Healthy eating for children; food and nutrition tips

17th November 2023

Our Food and Nutrition experts share their insight on key foods and nutrients children need to stay healthy. Dr Laura Bardon explains more.

Children grow rapidly and life with young children can be hectic juggling school runs, after school activities and everything else in between. It can be difficult to know if your child is getting everything they need to support their growth and development. Here we share some tips on how to help children eat more healthily.

Through conducting the National Diet and Nutrition Study (NDNS) , those working in public health and policy get an in-depth picture of the foods typically eaten and the nutritional status of people in the UK. From this we can identify key foods and nutrients which are either being over or under consumed so are worth keeping an eye on in children’s diets. Here at the Food & Nutrition -National Bioscience Research Infrastructure (F&N NBRI) we produce and maintain the UK dataset detailing how much nutrients are in foods, which the NDNS team use within their surveys to monitor our diets nationally.

Helping children get the nutrition they need is important. It can help to create healthy dietary habits, instill positive lifelong food preferences and help children maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives. This can also help to avoid the development of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in later life.

So, here are some tips for helping children get the nutrition they need for their growth and development.

Foods and drinks to reduce

Fizzy drinks

They offer no benefit to children’s health and can be detrimental to their teeth. It can be particularly hard to reduce fizzy drinks from older children’s diets who may have access to a shop in school or on the journey to and from school.

Ideally fizzy drinks would be eliminated entirely from children’s diets by replacing them with sparkling water, using sugar free cordials or even infusing water with flavour by adding fruit or vegetable slices such as lemon, lime or cucumber. You could also swap out full sugar fizzy drinks for diet or sugar free varieties.

Nutrients to focus on adding more of

Fibre

Fibre is found in wholegrain carbohydrate foods such as brown varieties of breads, rice, pasta, beans, pulses, nuts, fruits and vegetables (particularly ones consumed with their peels on).

Fibre is a source of slow-release energy and can prevent constipation. The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommend that children aged 5-11 consume 20g fibre per day.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as your skin can make it when exposed to sunlight.

It is important for bone health as it helps your body to absorb calcium. During the autumn and winter months we cannot make vitamin D as the sun is not strong enough so should take a supplement- it’s a good idea to start the supplements from when kids go back to school in September up until Easter holidays. Those from ethnic groups such as African, African Caribbean or South Asian with dark skin should consider taking a vitamin D supplement throughout the whole year as they may not get enough from sunshine alone in countries with northern latitudes.

Building a healthy diet

A pie chart, with one third fruit and vegetables, one third starchy carbohydrates, the next biggest fractionm proteins like beans, fish, eggs and meat , followed by diary or dairy alternatives and finally a very small fraction that is oil and spreads.

The Eatwell Guide details the major food groups we should include for a healthy diet. These are the building blocks to a healthy diet.

  1. Children need to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. About one third of every meal should ideally be made up of fruit or vegetables. The more colour and variety you can add in the better. In fact, a child may need to be offered the same food up to 20 times before accepting it enough to taste it. Don’t be disheartened, perseverance is key.
  2. Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain versions where possible to maximise the fibre for children.
  3. Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks). These are an important source of calcium to help your child grow and build strong bones and teeth.
  4. Include beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins including two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily. Oily fish such as salmon are rich in omega-3 which support healthy brain development.
  5. Ensure your child gets six to eight cups or glasses of fluid a day. Water is the best option. Fizzy drinks and fruit juice can damage your child’s teeth so limit these.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out NHS resources on breakfast ideas, healthy lunchbox ideas and family friendly dinner ideas.

Here at the Quadram Institute , within our Food & Nutrition National Bioscience Research Infrastructure (F&N-NBRI), we are a coordinating hub in nutrition and health and the leading national provider of new and continuously updated data, tools and services vital for UK public health, research and innovation.

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