Healthy eating: What young children need
Is your child aged five or under? Find out everything they should be eating for a healthy, balanced diet that meets all of their needs
As a parent, the nutritional needs of your baby, toddler and young child are obviously a priority, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. Like the rest of the family, your little one needs to eat a variety of foods – read on for plenty of ideas for how to achieve this.
Feeding under fives
The food a child eats in their early years can influence their dietary habits later in life, so it’s important to instil good habits and establish a healthy relationship with food from an early age. Once your child is eating solid foods, you’re likely to find that some of the meals you so lovingly cooked get rejected. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal, but it is wise to get into a routine as soon as possible.
In order to ensure your child’s nutrient requirements are met, aim for three balanced meals a day. This should include food from each of the five main food groups, plus up to two healthy snacks. Get into the habit of introducing a new protein regularly, as well as a couple of different vegetables alongside your child's familiar favourites.
From the beginning
In the first six months, breast milk or ‘first infant formula’ provide the energy and most of the nutrients your baby needs until they are around six months old. Infant formula is the only alternative to breastfeeding for babies below six months of age.
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Vitamin D may be one nutrient to be mindful of. Babies consuming 500ml of formula per day won’t need to supplement, but babies who are breastfed should also receive a daily vitamin D supplement from birth. The UK Government also recommends that all children from the age of six months to five years be given a vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C as well as D every day.
Cow’s milk is not recommended as a main drink for infants until they are one year old. From six months, children enter the stage of transitional feeding and progress from a milk-only diet to a varied, balanced diet of complementary foods which should come from each of the five main food groups. The food groups that make up a balanced diet are:
- Protein foods, such as fish, meat, eggs and pulses
- Starchy carbs, including potatoes and rice
- Fruit and vegetables, of various colours
- Milk, dairy and plant-based alternatives
- Fats and oils
For more information, read our guide on everything you need to know about weaning.
Why is protein important for my toddler?
Protein is essential for growth, brain development and the maintenance of strong, healthy bones. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, which need to be sourced from food. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are essential in a child’s diet.
Read more about your child’s protein needs.
Animal proteins – such as lean meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese – contain all nine essential amino acids and are considered the most valuable for growth and development. Plant proteins, such as beans and pulses, are referred to as ‘incomplete’ proteins, which means they lack one or more of the essential amino acids and need to be combined with other protein sources to provide the full spectrum needed.
The UK Government recommends we eat fish twice a week, with one being an oily variety like salmon, trout or mackerel. Fresh or frozen are great, but remember that smoked and canned products tend to be higher in salt.
Try these protein-packed recipes:
What carbs can my toddler eat?
Children need a source of carbohydrates in each meal – bread, potatoes, rice, couscous and pasta are all useful additions. However, young children (especially those under two years of age) may struggle to digest wholegrain varieties, and too much fibre may fill them up quickly, compromising their appetite and their absorption of important minerals like calcium and iron. Introduce more fibrous wholegrain carbs gradually so that your child’s digestive system can adapt to the extra fibre. That said, some youngsters manage wholegrain versions of bread and pasta well, so it’s just a matter of seeing how your child responds.
Starchy carbs are necessary because they are an important source of energy as well as providing fibre for a healthy digestive system.
Try these tasty carb recipes:
- Wholemeal flatbreads
- Bread in four easy steps
- Squished tomato pasta sauce
- Potato wedges
- Sweet potato wedges
How do I get my toddler to eat fruit and vegetables?
Fruit and vegetables supply vitamins, minerals and fibre and it’s a good idea to start introducing them from around six months. You can include fresh, frozen, canned or dried.
Aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for young children and toddlers. The size of the portion depends on their age, size and physical activity, so there are no set rules. An easy guide is to aim for the amount that fits in the palm of your child's hand.
Easy tips for keeping on track could be as simple as keeping a bag of frozen vegetables in the freezer or chopping up a piece of fresh fruit for dessert. Dried fruit should be given with meals rather than as a snack because the more intense sugar content can lead to tooth decay.
Try these delicious options:
- Frozen fruit sticks with lime drizzle
- More veg, less meat summer bolognese
- Hummus without tahini
- Easy beef stew with sweet potato topping
- Pumpkin & bean spaghetti
What about milk, dairy or plant-based alternatives?
As you wean your baby it’s a good idea to carry on breastfeeding, if you can, which will support their nutrition as you increase the variation in their diet. Whole milk and full-fat dairy (including milk, yogurt and cheese) is a useful source of calcium and iodine, as well as vitamins A, D and B12. After the age of one you can introduce cow’s milk and it’s a good idea to aim for two daily servings of dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt or fromage frais.
For children aged one to two years, choose whole milk, as it is important for growth and for the absorption of essential vitamins. Also, the lower-fat milks may not supply the calories or fat-soluble vitamins they need. From two years, you can make the switch from whole to semi-skimmed milk, provided your child is eating a wide variety of foods and is gaining weight normally. Lower-fat versions of milk and dairy foods contain just as much calcium as their higher-fat counterparts but skimmed milk should be avoided until your child is over five years of age.
From six months babies can eat pasteurised full-fat cheese, this includes hard cheese, like mild cheddar and cottage cheese. However, babies and young children should not eat mould-ripened soft cheese, like brie or camembert; ripened goat’s milk like chèvre or soft, blue-veined cheese like roquefort. This is because cheese may carry bacteria called listeria.
It's worth remembering that many packaged yogurts are often packed with sugar, colourings and sweeteners, so steer clear of the flavoured ones. Instead, choose natural yogurt and add your own natural flavourings such as fruit compote, stewed fruit or fresh fruit, such as grated pear.
Unsweetened, calcium-fortified plant-based milk alternatives such as soy, almond and oat may be given from the age of one as part of a healthy, balanced and varied diet. However, rice milk should be avoided in children under the age of five because of the levels of arsenic in these products. Condensed, evaporated and dried milk do not contain the same levels of nutrients as whole milk and should not be given to children under one year of age.
Try our favourite calcium-rich recipes:
- Cheese, ham & grape kebabs
- Cauliflower cheese cakes
- Cheesy corn cakes
- Easy cheese sauce
- Homemade pizza veggie faces
- Crunchy peanut butter & banana pots
What about fat and sugar in my toddler’s food?
While children need some fat to grow and develop, too much of any sort is not recommended. Butter, spreads and oils contribute to the taste, texture and enjoyment of food. They are a source of concentrated energy which is needed for young children who are growing rapidly and are physically active.
Fats are also needed to aid the absorption of certain vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. There are also certain fats which are essential in your child's diet: they are important for immune function and for normal brain function. These omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils – however, whole nuts and seeds should be avoided until your child is five years old because of the risk of choking.
Once your child is two you can introduce lower-fat options such as lower-fat dairy and, by the time your child is five, they can enjoy a similar healthy, balanced diet to that of other members of the family.
Soft drinks, sweets, confectionery, biscuits, sugary pastries and desserts are high in added or ‘free sugars’ and often contain poor quality fats, as well as salt. Children should only eat these foods once in a while. The over-consumption of foods high in added sugar, fats and salt is recognised as one of the major contributing factors for the high rates of obesity.
Can my toddler have snacks?
Proper snacks (not constant grazing) are important to keep your young child's appetite satisfied. The more you can help guide your child when they are hungry, the better able they will be to judge how much food they should be eating as they grow older. When children ask for food, check that they're not really thirsty, as the two are sometimes confused.
- Dried fruit, such as figs and raisins, are good options when children want a sweet treat, although they are best combined with other foods to minimise dental issues
- As long as your child is old enough to chew properly, raw vegetables such as carrot, cucumber, celery or cherry tomatoes are also a good option. Serve with a little pot of hummus, bean dip, guacamole, tzatiki or soft cheese.
- Try chunks of cheese with grapes or soft crackers
- Wholemeal bread or oatcakes with wafer thin ham, soft cheese or nut butter
- Smashed bean dip
- Cheese scones
- Pea hummus
Smoothies and juices can be a good way to get children to top up their vitamin C and folate intakes – both are important vitamins for the immune system, for energy production and for preventing anaemia. But eating whole fruit can be better for children (and their teeth) than juices and smoothies. That's because juicing releases the natural sugars of fruit (fructose), which then become 'free sugars,’ the type we are advised to cut back on. Ideally, make water your child's main drink, with no more than one small glass of fresh, unsweetened fruit juice or smoothie per day. Don't forget always to dilute fruit juice with a splash of water.
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Kerry Torrens BSc (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers.
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