What is healthy food for babies and toddlers?
Healthy food for babies and toddlers includes a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy food groups:
- grain foods – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
- dairy – milk, cheese, yoghurt and so on
- protein – meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, tofu and so on.
Each food group has different nutrients, which your child’s body needs to grow and work properly. That’s why we need to eat a range of foods from across all five food groups.
The healthy food groups
It’s a good idea to offer your baby fruit and vegetables at every meal and for snacks. Try to choose fruit and vegies of different colours, textures and tastes, both fresh and cooked, for your baby.
Wash fruit to remove dirt or chemicals, and leave the skin on, because the skin contains nutrients too.
Grain foods include breakfast cereals, breads, rice, pasta, corn and more. These foods give your child the energy she needs to grow, develop and learn.
Grain foods with a low glycaemic index, like wholegrain pasta and breads, will give your child longer-lasting energy and keep him feeling fuller for longer.
Milk, cheese and yoghurt are high in protein and calcium, which helps to build strong bones and teeth.
Until your baby is 12 months old, she should have only breastmilk or infant formula as her milk drink. After that, she can start drinking full-fat cow’s milk. Because children in this age group are growing so quickly and need lots of energy, they need full-fat dairy products until they turn two.
Protein is important for your child’s growth and muscle development. Foods with lots of protein include meat, fish, chicken eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts. These foods also contain other useful vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron and omega-3 fatty acids, from red meat and oily fish, are particularly important for your child’s brain development and learning.
Water is the healthiest drink for children over 12 months. It’s also the cheapest. Most tap water is fortified with fluoride for strong teeth too.
From six months, breastfed and formula-fed babies can have small amounts of cooled boiled tap water from a cup.
Foods and drinks to avoid
Your child should avoid ‘sometimes’ foods (sometimes called ‘discretionary’ foods). These include fast food and junk food like hot chips, potato chips, dim sims, pies, burgers and takeaway pizza. They also include cakes, chocolate, lollies, biscuits, doughnuts and pastries.
These foods are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre and nutrients. Many of these foods also contain bad fats that can increase the risk of childhood obesity and conditions like type-2 diabetes.
Your child should also avoid sweet drinks like fruit juice, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured waters, soft drinks and flavoured milks. Sweet drinks are high in sugar and low in nutrients. They can cause weight gain, obesity and tooth decay. These drinks fill your child up and can make him less hungry for healthy meals. And if children start on these drinks when they’re young, it can kick off an unhealthy lifelong habit.
Foods and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for children, because caffeine stops the body from absorbing calcium well. Caffeine is also a stimulant, which means it gives children artificial energy. These foods and drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate.
Healthy alternatives for snacks and desserts
It’s fine to offer your child snacks, but try to make sure they’re healthy – for example, grated or thinly sliced carrot.
The same goes for dessert at the end of a meal. Sliced fruit or yoghurt is the healthiest option. If you want to serve something special, try homemade banana bread. Save the seriously sweet stuff, like cakes and chocolate, for special occasions like birthdays.
Healthy food tips for babies and toddlers
Many parents start thinking about introducing solids at about six months or so. You can introduce solids in any order. For example, you could try infant rice cereal, soft cooked vegetables and stewed or mashed fruit. Then you can move onto mashed foods like eggs, grains like wheat, cooked fish, pureed or minced meat, and more fruits and vegetables. You can also try tofu, beans, lentils, nut pastes and so on.
By 12 months, your baby can try most healthy foods that your family is eating, like fruits, vegetables, nuts (but as a paste to prevent choking), grains, cereal, meat, fish, chicken, egg, tofu, lentils, pasta, rice and bread.
If your baby doesn’t like one of the new foods you offer, try it again some other time. You might have to try lots of times before your baby accepts a new taste or texture.
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.
If your toddler seems to eat less than she used to, try not to worry. She needs less food because she’s growing more slowly. But she does still need regular meals and snacks – three meals and several snacks every day.
It’s normal for toddlers’ appetites to vary a lot from day to day. The key thing to remember with toddlers is that you decide what foods to offer your child, and he decides how much to eat. Keep offering 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 wean your toddler off bottles and introduce her to a cup to avoid her having too much milk, which can make her less hungry for healthy meals.