Healthy Eating for Children: 10 Critical Principles

Teaching healthy eating to children is your responsibility within the family!

If children eat healthy at a young age, they’re more likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle as they grow older.

With childhood obesity at epidemic proportions, your child’s nutrition is now more important than ever.

So, is healthy eating for your children a focal point in your home?

Let’s take a look at 10 basic healthy eating principles you need to be considering:

#1 Carbohydrate

Chief function – provides energy for the body and brain.

Sourcesbread, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, oats, pulses, fruits, and vegetables.

Try to include a range of complex carbohydrates in your child’s diet. These are the higher fibre varieties, which release their energy slowly into the body, and help kids stay fuller for longer.

Because high fibre carbs release energy slowly, this helps to stabilise blood sugars, which in turn can help to minimise mood swings, and improve a poor concentration span, or hyperactivity.

Try to:

  • Base each meal on bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, or breakfast cereal.
  • Take care when choosing breakfast cereals – go for wholegrain, low in sugar, fat, and salt varieties.
  • Good snack options include muffins, scones, crumpets and granola bars.
  • Use wholegrain varieties some of the time.

Kids requirements for carbohydrate foods

  • Toddlers and young children – 4 servings per day
  • School age children – 6-11 servings per day (depending on age and activity level)

#2 Protein

Chief function – provides the building blocks for hair, skin, nails, bones, muscles, and hormones.

Sources – meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, pulses, nuts and seeds.

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, particularly among adolescent girls, and therefore red meat is important. Try to serve small portions of red meat at least twice each week.

Alternative sources of iron include spinach, and other green vegetables, dried apricots, fortified breakfast cereals. When eating a non-meat source of iron, serve with whole orange juice, citrus fruits, kiwi, tomatoes, or berries – vitamin C increases absorption.

Kids requirements for protein

  • Toddlers and young children – 2 servings per day
  • School age children – 2-3 servings per day

#3 Fruit and vegetables

Chief function – provide an important source of vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants.

Try to offer a wide range of different types and colours to make sure your children are getting all the nutrients they need.

Remember, you can also use frozen, canned, or dried fruit and vegetables for convenience and variety.

Kids requirements for fruit and vegetables

  • Toddlers and young children – 2 servings per day
  • School age children – 3 to 5 servings of veggies, and 2 to 4 servings of fruit

Do your children refuse to eat fruit and vegetables, check out this post to find out how to encourage a more varied diet.

#4 Dairy

Chief function – important for the formation of strong bones and teeth.

Sources – milk, cheese, yoghurt, and fromage frais.

Other calcium sources – calcium fortified soya products, calcium fortified breakfast cereal, fish with soft bones, nuts, sesame seeds, and dried figs.

90% of adult bone strength is determined in childhood and adolescence. Therefore, it’s important that your children get adequate dairy sources in their diet, to ensure they have strong bones later in life.

Vitamin D is also important for building healthy bones.

The main source of vitamin D comes from exposure of the skin to sunshine. However, dietary sources include eggs, oily fish, and fortified margarines.

Kids requirements for dairy

  • Toddlers and young children – 3 servings per day full fat
  • School age children – 3 servings per day reduced fat

One portion of dairy food is:

  • Glass of milk
  • Small pot of yoghurt
  • Small pot of calcium fortified fromage frais
  • Matchbox sized piece of cheddar cheese

Note: vegetarians should choose a calcium fortified alternative, such as rice milk.

#5 Fat

Chief function – helps to maintain healthy skin and nerve function.

Just like adults, too much fat is not good for children. Try to limit your child’s intake of pastries, donuts, cookies, butter, cream, fatty meats, and confectionery to occasional treats.

They will receive enough fat from foods such as milk, cheese, yoghurt, lean meat, and oily fish for good health.

Use healthier cooking methods such as grilling, baking, or roasting, rather than frying, and use leaner cuts of meat where possible.

Omega-3 fatty acids – are important for brain function and nervous system, and for memory and concentration.

Sources – oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and fresh tuna (but not tinned). They are also found in walnuts, flax seeds, green leafy vegetables, canola oil, and soya beans.

The body cannot produce these healthy fats, and therefore encouraging your children to eat these foods regularly is vital.

Kids requirements for healthy fats

  • Try to serve two portions of fish each week, one of which should be oily fish.

#6 Fluids

Chief function – water helps maintain the body’s hydration, necessary for chemical reactions, the digestive system, and for energy production.

Although children have a preference for soft drinks, squash, and fruit drinks, they are extremely high in sugar, and provide very little nutritional value, so try to limit as much as possible.

Water should be the first option when offering your child a drink – studies show that children who drink lots of water can concentrate better, and remember information easier.

Whole fruit juice is a good option at breakfast time because of the vitamin C content, but dilute with water to reduce sugar intake. Milk and tea are also acceptable.

Kids requirements for fluids

  • Offer one drink with each meal, and at least one between meals.
  • Serve extra drinks in hot weather, and when taking part in sports.
  • Tea reduces iron absorption, so only give between meals

#7 Sugar

A high sugar intake can affect your child’s blood sugar balance, with highs and lows triggering dips in energy, mood swings, and sometimes hyperactivity.

Most kids these days eat excessive amounts of sugary foods, such as cookies, candy, and donuts. As an infrequent treat these foods are fine, however you should encourage smaller portions.

Try to bake your own desserts, cakes and cookies, as a healthier alternative to store bought products.

#8 Salt

There’s absolutely no need to add salt to your child’s food, instead season your dishes with herbs and spices.

Watch out for a high salt content in potato chips, packet soups and sauces, tinned vegetables, breakfast cereals, and some breads.

#9 Food labels

If you’re unsure what to choose at the supermarket, check out the nutritional information on the back of the food packages.

Here’s a quick guide for comparing the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt per 100 grams, or per 100 millilitres.

Grams per 100g:

So, for example if a product had 2g of fat per 100g, that would be a good choice.

Grams per 100mls:

Or, if a product had 2g of salt per 100mls, that would not be a good choice.

#10 Family mealtimes

Young children are very impressionable, therefore instilling healthy attitudes toward food is really important as this age.

Family mealtimes are one of the best ways to do this. Studies suggest that children who eat regularly with their family are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, and less likely to eat unhealthy foods.

There’s no doubt children learn by example, so use this as your opportunity to influence them for good:

  • Take care with your own portion sizes – don’t overeat
  • Don’t talk about calorie counting
  • Don’t obsess over your own weight
  • Don’t criticise or complain about the food you eat

What tips do you have for helping your children eat healthy food?

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Blake November 29, 2008 at 2:59 am

I think family meal times are important. More than just good eating habits can be learned –it’s just a great time to be with family! thanks for the great info!

Blake’s last blog post..What I am Grateful For


Melanie December 2, 2008 at 5:17 pm


Totally agree. It’s something families have forgotten these days though isn’t it? It’s really sad!


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