What is good food?
Good food means a wide variety of fresh foods from the main food groups – fruit, vegetables, grains, lean meats, fish, poultry and dairy.
Each food group provides different nutrients. That’s why we need to eat a range of foods from across all the food groups.
The good food groups
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables help protect your child’s body against all kinds of diseases. This is because fruit and vegies provide energy, vitamins, antioxidants, fibre and water.
Children aged 4-8 years need to eat at least one piece of fruit and two servings of vegies every day. Instead of giving your child full serves (one serve equals half a cup) of just two vegetables, you might want to consider including several smaller serves of vegetables for more variety.
Choosing different-coloured fruits and vegetables is a great way to get a good range of nutrients.
It can be really difficult if your child is ‘fussy’ with fruit and vegies – many kids don’t eat enough of these foods. In fact, one survey found that only 5% of kids eat the recommended amount. For ideas and information, you could have a look at our article on getting your child to eat vegetables
Starchy foods and grains
Starchy foods and grains give your child the energy she needs to grow, develop and learn. These foods include cereals, breads, rice, pasta and noodles. It’s a good idea to offer them at every meal.
Starchy foods with a low glycaemic index, such as pasta and wholegrain bread, will give your child long-lasting energy.
Lean meats, fish and poultry, and meat alternatives
Lean meat, fish, chicken and meat alternatives such as eggs, beans (legumes), tofu and nuts give your child iron, zinc, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and protein for growth and muscle development.
Iron and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for your child’s brain development and learning.
Milk and other dairy products
Milk, cheese and yoghurt are high in protein and calcium, which helps build strong bones and teeth.
When your child’s a baby, breastmilk or formula is the best milk until he’s 12 months old. After that, he can start drinking full-fat cow’s milk before switching to low-fat milk after he turns two.
To get enough calcium, children aged:
- 1-3 years need 1-2 cups of milk or dairy serves a day
- 4-8 years need three dairy serves a day
- 9-13 years need 3-4 dairy serves a day
- over 13 need 4-5 dairy serves a day.
A serve of dairy can be one cup of milk, two slices (40g) of cheese or a 200g tub of yoghurt.
Water’s the best drink for your child.
Sweet drinks – which include fruit juice, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured waters, soft drinks and flavoured milks – can fill your child up with sugar. This might mean she won’t want to eat her meals.
Drinking sweet drinks can also contribute to weight gain and obesity and tooth decay. If kids start on these drinks when they’re young, it can kick off a lifelong habit.
‘Sometimes’ foods include chips, chocolates, lollies, cakes, pastries, muesli bars, soft drinks, juices and takeaway foods – basically anything that’s high in sugar, salt and/or fat, and low in nutrition.
It can be easy to eat too many ‘sometimes’ foods. The important thing is to a find a balance – no more than 1-2 small serves of ‘sometimes’ foods a day is plenty.
Choosing good foods for different ages and stages
Going from drinking breastmilk or formula to eating family meals takes time, and starting your baby on solids is the first step.
Many parents start their children off with some rice cereal at about six months or so. From this, you can move on to mashed vegies, fruit and meat, and toast fingers. By about eight months, many babies are ready for some cheese or yoghurt. By 12 months, your baby can try most healthy foods your family’s eating.
You might like to read more about baby nutrition.
Lots of parents describe their toddlers as ‘fussy’ with food. This can make mealtimes stressful, especially if you’re worried your toddler isn’t eating enough.
Your toddler might seem to eat less than when he was a baby, which is because he’s growing more slowly. But he still needs regular meals and snacks – three meals and several snacks every day. The key thing to remember with toddlers is that you decide what your child eats, and he decides how much.
You can offer lots of variety from the main food groups, but try to limit ‘sometimes’ foods as much as you can.
It’s also a good idea to avoid bottles for your toddler. Using a bottle is associated with iron deficiency anaemia and could be linked to a higher risk of overweight and obesity.
For more information, you can read our article on toddler nutrition.
Your preschooler needs lots of energy for play and learning. A good breakfast is important – it helps your child get a good start to her daily nutrition needs.
Your child might still be a fussy eater at this age. If he’s not keen on trying new foods, you could get him to help you with choosing and preparing healthy family meals. When children have a say in their food, they’re more likely to eat it.
You might like to read more about preschooler nutrition.
At this age, your child might have a busy social life, her own pocket money to spend and some definite preferences when it comes to food. She’ll also be influenced by friends and trends, so it’s a great time to reinforce messages about healthy foods.
For example, you can explain to your child that a healthy breakfast can help him concentrate on his schoolwork and have lots of energy for the day.
Sharing healthy meals and snacks with your school-age child can encourage her to eat nutritious food and to develop a regular eating routine.
When you’re packing your child’s lunch box, healthy variety is the way to go. You might include vegies, fruit, a dairy food, meat or egg, starchy food (bread, roll, pita, or flat bread) and water.
For more information, you can read our article on school-age nutrition.
Your adolescent child will explore his increasing independence through his food choices. He’ll also experience lots of new pressures in his life. All of this makes healthy family meals and role-modelling important during this time.
Good food choices at any age
You’re a big part of helping your child choose nutritious foods at every age and stage. Some of the best – and most enjoyable – ways to set and reinforce healthy eating habits include the following:
- Involve your child in meal-planning and preparation.
- Enjoy meals together as a family regularly – every night if possible.
- Try to have a bowl of fruit or vegie sticks available for snacking.
- Increase variety whenever possible and keep offering good foods.
- Stock your pantry and fridge with lots of healthy, nutritious options, and leave the sometimes food on the supermarket shelves.