Good nutrition is a cornerstone of good health – and it’s even more important for growing children. APD and Paediatric Dietitian Debbie Iles helps make it easier to get your kids eating well at home and at school – plus we’ve got great ideas to keep them active!
As parents of school-aged children, we can despair every time yet another untouched school lunch lands on the kitchen table, or when another week goes by with the crisper contents ending up in the rubbish bin rather than in small tummies. Sound familiar? We know it can be hard to tell whether your children are getting the nutrition they need – and when it’s okay for them to have treats. So we’ve devised some golden rules for healthy eating to help keep it simple (and hopefully keep tussles over their food to a minimum!).
For primary school-aged children (6–12 years), the amount of food they need to eat can vary considerably depending on their growth rate, amount of physical activity, and body size. However, there are some general guidelines about the amounts and types of foods they should be eating each day. We’ve created an easy guide (see Healthy eating for kids – the basics, below) to help you ensure your child is getting enough of the ‘good stuff’ they need from each basic food group.
The good news for parents (and kids!) is that a healthy diet can also include ‘occasional foods’. In fact, it’s important for children to learn that rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, there are some foods that should be eaten every day, and others that can be enjoyed occasionally. A healthy balanced diet can include 1–2 serves of these ‘occasional’ foods on most days – but try to avoid using them as a reward.
Healthy eating for kids – the basics
Food group: Vegetables
Serves per day 4–5
Example of a serve 1 cup salad 1/2 cup cooked chopped vegetables 1 medium potato 1/2 cup legumes
Food group: Breads and cereals
Serves per day 4–9*
Example of a serve 2 slices wholegrain bread or 1 bread roll 1 cup cooked porridge or cereal 1 cup cooked rice or pasta 6–8 crackers or crispbread
Food group: Meat, chicken, fish and other protein alternatives
Serves per day 1–2
Example of a serve 65–100g lean meat or chicken 80–120g fish 2 small eggs 1/2 cup mince 2 small chops 1/2 cup legumes
(Fish should be eaten twice per week and oily fish once per week.)
Food group: Fruit
Serves per day 2
Example of a serve 1 medium piece of fruit (apple, orange, pear, banana) 2 smaller fruit (apricots, plums, kiwi, mandarins) 1 1/2 tablespoons sultanas 1 cup tinned fruit
Food group: Reduced-fat dairy and dairy alternatives
Serves per day 3
Example of a serve 250mL milk, calcium-fortified soy milk or custard 200g yoghurt 2 tablespoons milk powder 40g (2 slices) cheese
(Reduced-fat dairy should be given after 2 years of age.)
Examples of a serve 1 small piece cake/sweet bun 30g potato chips 2 small scoops ice-cream 15–20g chocolate bar 3 small sweet biscuits 1/2 slice pizza
Guidelines based on Dietary Guidelines for Australians and QLD Health recommendations for children aged 6–12. *Number of serves and serving size of some foods varies depending on age and activity levels.
Feeding fussy eaters
Most of us know which foods are healthy and what kids should be eating – but getting them to eat it can be a different story, and a very frustrating experience for parents. The key to success lies in persistence, consistency and leading by example. It’s also important to respect your child’s ability to listen to their appetite. A parent’s responsibility is to provide the right types of food, while your child’s responsibility is to decide how much of that food they wish to eat. Here are some tips to help the process.
10 tips for feeding fussy eaters
Try to make mealtimes a pleasant and relaxed experience. Try homemade pizza nights, outdoor picnics, or add novelty to lunchboxes with fun stickers or a special note.
Involve your child in food preparations and cooking. Let them slice vegetables, help bake bread for school lunches, shake up a dressing, or make a salad and choose the ingredients.
When at home, set meal time rules and time limits. Eat sitting down, keep distractions to a minimum and give them 20–30 minutes to finish their meal. If it is not eaten, take it away – but do not provide any alternatives. A healthy child will eventually eat if they are hungry! Continue providing your child with the nutritious foods you want them to eat and let them eat in accordance to their appetite. It may be that your child is simply not hungry enough at dinner time and you may need to look at the snacks they are eating beforehand.
Try not to coax, plead, threaten, or force feed. However, it can help to ‘incentivise’ with stickers or other non-food rewards. In 2011, a UK study involving 173 families with children aged 3–4 years found children tried more new foods and ate more vegetables when repeated exposure was coupled with a tangible reward system, like stickers, after the meal.
Set a good example. Children’s eating behaviours can be learned from both parents and peers – as shown in a study in the 1980s that had children eating Brussels sprouts because their peers did!
Try to develop an interest in foods by talking to your child about where they come from. Look at recipe books together, take them grocery shopping and let them choose a new fruit or vegetable to try each time.
Let them serve themselves at mealtimes and pack their own school lunches (with supervision!). A greater sense of control over their food may encourage better eating.
Keep an eye on snacking. Children will be fussier if they are not hungry. Being hungry before meals is a normal healthy sensation that indicates it’s time to eat.
Always provide some foods they will eat, but persist with giving them foods they are less keen on. It has been shown to take ten attempts or more for children to accept a new food.
Keep mealtime drinks to a minimum and stick to water as much as possible.
Common problems… solved!
Problem They won’t eat their lunch at school.
Solution Firstly, have a look at how their lunch is surviving the day. Is it staying cool, going soggy or being left out in the sun? Milk poppers, yoghurts, tubs of fruit in natural juice and water all freeze well to keep lunches cool as well as making popular snacks. If they don’t like sandwiches, try packing up dinner leftovers.
Problem They always want to eat the same unhealthy foods that their friends eat.
Solution What are their friends actually eating? Could you offer them some healthier alternatives? Homemade banana bread or pancakes, a few Tiny Teddies occasionally, or a small treat to look forward to on certain days (eg. Wednesday popcorn day, Friday tinned fruit in jelly day) are all good options. Also try different packaging – sometimes fruit is more appealing when cut up, or sandwiches when shaped differently.
Problem What foods can help my kids concentrate at school?
Solution Low-GI carbohydrates like wholegrain bread and cereals are great options. Make sure they are getting enough carbohydrate-rich foods in their lunchbox and a good breakfast at home.
Problem They won’t drink milk. How do they get calcium?
Solution Some kids won’t drink milk but are happy to have it on their cereal or if flavoured. Try adding a spoon of Milo to a glass of reduced-fat milk. Custard, yoghurt, cheese and some ice-creams are good sources of calcium. Skim milk powder can be added to mashed potato and white sauces. Soy or protein-enriched rice milks are other options if they are calcium fortified. Other sources include tofu, tinned fish with bones, and almonds.
Problem What are some healthy, on-the-go breakfasts?
Solution Make smoothies for them to drink in the car, or make Bircher muesli to take with you by soaking oats and chia in milk overnight. Add yoghurt, banana, blueberries or any other fruit and pack in small containers. Cereal like Weet-Bix Bites, shredded wheat parcels or Sultana Bran Buds can be eaten dry – throw in a chilled milk popper for them to drink separately. If all else fails, try a banana and wholegrain muesli bar, or an Up&Go.
Problem What foods are good to eat before sport?
Solution Aim for carbohydrates. Try a wholegrain sandwich, homemade banana bread, fruit pancakes, a wholegrain muesli bar or a slice or raisin toast. Fresh fruit, a tub of yoghurt, a bowl of cereal, or a fruit smoothie are alternatives if you don’t have much time.
Problem My child won’t drink water.
Solution Chilled water may be more readily accepted. Partly freeze a drink bottle or add ice to a jug in the fridge (accessibility also helps). A dash of fruit juice or a squeeze of lemon/lime/orange also adds a little pizzazz to encourage drinking in hot weather. Soft drinks, sports drinks, juice and milk should not be given to quench thirst.
Problem They always want something sweet after dinner.
Solution Sweet is not necessarily bad. Low-fat yoghurt or custard provide calcium, and tinned, dried or fresh fruit can add extra fibre and nutrients. During winter, a warm milk or hot chocolate are also good options.
Putting it into practice
So you know what your child should be eating – but it’s a different story in the morning rush to get ready for school! We’ve got some easy, practical ideas to help.
Five great lunch ideas
Pasta spirals with some grated carrots, cheese, tomato and a little pasta sauce/dressing.
Salad and meat/cheese wraps (from the school canteen or let them put it together at school so it doesn’t get soggy).
Homemade (or store/canteen bought) avocado or vegie/tofu sushi – be sure to keep it cool!
Bread roll and frittata (leftover from dinner).
Homemade ‘fried’ rice (that isn’t fried). Include peas, corn, diced capsicum, carrots, and zucchini.
Tip: Some kids simply don’t like sandwiches. Let them experiment with leftovers or cook a bulk lot of pasta or soup and freeze in portions on the weekend.
Five great snack ideas
Tub of yoghurt – squeezie yoghurt tubes freeze well too.
Wholegrain muesli bar. Steer clear of the ‘yoghurt’ and chocolate topped bars. Ideally, you are looking for one that contains less than 3g fat (or <10g if it contains nuts) and less than 600kJ. Low-GI and high-fibre (>3g) are also good.
Low-fat milk popper – flavoured or plain.
Sultana/dried fruit snack boxes (kids love novelty and single snack packs of dried fruit can be a winner).
Tinned fruit or tubs of fruit in natural juice.
Easy swaps to keep kids and parents happy
Slice of grainy or high-fibre white bread spread thinly with Nutella
Bag of Tiny Teddies
Dry cereal such as Weet-Bix Bites or Sultana Bran Buds in a small container
Fruit drink poppers
Water bottles filled with diluted fruit juice
Low-fat frozen yoghurt
A couple of prunes, dates or dried figs
Low-fat fresh fruit smoothie
Cake or sweet biscuits
Keeping our kids active is vital for their health and wellbeing. Exercise helps children learn more effectively, manage their weight, improves their mood, is a social outlet – and starting young sets them up with healthy habits that can last a lifetime. But what do you do if your child doesn’t like sport, or is feeling self-conscious about getting out and getting active? PD/H/PE teacher Andy Pedashenko has some creative new ways to help kids of all skill and confidence levels become more active.
Tips to get kids moving!
Getting to school Make the trip to school part of their active time. Even if you drop them off a few blocks before their school, the bus stop or train station, they’ll be getting some exercise without thinking about it. You can lead by example – walk or ride with them and get your own exercise at the same time.
Family fun Children get their exercise and eating habits from their parents. It is just as important to exercise together as it is to eat meals together. Try setting aside at least 2 hours a week to move with your kids – make the most of the weekends and plan what you would all like to do. If your child is shy but loves animals, try volunteering your services as a neighbourhood dog-walker and do it together – they might even earn some pocket money!
Ask them Involving kids in the decision about what exercise they want to do is a great way to get them interested. It can be easy to pressure your child into sports you enjoyed at their age without taking their own interests, skills and capabilities into account. Sitting down together and having a good discussion about sports they want to play or extra-curricular activities they’d like to join is a good way to start.
Get close to nature Getting outdoors is a fun way to get the kids moving, whether it’s for a few hours, the day or for a holiday escape. Try finding your closest national park or camping spot and plan a bushwalk.
Be prepared Make it family policy to always have a piece of active equipment on hand, rather than relying on technology such as smart phones to keep them entertained. Keep balls, bats, kites, Frisbees or skateboards in the car or your handbag (try a tennis ball!) so they get used to exercising in their free time.
Disguise fitness as fun If you make exercise fun for them, they won’t even notice they’re doing it! Try taking them paintballing with their friends, set up a family game of capture the flag, or create a gauntlet, obstacle course or treasure hunt for them at home or in the park so it takes the focus off the exercise. You can offer a fun reward to the winner, like a new book, or even being excused from the washing up for a week!
Games can be good For kids who really don’t enjoy sport, or who don’t have anyone who can play with them outside in the afternoons, embracing technology can be the answer – just don’t let them do it lying down! Active computer games such as WiiFit involve moving, dancing and jumping, which can be great exercise and help build their confidence.
The Australian Government recommends
Children need at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
Children should not spend more than two hours a day using electronic media for entertainment (e.g. computer games, TV, Internet), particularly during daylight hours.
Did you know? One-quarter of Australian children (or around 600,000 children aged 5–17 years) are overweight or obese. In the next 20 years this is expected to increase to over one-third.