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.

Healthy eating: what young children need

As a parent, the nutritional needs of your baby or toddler are obviously a priority, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of differing information out there. 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 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 for them are rejected. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal, but it is wise to try to get into a good routine as soon as possible.

Ensure your child’s nutrient requirements are met by aiming for three balanced meals a day, containing a 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.

Babies and milk

Baby drinking milk from a bottle
In the first six months, babies receive all of their nutritional requirements from a milk-based diet. Infant formula is the only alternative to breastfeeding for feeding babies below six months of age. Cow’s milk is not recommended as a main drink for infants until age one. However, 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 from the five main food groups. The food groups that make up this balanced diet are:

• Protein-rich foods such as fish, meat, eggs and pulses
• Starchy carbohydrate foods, including potatoes and rice
• Fruits and vegetables
• Milk and dairy
• Fats and oils

For more information, read our guide on everything you need to know about weaning.

Why protein is important

Soft boiled eggs with marmite soldiers on a plate
Protein is essential for a number of important functions, including growth, brain development and the maintenance strong, healthy bones. Of the 20 amino acids – or the building blocks that make proteins – children need to get nine essential amino acids from their food.

How to get protein into your child’s diet

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. Plant proteins, such as beans and pulses, are incomplete proteins and need to be combined to achieve the full spectrum of amino acids. Aim to include 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.

If you're raising a family without meat or animal products, you'll need to be mindful of your child's protein intake. Read our guides on vegetarian and vegan diets for children.

Starchy foods supplying carbohydrates

Various carbohydrates including bread, pasta and grains
Children need a source of carbohydrates in each meal. However, young children under two years of age may struggle to digest wholegrain varieties, and too much fibre can fill them up too quickly, compromising their appetite and their absorption of important minerals such as calcium and iron. Introduce these more fibrous foods gradually so their digestive systems adapt to the extra fibre.

How to get carbohydrates into your child’s diet

Some children manage wholegrain versions of bread and pasta better than others, so it’s just a matter of seeing how your child responds. Nuts and seeds are good sources of fibre, minerals and important healthy fats. However, whole nuts and seeds should be avoided until your child is five years old or over because of the risk of choking.

Fruit and vegetables

Healthy fruit on skewer including strawberry, kiwi and passion fruit
Aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for children. The poriton size depends on their age, size and physical activity, so there are no set rules. An easy guide is that a portion of fruit or veg is 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.

How to get fruit and vegetables into your child’s diet

Milk and dairy foods

Various dairy products including milk, cheese and yogurt
Dairy foods including milk, yogurt and cheese are a useful source of calcium and iodine in the diet, as well as providing vitamins A, D and B12.

How to get dairy and calcium into your child’s diet

For children aged one to two years, choose whole milk, as it is important for growth and the absorption of essential vitamins. 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. Calcium is an essential nutrient for all children to help develop strong bones and teeth. Processed 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 milks such as soy, almond and oat may be given from the age of one year as part of a healthy, balanced diet. However, rice milk should be avoided in children under the age of five years 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. Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk for the first year of a baby's life.

What about fats and sugar?

Sliced banana bread with knife
While children need some fat to grow and develop, too much of any sort of fat is not recommended. Butter, spreads and oils contribute to the taste, texture and enjoyment of food. They are a source of concentrated energy for young children who are growing rapidly and are physically very active. Fats are also needed to aid the absorption of certain vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. There are some fats which are essential in your child's diet for a healthy immune system and for normal brain function. These omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils.

Soft drinks, sweets, confectionery, biscuits, sugary pastries and desserts are high in added sugars and often contain poor quality fats, as well as salt. Children should only eat these foods once in a while, for example, on special occasions. The over-consumption of snack foods high in added sugar, fats and salt is recognised as one of the major contributing factors to high rates of obesity.

Healthier sweet treats:

The best breakfast for your child

Breakfast bowl of cinnamon and oat porridge with strawberries

When buying processed cereals, read the labels carefully as they are seldom as healthy as they seem. Although manufacturers are taking steps to improve levels of salt and sugar, many contain higher levels than is recommended per serving. It’s best to choose an unsweetened oat- or wholewheat-based cereal and add fruit, such as a chopped banana or a small handful of raisins, to make it sweet and to add a nutritious boost.

If you have time to make a more substantial breakfast, there are a lot of healthy benefits, including a serving of protein through eggs, beans or a natural yogurts. Protein-rich foods will sustain your child's appetite through the morning and will help their concentration levels at school.

Some substantial breakfast ideas:

Super snacks and smoothies

Red pepper hummus in a bowl with veg sticks
Proper snacks (not constant grazing) are important to keep your 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 actually thirsty, as the two are sometimes confused.

Smoothies and juices can be a great way to get children to top up their vitamin C and folate intake – both are important vitamins for the function of the immune system, energy production and for preventing anaemia. But, the natural sugar in whole fruit (fructose) can be better for children (and their teeth) than the sugars in juices and smoothies. That's because juicing releases the natural sugars of fruit, which then become 'free' sugars. It's these 'free' sugars we are advised to cut back on, because as well as aggravating our mood, they may lead to dental problems.

Water should be the main source of your child's liquid intake, with no more than one small glass of fresh, unsweetened fruit juice or smoothie per day. Don't forget to always dilute fruit juice with a splash of water.

This article was last reviewed on 2 August 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

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.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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amira meadows
23rd Jan, 2018
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