotional eating later in life. Therefore, using non-food rewards or alternative behaviour management methods is best.

Positive reinforcement

It's important to let children know you're happy with their intake when they make healthy choices. Showing appreciation and acknowledging their efforts when they select nutritious foods or try new foods can go a long way. This positive reinforcement can help children feel more motivated and confident to continue making healthy choices in the future.

For instance, saying something like, "I'm so proud of you for choosing to eat your vegetables", can make a child feel appreciated and encourage them to make similar choices in the future.

Make healthy snacks readily available

Placing healthy snacks such as fruits or vegetables in a visible place can encourage children to eat them. 

For instance, you can keep a bowl of fresh fruits available or cut up some carrots for them to eat. Children usually prefer what's easily accessible. So, it's a good idea to keep healthy snacks at their eye level to make healthy choices the first thing they see.

Be a role model

It is important to remember that your children will often model their behaviour after yours. If you want to encourage healthy habits in your children, lead by example. While it may not always be possible to make perfect food choices, try to make small improvements whenever you can. Small steps can go a long way!

Avoid criticising food

It's best to avoid labelling foods as "good" or "bad" as it can lead to negative associations and unhealthy habits. Instead, food exists on a spectrum or scale and does not necessarily fit into a category.

Involve children

The more active children are in the process and preparation of food, the more they are to learn about the colours, flavours, feel and smells of certain foods. This can help with fussy eating. Children can take part in:

  • choosing which fruit or vegetables they want at the shops
  • washing and preparing fruit and vegetables.

Healthy eating learning experiences

Healthy eating learning experiences allow children to explore and experience new and different foods. It can also enhance children’s literacy, familiarity and relationship with healthy food. You may like to try:

  • growing, watering and harvesting produce from fruit and vegetable gardens
  • reading books about healthy eating, such as The Hungry Caterpillar
  • playing games about healthy eating, such as doing a blind taste test of fruit and vegetables.

Water bottles

It's important to encourage your child to drink more water, and one way to do this is by having them carry a reusable water bottle with them. This will help remind them to stay hydrated throughout the day. Make sure the bottle is filled only with water. You can involve your child in the process by allowing them to choose their own reusable water bottle and make it more appealing to them.

Be patient - creating healthy eating habits takes time, so celebrate small successes along the way.

8 healthy habits

The 8 healthy habits are simple steps to help babies, children and teenagers live a healthy lifestyle:

Translated versions can also be downloaded in over 10 languages.

The five food groups

Children are encouraged to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods. The easiest way to consume a nutritious diet is to select foods from the five different food groups. The five food groups are a part of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE). THE AGHE was developed with over 55,000 scientific journal articles and a large team of nutritionists and medical experts.

Recommended serves

  • Vegetables and legumes/beans: 5 serves 
  • Fruit: 2 serves 
  • Grains (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrains and/or high cereal fibre varieties: 5 serves 
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans: 2.5 serves 
  • Milk, yoghurt cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat: 2 serves 

*based on the recommended daily intake for a 9-year-old 

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
The Australian guide to healthy eating is a food selection guide which visually represents the proportion of the five food groups recommended for consumption each day.

Fun fact: Legumes sit in 2 different food groups

Legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans, are the seeds from plants (vegetable group) but also provide many of the same nutrients as those found in meats, poultry, fish and eggs (lean meats group).

Selecting a wide variety of food from the five food groups helps  give your child the best opportunity to grow and develop. It also helps to prevent a number of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity and some types of cancers.

Children should also limit their intake of foods that contain high levels of saturated fats, salts and sugar which is present in many ultra-processed foods. These are the discretionary foods that are in the bottom right hand corner of the AGHE. 

It’s important to note, you don’t have to have fruit and vegetables in every meal. Think of ways you can build them up across the day with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. See Healthy meal planning to learn more about how to cook and shop for healthy food options.

Statistics on Australian children's eating patterns

  • 35% of their energy each day from discretionary foods
  • 32% of children do not eat the sufficient serves of fruit per day  
  • 95% of children do not eat the sufficient serves of vegetables per day

Parents can have a big impact on the healthy eating behaviours of children. A well-balanced diet allows a wide variety of foods from the five food groups every day.

The role of nutrition for children’s growth and weight

Children are at their healthiest when they grow within a healthy weight range for their age. If they don't consume the right nutrients, they may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies and falling below or above a healthy weight. This can have further complications for children and may include sleep problems, muscle and joint issues, asthma and respiratory conditions. 

A child’s weight should not be the only focus of growth and development. When you focus on the process and habits of healthy lifestyles, like nutritious eating and movement patterns, your child is much more likely to enjoy the outcomes. See Encouraging healthy habits and Simple steps to increase kids' movement for more ideas. 

As a parent, you can support your child's growth and development by following the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and ensuring they get the recommended serves from the five food groups. This will help your child eat enough macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (eg, vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, and vitamin C) for energy, growth and development. 

Lifestyle diets

When kids are at a young age, they highly depend on the food choices made by their parents. It doesn't matter what your own food preferences are, you can always assist in keeping your child's diet healthy by following some essential principles.

Follow healthy eating guidelines

Following the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating where possible. 

If your family follows a specific diet that limits or restricts any of these 5 food groups, book in to see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or your doctor to help understand if there are any nutrients that may risk deficiencies.

Consult a health professional

If you think your child may have an allergy or intolerance to a particular food, book in to see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or your family doctor. 

Unnecessary food restriction without a proper diagnosis, for example, low carbohydrate diets or gluten free diets, can result in a lack of key nutrients for your child. See the Food allergies for more information.

Consider the needs of growing bodies

Foods that are nutrient-dense give your child’s body the best ability to grow. Wholegrain foods, vegetables and fruits are a great way of increasing the nutrient density as well as the fibre content of your child’s diet.

Limit certain foods where possible

Certain foods are not essential in a child’s diet. Ultra processed foods that are high in saturated fats, salt and sugar should be limited where possible.

Avoid polarising foods

Food doesn’t need to be categoried into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and by seeing food on a sliding scale of ‘food to eat everyday’ and ‘food that should be limited where possible’ will create a much healthier relationship with food. 

This will also help prevent binge restriction cycles that may have further complications. See Fussy eating for more information. 

Last updated Thursday 22nd February 2024