Healthy Eating for Infants, Children and Teenagers

Infants, children and teenagers have special food needs because they are growing and developing. They also need extra energy for playing and being more active.

Dietary Guideline 1:

To achieve and maintain a healthy weight be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs

  • Children and adolescents should eat sufficient nutritious foods to grow and develop normally. They should be physically active every day and their growth should be checked regularly.

Children and teenagers, like adults are more likely than ever before to be overweight. To know whether your child is carrying extra weight visit the US Centres for Disease Control website.

However, it is usually not recommended that children lose weight even if they are overweight because they are still growing and developing. Instead, it is better that they slow their weight gain and let their height catch up. Any weight loss in children should always be supervised by a dietitian.

A whole family approach to healthy eating and physical activity is the best way to help children and teenagers manage their weight. Keep discretionary foods for special occasions only and keep portion sizes low. Put only foods from the five food groups in your supermarket trolley. Plan the week’s meals and snacks and use a list. Cook extra serves of healthy meals and freeze some for busy times. Plan ahead for meals and snacks [Hyperlink word to 7. Main Page] eaten away from home. Only have water and low fat milk available for drinks at home. Don’t buy juice or sweetened drinks as they are high in kilojoules. Look for fun, active things you can do together.

Dietary Guideline 2:

Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five groups every day

Getting started in life - Infancy

Breastmilk or an alternate infant formula is all that babies need until around six months. However, the second half of a baby’s first year of life is the time when he or she learns much about food and family eating. It’s a window of opportunity when babies are keen to find out about the world around them. At their first birthday, a baby is aiming to be eating the same foods as the rest of the family. This means the older baby must move gradually from a single food that is liquid to a whole range of foods with varying textures, tastes and smells. Some are keener than others to try new foods, so don’t be discouraged if a baby needs to be offered a food as many as ten times or more before it becomes familiar and ‘safe’ enough to try. The effort is worth it as, the wider the range of food experiences, the more likely a child is to continue to eat a variety of foods from the five food groups and gain the essential nutrients and other food components for good health.

An image of an infant eating with a spoon to illustrate a child transitioning to solid foods.

The transition to solid foods

There is no particular order to introduce new foods, however to avoid iron deficiency, iron-containing foods such as iron-fortified cereals, pureed meat and poultry dishes, or cooked plain tofu and legumes/soy beans/lentils are recommended to be included in the first foods.  Finely grate or soften hard fruits and vegetables by short cooking to prevent the risk of choking but keep whole nuts for children aged 3 years or older.

Move from smooth, liquidy purees to chunkier, more solid textures as your baby develops. Keep challenging your baby with increasing thicknesses and larger lumps, but start with foods that can be modified to the texture your baby needs. Keep it simple by using the foods being prepared for the family meal, but be sure not to add extra fats, added sugars or added salt. The amount is not important; be guided by your babies appetite. It’s more about trying new foods.

Family Foods

Introducing your family’s foods to a new baby is also a time to think about what you would like them to grow up eating. Is it the type of foods your family eats now, or is it time to think about making some changes towards healthier eating? Your example will have a powerful influence on what your baby ends up eating. You are their role model. How does your diet rate? You can also check by taking the ‘Are you eating for health?’ quiz in the Dietary Guidelines Summary. But don’t limit what you offer your baby, by what you like. Think broadly and creatively.

Where you eat is important too. Babies benefit in many ways from family meals at the dining table. They watch what the other people in their family eat and how and also learn much about talking and communication.

Always be careful to follow food safety guidelines when preparing food for babies as smaller bodies are more vulnerable to illness from food contamination.

Breastmilk or an alternate infant formula will still be the main drink during a baby’s first year. However, it’s good to introduce them to cooled boiled water as this will remain the best drink for health throughout life. Fruit juices, like sweetened drinks, are not needed for good health. They are linked with excess weight and tooth decay.

Keeping going - toddlers, childhood and adolescence

Toddlers sometimes become more fussy about what they eat and drink. It’s important to keep offering a variety of foods from the five food groups and not to be pressured to stick to a limited range that you know will get eaten, or to offer preferred foods after a meal is refused. Remember that it’s a parent’s role to decide what choices are on offer and when and a child’s role to decide if they want a food and how much.

Childcare and school lunchboxes, like meals and snacks at home, should continue to reflect the Five Food Groups and not include discretionary foods and drinks.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating will tell you how much of what type of foods children and teenagers need at different ages to get all the nutrients they need. Be careful not to avoid foods from the Five Food Groups and seek a medical diagnosis for any suspected food intolerance or allergy.

Dietary Guideline 3:

Limit intake of foods and drinks containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol

Childcare and school lunchboxes, like meals and snacks at home, should continue to reflect the dietary guidelines and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and not include discretionary foods and drinks. Discretionary foods are higher in saturated fats, added salt, and added sugars and lower in fibre and should be kept for special occasions. The Guide includes a picture that can be useful for explaining to children that some foods are ‘everyday’ foods and other foods are ‘party foods’ or for special occasions. Understanding how all foods fit into healthy eating can be more useful than labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

While it is important not to add fats, sugars and/or salt to food for babies and young children, low fat diets are not appropriate for young children, particularly those under two years, because they are growing so fast. Full fat milks, yoghurts and cheeses should be used for children until they are two years old.