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.
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.
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.
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.
Feeding our Futures has more tips on healthy eating for your family.
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:
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.
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:
Not all fats are created equally. Some are much better for you than others.
Healthy fats are an essential part of your daily diet. The healthiest fats are unsaturated – either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. They:
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.
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.
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:
Try to avoid foods with more than 10g of sugar per 100g.
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 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.
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.
Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Both are useful:
Food labels usually list salt as sodium.
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.
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.
A liking for salty food usually begins in childhood. This could affect children’s future health.
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.