A balanced diet provides all of the essential nutrients for a child’s growth, development and overall health. A balanced diet is one that includes a variety of foods from each of the food groups, and offers different tastes and textures.

The food groups are:

  • breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grains
  • vegetables and legumes
  • fruit
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives
  • lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes.

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grains

Key component: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a good source of energy and play a significant role in a balanced diet. Carbohydrate foods include bread, rice, pasta, noodles and other grain-based foods.

The best choices from this group are wholemeal and wholegrain breads, breakfast cereals, oats and plain, dry biscuits – products that are less processed. Other good choices include brown rice, couscous, wholegrain pasta and polenta.


Vegetables and legumes

Key components: Vitamins and minerals

Vegetables, including legumes, provide vitamins, minerals and fibre to the diet. Adequate intake of vegetables and legumes is linked with maintaining a healthy weight, and a reduced chance of developing heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

A variety of vegetables should be provided in children’s meals and snacks each day.


Fruit

Key components: Vitamins and minerals

Fruit is a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Eating fruit is also linked with maintaining a healthy weight, and a reduced chance of developing heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. Fruit should be included in children’s meals and snacks each day.


Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives

Key components: Calcium and protein

Calcium is a mineral that is essential for bone development in children. An adequate amount of calcium is necessary for healthy bones and teeth. Plain milk and other dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are the main sources of calcium. These foods also provide some protein, which is important for growth in children.
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Milk is not recommended for babies under 12 months, but small amounts in breakfast cereal, and other dairy products such as yoghurt, custard and cheese, can be given after nine months. Full-cream cow’s milk is recommended for children aged one to two years, and reduced-fat plain milk is suitable for children over the age of two years. Calciumfortified soy drinks are an alternative for children over 12 months who do not drink cow’s milk or cow’s milk products. Rice and oat milks are not recommended and should only be given to children after medical advice.


Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes

Key components: Protein, zinc and iron

Protein is important for the structure and function of muscle and other tissues, and especially important for growth in young children. Protein can be found in animal products such as meat, fish and poultry, and also plant products such as cereals and legumes.

Iron, which is essential for growth and moving oxygen around the body, is mainly found in meat, fish and chicken. Red meat, fish and chicken provide haem iron, which is absorbed readily by the body.

Eggs, plant-based foods (including legumes), green leafy vegetables and some breakfast cereals also provide some iron. This form of iron is non-haem iron, which is not as easily absorbed into the system. Vitamin C can help the body absorb non-haem iron, so it is important for children to have a food rich in vitamin C with meals or snacks containing these foods. Foods rich in vitamin C include green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and citrus fruit.


Vegetarian and vegan eating practices

Families who are vegetarian typically avoid eating animal products such as meat, poultry and fish. They may still eat some animal-related products such as eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Vegetarians need to eat a variety of legumes, nuts, seeds and grainbased foods, which provide the nutrients that would otherwise be provided by meat, poultry and fish. Remember that nuts and seeds are potential choking hazards for young children and care must be taken if these foods are offered.

Vegans typically avoid eating any foods that have an animal origin. It is very difficult to meet children’s nutritional needs through vegan eating practices, in part because the amount of food needed to provide sufficient nutrients may be too large for the child to manage. Families must plan carefully for children on a vegan diet. It may be difficult for a setting to offer meals and snacks that conform to vegan eating practices. Families may need a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian for further information.


A note about fats

Fats also play a role in a balanced diet, as they provide energy and essential fatty acids for growth and development. A balanced diet that includes foods from all the basic food groups will include an adequate amount of fats, including essential fatty acids which come from basic foods such as lean meat, fish, wholegrain cereals and vegetables.

Young children under two years do not need reduced-fat milks. For children over two years, reduced-fat milk is suitable. Special low-fat products are not needed for young children.

Eating lean meat and skinless chicken, avoiding fried foods and using added fat (e.g. margarine, cream) sparingly are good ways to ensure that children’s diets do not contain too much fat.


The place of ‘sometimes foods’

‘Sometimes foods’ are foods not included in the basic food groups. Sometimes foods are high in fat, sugar and salt, or a combination of these. They typically have very little nutritional value and are often processed and packaged. Eating sometimes foods too frequently can result in too much fat, sugar or salt in the diet and can lead to poor eating habits and poor health.

Examples of sometimes foods include:
  • chocolate and confectionary
  • sweet biscuits, chips and high-fat savoury biscuits
  • fried foods
  • pastry-based foods such as pies, sausage rolls or pasties
  • fast food and takeaway foods
  • cakes and ice cream
  • soft drinks, fruit juice, fruit drinks, cordial, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavoured milk and flavoured mineral water.
Limit the amount of sometimes foods children eat, and avoid offering these foods as prizes or rewards, or as comfort foods. Success in encouraging healthy eating habits in children is more likely when parent, staff and carers work collaboratively. Staff and carers can create opportunities to teach children the difference between everyday and sometimes foods.