Children’s Healthy Eating Guidelines

Why Eat Healthy Food?

The food we feed our children has a huge effect on their growth, behaviour and health. It can influence their lifelong eating habits, health and weight.

Children need to eat lots of different kinds of foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables so they get the nutrients they need to make sure they grow and have energy to learn well.

Children’s Healthy Eating Guidelines

The Ministry of Health has guidelines on healthy, balanced, daily diets. They show you how many servings preschoolers, children and young people should eat from each food group.

Visit the Ministry of Health food and nutrition guidelines for children and adults webpage for more information.

How big is a serving size?

We hear a lot about ’serving sizes’ on food labels and nutrition advice, but it’s hard to know how big they are.

A serving size poster shows you what serving sizes look like for adults. For children serving sizes are smaller - for most foods think of a serving as what the child can hold in his/her hand, for cheese a serving is about the size of the child’s thumb. Using this method serving sizes increase as the child grows. To discourage overeating it is best to give small children small servings and then give them more if they are still hungry.

How to make healthy food appeal to children

Finding healthy meals that appeal to children can be hard. Parents know all about uneaten lunchboxes and dinners that children ‘just don't like’.

Ask young children to help with meal preparation. They enjoy shopping for food and helping cook and eat it. Teenagers enjoy food preparation too. It is a good way to encourage them to share family dinners.

Happy healthy eating tips

  • Eat breakfast. It is a healthy, low-cost way to help children grow strong and be ready to learn
  • Research has shown eating breakfast helps maintain a healthy body weight
  • Keep a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit on hand for quick healthy snacks
  • Home-made snacks, can be tasty, low-cost and easy to prepare. Click here for healthy snack tips
  • They don’t need to come in packets
  • Make water and milk the first choice instead of sugary drinks
  • Put a jug of water on the table for the whole family to share during mealtimes
  • Try to make fruit and vegetables a part of every meal
  • Cut fruit and vegetables into easy-to-eat sizes and shapes
  • Lead by example. Kids learn a lot from what parents eat. Make sure you eat and enjoy different vegetables as a regular part of your meals
  • Get children to help choose and prepare meals - shopping, peeling, chopping, cooking or serving
  • Eat together as a family as often as you can. Make meal times an enjoyable whānau time
  • Choose wholegrain options where possible
  • Don’t use food to reward, bribe or show your love.

Feeding our Futures has more tips on healthy eating for your family.

The Importance of Fruit and Vegetables

Children should eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and legumes (dried beans, peas, lentils) every day so they get enough fibre, vitamins and minerals. School-aged children need at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day.

Tips to encourage children to eat fruit and vegetables:

  • Cut fruit into bite sized pieces. They make more appealing snacks than whole fruit, especially for younger kids
  • Have a bowl of fresh fruit handy for kids to snack on and share
  • Keep a plate of cut up vegetable sticks and low fat dip in the fridge
  • Make fresh fruit skewers or fruit pieces on cocktail sticks
  • Cut a variety of vegetables into small pieces and include in pasta sauce or stir fried rice and noodle dishes
  • Provide vegetables sticks for pre-dinner snacks. Kids will often munch on them happily when they are really hungry
  • Add low fat dips like hummus and tzatziki to vegetables. It makes them more appealing
  • Appeal to younger kids with creative displays of fruit and vegetable pieces on their plate. Smiley faces are a winner.
  • Freeze pieces of fruit to make a refreshing summer snack
  • Make fresh fruit smoothies with low fat milk and yoghurt for delicious breakfasts or snacks. Be creative and try different fruit combinations
  • Let older kids serve their own vegetables at the table and make sure they see you eating yours!
  • Try to serve up a mixture of colours, to help make them look appealing.

More about eating fruit and vegetables

The 5+ A Day website has lots of information about eating fruit and vegetables. It answers common questions, provides recipes, and suggests children’s activities.

Fats

Fatty foods taste and smell good. Although, it is important to consume some fat as part of a healthy diet, consuming too much can damage our health:

  • Fat improves the taste and texture of many foods. Foods cooked in fat or with fat added to them usually taste and smell better than those without the extra fat.
  • Fat has more than twice the energy of carbohydrates. If you are eating a lot of fat and not burning up the extra energy in physical activity, it will be stored as excess fat in the body.
  • Excess fat stores clog the arteries, which leads to heart disease. It also contributes to overweight, obesity and high cholesterol levels.

Not all fats are created equally. Some are much better for you than others.

Healthy fats

Healthy fats are an essential part of your daily diet. The healthiest fats are unsaturated – either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. They:

  • Help lower cholesterol levels
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease.

Unsaturated fats, such as olive, sunflower and canola oils, are usually liquid or soft at room temperature. Healthy fats are also found in nuts, seeds and oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines.

Unhealthy fats

Saturated and trans fats are unhealthy fats.

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and come mainly from animals. Examples are full fat dairy foods, fatty meat and sausages, and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils.

Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to make them more stable and solid at room temperature. They are in many baked and fried foods such as biscuits, donuts, crackers, cakes and hot chips.

Eating too much fatty food is bad for your health. Keep saturated and trans fats out of your diet as much as possible.

Check food labels to ensure total fat content is under 10g per 100g.

Sugar

Most people eat more sugar than they need.
Sugar tastes good and contains energy but has no essential nutrients. If you eat more sugar than you burn up in physical activity, your body will convert it into fat. This can lead to weight gain.

Most processed foods and drinks have sugar. You may not know it is there. Food manufacturers use sugar to:

  • Sweeten food and drink
  • Extend food shelf life by slowing bacteria growth.

Try to avoid foods with more than 10g of sugar per 100g.

Sugar gives us energy

Sugar gives a burst of energy our bodies can use quickly. But this fades fast and can sometimes leave us wanting more because it doesn’t keep you full for very long.

Sugar harms teeth

Sugar helps the growth of bacteria in the mouth. These produce acid which damages the enamel and causes dental decay (holes in teeth). Brushing twice a day helps clean bacteria off teeth.

Cutting back on eating sugary food and drinks is the only way to ensure minimal decay. It is especially important not to drink a lot of soft drinks as they are often also high in acid which also damages the enamel on teeth.

Salt

You need to eat some salt for good health. But many people love the taste of salty foods and eat more than they need. Eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Why do we need salt?

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Both are useful:

  • Sodium helps the nervous system transmit messages around the body and regulate blood pressure
  • Chloride is used by the stomach to make acid that helps in food digestion and to kill unhealthy bacteria.

Food labels usually list salt as sodium.

Processed foods have salt

Food manufacturers use salt to preserve foods, extend their shelf life and make them taste good. Salt is ‘hidden’ in many processed foods such as bread, breakfast cereals and biscuits. Most of the salt we eat comes from these foods. It is easy to have too much.

Too much salt is a health risk

Salt raises blood pressure. Many people are unaware they have high blood pressure and that it may be damaging their health. High blood pressure is very common amongst adults and often causes no symptoms until it is too late and they suffer from a devastating heart attack or stroke.

Children and salt

A liking for salty food usually begins in childhood. This could affect children’s future health.

  • Parents can prevent children from developing a liking for salty food by:
  • Choosing unprocessed foods and fresh foods
  • Not serving foods that are overly processed and high in salt
  • Looking for foods that are either low in salt or salt-reduced
  • Discouraging children from sprinkling extra salt onto their meals at the table
  • Adding herbs for flavour instead of salt.

Try to choose foods that contain less than 400mg of salt per 100g. Less than 120mg per 100g is even better.

The Healthy Food Guide Supermarket Shopping Guide can help you find the healthiest food items next time you go shopping.