Got kids under 8 years old? Then don’t skip these pages. Dietitian Caitlin Reid has answers to all those child-related nutrition questions you’ve been wanting to ask.
1 to 3 years of age
Nutrition for toddlers
Children aged 1–3 years (toddlers) have a slower growth rate than in infancy, which means their energy needs are also lower. Despite this, toddlers are still nutritionally vulnerable, so feeding them a variety of nutritious foods is essential. The important thing to remember is that children come in all shapes and sizes and a healthy child should continue to grow at a regular pace.
Vitamin C: Despite fruit and vegetable intake being the highest in toddlers, 4 per cent of Australian toddlers are not getting enough vitamin C, says the Australian Children’s National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. Early symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include poor wound healing, easy bruising, gum disease and lethargy. Increase your child’s vitamin C intake by including plenty of fruit and veg in their diets. For fussy eaters add tomatoes, carrots and capsicum to spaghetti bolognaise, finely chop broccoli or spinach through their casserole, or feed them mashed sweet potato.
Calcium: According to the Australian Children’s National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, most 2–3 year olds consume adequate calcium – but 1 per cent of all children in this age group do not. Adequate calcium, in the form of milk, yoghurt, cheese and tinned salmon is essential for developing strong and healthy bones in kids, and preventing osteoporosis in their older years.
Iodine: Inadequate iodine intake is on the rise: 7 per cent of Australian children aged 1–3 are not getting enough iodine. Girls are more likely to be iodine-deficient than boys. This inadequate intake of iodine can affect a child’s development, giving rise to cretinism (severely stunted physical and mental growth). Iodine is found in seafood and seaweed, while small amounts are found in milk and yoghurt. It will also be added to bread from October this year.
Iron: About 1 per cent of Australian toddlers are not getting enough iron, which can lead to iron deficiency and even iron deficiency anaemia. Both are detrimental to development, however iron deficiency anaemia is more serious with side effects ranging from delays in crawling age to disinterest in their social environment and being harder to comfort when distressed. The importance of iron in our kids’ diets cannot be under-estimated; they need the same amount as a fully-grown man! The best sources of iron are red meats, such as beef and lamb.
What should 1 to 3 year olds eat each day?
There are currently no Australian dietary guidelines recommending specific servings of foods for children aged 1–3 years of age. There are, however, American dietary guidelines, which will be presented here.
As food requirements will vary for each child, depending on their rate of growth and activity levels, there is a range for the recommended number of serves for this age group. Generally speaking, children 1–3 years of age should aim to consume the following each day:
Breads and cereals: 3–4 serves (1 serve = 1 slice of bread, 3/4 cup breakfast cereal, 1 wheat cereal biscuit, 1/2 cup porridge, 1/2 cup cooked pasta or rice, 4 small dry biscuits)
Meat and meat alternatives: 1/2 serve (1 serve = 30g of cooked meat/chicken/fish, 1 egg, 1/2 cup cooked legumes)
Dairy products: 2–3 serves (1 serve = 250ml of milk, 200g tub yoghurt, 40g cheese)
An ideal food day for 1 to 3 year olds
Below is a sample menu for children aged 1–3 years. Please note: this is only a one-day sample, as a child’s diet should be regularly varied in order to ensure good health.
Breakfast: 1/2 cup baby cereal with 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 chopped banana
Snack: tub of small yoghurt (90g) and 1 tbsp sultanas
Lunch: 1/2 tuna sandwich with carrot and pumpkin puree
Snack: 15g cheese with 2–3 crackers
Dinner: 1/2 cup pasta with tomato-based sauce with 1–3 tbsp chicken and 1/3 cup cooked vegetables
Snack: 1/2 cup milk
Good snacks for toddlers
John West Kids Tuna
Kraft Premium High Fibre biscuits
Mini Babybel cheeses
Sunbeam Sultanas Mini Packs
Vaalia For Toddlers yoghurt
Should I give my 18-month-old reduced-fat dairy?
It’s best for children to drink full-cream milk until the age of two, as fat is an important source of energy for toddlers. Reduced-fat milk may be introduced to your child’s diet after the age of two, but skim or low-fat milk should not be introduced until at least five years of age. Skim milk does not contain enough kilojoules for a growing child.
My two-year-old sometimes refuses to eat dinner. How can I be sure he’s eating enough each day?
Children aged 1–3 years are renowned for having fluctuating appetites, which vary depending on activity levels and growth rate. While this may concern parents who worry their child isn’t eating enough, you can rest easy knowing that this is completely normal. Toddlers have an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake to meet their energy needs, which means if they eat more than usual at one meal, they will reduce the amount they eat at the next one. Don’t force them to eat – when toddlers aren’t hungry but are forced to eat, their ability to self-regulate energy intake starts to diminish, increasing their risk of weight issues later on in life.
Toddlers need small, frequent meals and, as long as your child is still growing, they will be getting a sufficient amount of food.
As a parent, you are responsible for what food and drink your child consumes, what time they eat and where they eat. Your child however, is responsible for how much and whether or not they choose to eat.
My three-year-old hates vegies. How can I get her to eat them?
The best way to get your toddler to eat vegetables is to start early and offer them heaps of variety.
Offer vegetables before fruit, as this helps to avoid your child becoming too fond of sweet tastes. If a vegetable is rejected, be persistent: you may have to offer new food to a child 12 times before they accept it. Take the pressure off trying a new food by serving it alongside some familiar vegies and fruits. You could also make vegetables fun, and present them in creative ways. Try camouflaging them with other foods, such as mixed vegetables in pasta sauces, casseroles or soups. Finally, let your child see you eat and enjoy vegetables.
I have heard that salt is bad for kids. Is that true?
A high-salt diet in infants can lead to death, as their kidneys are not developed enough to excrete the salt and hypernatraemia (too much sodium in the blood) can occur. For children aged 1–3 years, salt should be limited to no more than 2.5g (1000mg of sodium) per day. Just 0.5–1g of salt daily is all their bodies need to function.
In addition, the taste for salt is easily accepted by kids. Just a few weeks of being exposed to high salt foods is all it takes for them to become accustomed to the taste.
By limiting processed foods and avoiding adding salt to your children’s food, you can help limit this habituation and prevent overconsumption of salt.
4 to 8 years of age
Children who are 4–8 years old are at an age where food habits are still being formed so they’re easily taught. Luckily for parents, peer pressure during this age is minimal, meaning you still have a strong influence over what your children consume.
However, TV advertising can counteract nutrition education efforts, therefore it is recommended to minimise television viewing and promote physical activity in addition to healthy eating.
Vitamins A and C: About 1 per cent of children do not get adequate vitamin A and C – both are antioxidants that are important for reducing oxidative damage in the body. Over time, inadequate antioxidants can mean free radicals damage cells and may lead to such health problems as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Boost your children’s vitamin C and A intake by making sure they eat their fruit and vegetables each day.
Calcium: As kids grow older, the likelihood of them not meeting their calcium requirements increases. According to the Australian Children’s National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, 11 per cent of kids aged 4–8 years are not getting enough calcium. Adequate calcium is important in childhood and adolescence in order to optimise bone growth and strength.
Iodine: Iodine intake in children from ages 4–8 years appears to be the same as for toddlers: 7 per cent of 4–8 year olds are not getting enough iodine. Inadequate iodine can lead to poor school performance and reduced intellectual ability. Fish and seafood are the best source of iodine, but milk, yoghurt and some vegetables also contain small amounts.
What should 4 to 8 year olds eat each day?
According to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, the following is the recommended number of serves and serving sizes for kids aged 4–8 years of age. Again, a range for each food group is provided, as food intake will depend on the individual child.
Fruit: 1–2 serves (1 serve = 1 piece of fruit, 1 1/2 tbsp sultanas, 125ml fruit juice, 1 cup diced fruit)
Vegetables: 2–4 serves (1 serve = 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup salad, 1 medium potato)
Breads and cereals: 3–4 serves (1 serve = 2 slices of bread, 1 1/3 cup breakfast cereal, 1 cup porridge, 1 cup cooked pasta or rice)
Meat and meat alternatives: 1/2–1 serve (1 serve = 65–100g of cooked meat/chicken, 80–120g cooked fish, 2 small eggs, 1/2 cup cooked legumes)
Below is a sample menu for children aged 4–8 years. Please note, this is only a one-day sample, as a child’s diet should be regularly varied in order to ensure good health.
Breakfast: 3/4 cup cereal with 150ml of reduced-fat milk, 1 slice toast with reduced-fat margarine and honey
Snack: banana, wholegrain cracker with peanut butter
Lunch: reduced-fat cheese and Vegemite sandwich, carrot and celery sticks and 125ml juice
Snack: 200ml reduced-fat milk with 1 small fruit and bran muffin
Dinner: 1 skinless drumstick, 1/2 cup mashed potato, 1/4 cup pumpkin, 1/4 cup peas
Snack: tub of reduced-fat yoghurt
Good snacks for 4 to 8 year olds
Goulburn Valley Two Fruits diced
Golden Days Mini Sesame Snaps
Carman’s Muesli Bites
Nestlé Munch Bunch yoghurt
Mainland On The Go Light snack packs
I’m concerned about the food advertising directed at kids. What can I do as a parent?
Research shows food advertising to children directly influences their food preferences and increases their pestering of parents for particular products, so it’s no wonder you’re concerned.
Alarmingly, 30 per cent of all non-program content during kids’ TV viewing hours is for food, with the majority being for food of questionable nutrition value.
The best thing you can do is to reduce the amount of time kids are allowed to watch TV. Television viewing (as well as computer games and videos) should be limited to no more than two hours a day. Replace it with physical activity instead.
Should I be worried about artificial colours in kids’ foods leading to hyperactivity?
The University of Southampton found increased levels of hyperactivity in kids aged 3–8 years who consumed mixtures of some artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate. Following this study, six artificial colours (102, 104, 110, 122, 124 and 129) were banned in the UK, but in Europe they have to come with a warning. In Australia, however, there are no such regulations. So limit your child’s intake of artificial colours and processed foods.
Expert comment: Kids' nutrition
“Parents need help to understand what to feed their kids these days – because our kids don’t eat as well as they should. Providing healthy food and healthy eating habits is part of being a good parent.”
Professor Louise Baur, consultant paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, in NSW.