By Raising Children Network
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Here are some guidelines and practical tools to help you ensure your children eat the right amount of good food, keep fit, and stay healthy.

Five basic nutritional needs

If you have the following five areas of nutrition covered, you can’t really go wrong:

  1. Protein builds bodies and keeps children strong and healthy. Try peas and beans (any kind, including frozen baby peas and canned baked beans), eggs, fish, chicken, meat, milk, yoghurt and cheese.
  2. Vegetables and fruit contain nutrients and fibre important for a healthy body, inside and out. The more colourful, the better. Offer your child broccoli, green beans, carrots, sweet potato, tomatoes, spinach, and cucumber (with skin). Also try colourful fruits such as peaches, apricots, pears and apples. (Wash fruit and leave the skin on.)
  3. Starchy carbohydrates provide energy.The more fibre they contain, the slower they burn. Try fibre-enriched bread, wholegrain rice, couscous, pasta, corn bread, pancakes and low-sugar cereal.
  4. Good fats with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids build brain and nerve cells. These good fats are found in fish (tinned or fresh), avocado, and vegetable oils such as those made from olives or canola. Try to avoid deep frying in these delicate unsaturated oils. Read more about good and bad fats.
  5. Tap water is the cheapest and best source of fluids. Most tap water is fortified with fluoride for strong teeth.

Foods to avoid

Foods high in salt, sugar or caffeine (found in cola drinks): children’s systems can’t handle these foods. Also, soft drinks and fruit juice are expensive, high in sugar and bad for teeth.

If you want to offer fruit juice, always mix it half and half with water. Limit daily juice intake to 150 ml for children aged 1-6 years, and 240–360 ml for children 7-18 years.

Fast foods and junk food: these foods include hot chips, potato chips, doughnuts, biscuits and cookies, cakes, chocolate and sugary sweets. They are low in fibre and nutrients and high in sugar and/or fat. The fat in most of these foods is the less-healthy type, including trans fat. Just say ‘no’ if your child asks for these foods. Instead, let your child get hooked on good snacks, like grated or thinly sliced carrot and sweet baby peas served frozen in a cup.

It’s fine to offer dessert at the end of a meal – sliced fruit is the healthiest option. If you want to serve something special, go for vanilla ice-cream or banana bread. Save the seriously sweet stuff, like chocolate, for special occasions like birthdays.

Children watch what you’re eating. You can help them adopt good eating habits by eating well yourself. Try giving up at least one or two items of junk food. If you can keep packaged biscuits and chips out of your house, it could make a very big difference for your child.

Too much eating or not enough?

You might worry whether your child is eating enough. Or you might be concerned that your child is eating too much and becoming unhealthy.

It helps to know that children go through growth and activity spurts that influence their appetites. Sometimes they’re really hungry, and sometimes they eat like birds. As long as you offer nutritious food, you can trust your child’s appetite to get the balance right. In fact, forcing children to eat (even strongly encouraging them to eat more) can often backfire.

It’s also a good idea to limit sweets, chips and biscuits. These can interfere with children’s natural appetite for nutritious food.

Sometimes children need to be offered a new food 6-10 times before they taste it and, eventually, eat it. It helps if they see you eating it too! If you still have no luck, try again in 3-6 months.

Tummy talk
Knowing the way your tummy ‘talks to’ your brain can also help you deal with concerns about your child undereating or overeating:

  • Our brains only realise we are full about 20 minutes after the food hits our stomachs.
  • Hunger is partly determined by your child's ‘tummy clock’ – how much your child ate yesterday at the same time. Big meals at regular times actually encourage a big appetite next dinnertime, so you can use that to your advantage either way.
  • You can encourage children who undereat at mealtimes to eat more by limiting ‘grazing’ (or random snacking). On the other hand, regular healthy snacks can be a great way to reduce overeating at mealtimes.

If you’re concerned that your child has a tendency to overeat, you can try slowing it down:

  • Offer half a normal portion of food. If your child finishes it, offer the second half of the meal 10 minutes later. Sometimes this will give your child’s brain and tummy a chance to catch up.
  • Offer the most nutritious stuff (lean protein and vegetables) first. This is called ‘food sequencing’. Your child doesn’t need to eat everything on the plate. Offer a normal portion of starchy carbohydrates (like pasta, bread or potatoes) only after your child has finished the more nutritious foods. (Given a choice, children tend to go for the bread and pasta first. This can fill them up before they get to the more nutritious foods.)

You might feel your child is consistently not eating enough at mealtimes. If your child tends to sit happily for about five minutes and then starts fidgeting and loses appetite, try the following strategies:

  • Use food sequencing to get the good stuff into your child first. Lean protein and vegetables first, then carbohydrates like pasta, rice or bread.
  • Let your child wolf down the food (this will let your child’s tummy outrun the brain, so your child will fill up a bit more).
  • Your child’s tummy clock can help too. If you can make mealtimes the same every day, your child is more likely to be hungry at that time of day.
Here’s the key: you decide what healthy food to offer your children, and they decide how much food they will eat.

Seven tips for happy mealtimes

  1. Be relaxed about meals, even if your child isn’t eating.
  2. Mix it up a bit. Sitting at the same table for every meal can be hard going. Try a picnic in the backyard or take dinner down to the beach or park occasionally.
  3. Try not to give in to whingeing for alternatives to the meal you have prepared.
  4. Offer nothing until the next scheduled mealtime or regular snack time (your child will get the hang of it).
  5. Schedule snacking to leave a good space before mealtimes (at least ½-1 hour).
  6. At dinner, try offering the protein and the colourful vegies first, when your child is most hungry.
  7. Be calm, firm and consistent. 

Exercise for children

Walking, running, jumping, throwing, climbing and playing gives your child:

  • strong bones and muscles
  • a healthy heart, lungs and arteries
  • improved coordination, balance, posture and flexibility.

It also increases overall metabolism all day long. This reduces the risk of getting overweight or obese, and of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes down the track. Playgrounds are a great place to burn off some steam and play with others.

A special note about screen time

Screen time is the time children spend in front of screens, including the TV, DVDs, the computer and even mobile phones. When children watch TV, DVDs or play computer games, they’re usually sitting still and missing out on healthy physical activity.

Eating junk food while sitting in front of a screen is a recipe for child obesity. Being overweight is unhealthy and uncomfortable – and very unpleasant for a young child.

Many child development experts recommend the following:

  • children under two: no screen time at all
  • children aged 2-5: no more than one hour of screen time a day
  • children over five: no more than two hours each day.

Follow any screen time with an outdoor activity (like a walk to the park). If your child is snacking in front of the screen, keep snacks healthy. A banana, a handful of healthy crackers, thinly sliced carrot or celery sticks are all good options.

For more information, see our article on screen time and children.
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  • Last Updated 06-09-2014
  • Last Reviewed 06-09-2014