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Family food

For adults and children over five, a healthy, balanced diet usually means eating plenty of bread, breakfast cereals, potatoes, pasta and rice, as well as fruit and vegetables.

The balance of good health model shown right indicates the types of foods and the proportions you need to eat them in for a well-balanced, healthy diet.

Children under the age of five need a diet that is higher in fat and lower in fibre than this, but by five should be eating a diet similar to that recommended for adults.

Some ideas to try if your child won’t drink milk.

Milk

  • Porridge, hot oat cereal or cornmeal made with full-fat milk
  • Breakfast cereals with milk
  • Vermicelli cooked in full fat milk
  • Rice pudding, custard, bread-and-butter pudding
  • Dairy ice-cream made with milk

Cheese

  • Macaroni cheese, cheese on toast, cheese on vegetables and bakes
  • Vegetable soup with grated cheese
  • Chunks of cheese and pieces of fruit
  • Cottage cheese dips

Yoghurt and fromage frais

  • Add fruit (fresh, frozen or canned) raw, stewed or baked, to full-fat yoghurt or fromage frais
  • Add yoghurt to curry

Your Toddler’s Diet

By the age of one, children will be joining in family meals. They will also be more active and using more energy, and will need a varied, energy-rich diet for good health and growth.

We all need energy (calories) and nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals) to grow, for activity, and for the body to work properly and repair itself. Babies and children under two have small tummies and can’t eat large amounts of food all in one go, so they need small meals with healthy snacks in between. Like the rest of the family, your toddler needs to eat a variety of foods from the following five groups. By doing so, your child will almost certainly get all the nutrients he or she needs.

  • Milk and dairy foods – milk, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais.
  • Bread, other cereals and potatoes – bread, rice, pasta, maize, potatoes, breakfast cereals, etc.
  • Fruits and vegetables – all types of fruits and vegetables.
  • Meat, fish and alternatives – meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils etc.
  • Foods containing fat and foods containing sugar – biscuits, cakes, chocolate, puddings, sweets, ice-cream, fats and oils. Give only limited amounts.

Milk and dairy products

Milk is important for young children. Milk and dairy products are a good source of vitamin A which helps the body to resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes. After the age of one, a minimum of half a pint of milk a day will provide energy for growth, and calcium for strong bones and teeth. You can continue breastfeeding after the age of one if you wish and full-fat cow’s milk can now take the place of infant formula and follow-on milk as your baby’s main drink. If your child doesn’t like drinking milk every day, give at least two servings of milk-based dishes, cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais daily.

Use full-fat milk and dairy products until your child is five, although semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from two years of age, provided your child is a good eater and growing well. Children under two need the extra fat and vitamins in full-fat dairy products. Skimmed milk is not suitable for children under five.

Families receiving Income Support or an income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance with children under five years of age can receive seven pints of milk per week per child, free of charge.

What if I don’t want to give my child cow’s milk?

If your child is allergic to cow’s milk or is a vegan, you will avoid giving cow’s milk or its products to your child. But you still need to make sure he or she is are getting enough calcium and energy.

You can:

  • give unsweetened soya drink with added calcium (check the label);
  • for vegan diets, give soya-based infant formula as a drink. Soya-based infant formula contains added sugar, unlike cow’s milk, so it needs to be used exactly as stated on the label to protect teeth.

Bread, other cereals and potatoes

Whether it is bread or breakfast cereals, potatoes or yams, rice or couscous, pasta or chappatis, most children don’t need much encouragement to eat one or more of the foods from this group.

A portion with each meal will provide energy, various nutrients and some fibre. Let your child try lots of different varieties of starchy foods. Try wholemeal bread and pasta every now and then.

However, it’s not a good idea to give only wholegrain foods because they may fill your child up too quickly to get all the calories they need. Don’t add bran to cereals or use bran-enriched cereals as they can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron.

Starchy foods form an important part of anyone's diet. But they can be very filling, so make sure small tummies have room for other foods too.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables contain lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre and they liven up meals with a variety of colours, textures and flavours. Try to introduce lots of different types from an early age, whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried.

Try to ensure young children have fruit and vegetables regularly. If you can, try to include some green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage), and some yellow or orange vegetables (swede, carrots, squash) and fruit (apricots, mango, peaches). These contain beta-carotene, the plant form of vitamin A. Also try to include some citrus fruits (satsumas, oranges) and some salad (peppers, tomatoes) for vitamin C which helps the absorption of iron from other foods (see Getting enough iron, page 80).Different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so the wider the range your toddler eats, the better, but don’t worry if your child will only eat one or two types. Allow your child to eat them as often as possible and gradually tempt them with new varieties.

Many children don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables and it can be hard work persuading them to even eat a mouthful. Obviously, there will always be something they don’t like! Use some of the ideas below to help you.

Many children don’t like cooked vegetables but will nibble on them while you’re preparing the meal. Be imaginative about serving vegetables, perhaps mashing different types together or arranging them attractively on the plate.

If your child flatly refuses to eat vegetables, keep offering them but also offer more fruit. Make sure you show that you like eating them. Don’t make a big fuss if they refuse. Give vitamin drops as a safeguard.

Fat and fibre

Some people wrongly think that small children need a low-fat diet, just like adults. Children under the age of two need fat in their diet to provide energy, and some vitamins are only found in fat.

It is therefore more important to make sure that they eat a variety of foods and get enough calories than to worry about fat. Between the ages of two and five their diet will adapt to be more like that of adults. Make sure that both your child, as they get to be five years old, and the rest of your family aim for a healthy diet based on the balance of good health, which is low in fat, especially saturated fat. 

It is also a mistake to give babies and toddlers a high-fibre diet as it is quite bulky and can stop important minerals like calcium and iron from being absorbed. High-fibre foods such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice can be introduced gradually, so that by the time children are five they are used to a healthy adult diet.

Some ideas to try

Tasty snacks

  • Breakfast cereals (not sugar-coated)
  • Popcorn or breadsticks
  • Toast, bagels, bread buns or potato cakes
  • Fingers of toasted white bread covered with cheese spread

More substantial meals

  • Baked potatoes with baked beans and cheese
  • Pasta with vegetables, meat, fish or cheese sauces
  • Pitta bread filled with cream cheese, ham or fish
  • Couscous mixed with peas and flaked fish or cooked minced meat
  • Noodles or rice mixed with shredded omelette and vegetables
  • Chapattis with dahl.
  • Top pizza with favourite vegetables or canned pineapple
  • Give carrot sticks, slices of pepper and peeled apple for snacks
  • Mix chopped or mashed vegetables with rice, mashed potatoes, meat sauces or dahl
  • Mix fruit, whether fresh, canned or stewed, with yoghurt or fromage frais for a tasty dessert
  • Chop prunes or dried apricots into cereal or yoghurt, or add to a stew

For more ideas and recipes, ask your local health promotion unit for a copy of the leaflet, Enjoy fruit and veg.

Other leaflets may be available in Northern Ireland.

Meat, fish and alternatives

Protein is needed by young children to grow and develop. Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses (beans, lentils and peas), foods made from pulses (tofu, hummus, soya mince, etc.) and Quorn are excellent sources of protein, so give at least one portion from this group each day. Meat and fish also contain zinc which is important for healing wounds and making many of the body’s processes function properly. Zinc can be in short supply in toddlers’ diets.

If you are bringing up your child on a diet without meat (vegetarian) or without any food from an animal (vegan), two portions of vegetable proteins or nuts daily will ensure enough protein. Whole nuts should not be given to children under five years of age as there is a risk of choking. Grind nuts finely or use a smooth nut butter.

Is your child a vegetarian?

There are different types of vegetarians. Vegans eat no foods which come from animals. Lacto-vegetarians eat milk and milk products, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat milk, milk products and eggs.

If your child has a vegetarian or vegan diet, take care to provide enough energy, protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. The principles of weaning for the first six months are the same for vegetarian babies as for non-vegetarians. However, as your child gets older, the iron and energy content of such a diet may be low and the fibre content high. To ensure all your child’s nutritional needs are met, smaller and more frequent main meals, with one or two snacks in between, are best. Vitamin drops are especially important up to five years of age.

Vegan diets

A vegan diet may be very bulky, consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables and beans. Young children may have difficulty in eating enough food to provide the energy and nutrients they need for growth and so may become malnourished. Vegan diets are not therefore recommended for young babies. If your child does have a vegan diet, you need to take extra care to ensure he or she has enough of the following nutrients and enough energy. It is also advisable to consult a dietitian or doctor before starting weaning.

  • Energy – starchy foods. These need to be eaten in moderation. For extra energy, add vegetable oils or vegetarian fat spreads to foods. Smooth nut or seed butters can also be used, but you will have to avoid some of these products (e.g. peanut butter, tahini paste*, etc.) if there is a risk of your child being allergic to them (see Food allergies, page 83 and * below).
  • Protein – pulses, foods made from pulses, Quorn, but continue with soya-based infant formula until your child is two years of age to ensure she or he has enough protein. 
  • Iron – see Getting enough iron, page 80.
  • Calcium – soya mince, soya drink that has been fortified with calcium, tahini paste*, tofu and tempeh.
  • Vitamin B12 – fortified breakfast cereals, some yeast extracts. A supplement of B12 may be needed.

* Tahini paste is made from sesame seeds, and these may cause an allergic reaction in a small number of children.

For more information on vegetarian diets, contact: The Vegetarian Society, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham, Cheshire WA14 4QG, Tel: 0161 928 0793.

Getting enough iron

Iron is essential for your child’s health. Lack of iron leads to anaemia, which can hold back your child’s physical and mental development. Children who are poor eaters or on restricted diets are most at risk. Iron comes in two forms. One is found in foods from animal sources (especially meat), which is easily absorbed by the body. The other is found in plant foods, which is not quite so easy for the body to absorb. If you can, try to give your child a portion of meat or fish every day, and kidney or liver once a week.

Even a small portion of meat or fish is useful because it also helps the body to absorb iron from other food sources. If your child doesn’t have meat or fish, make sure that he or she regularly eats plenty of iron-rich alternatives (choose from the list below).

It’s also a good idea to give foods or drinks that are high in vitamin C at mealtimes, as it helps the absorption of iron from non-meat sources. Tea and coffee reduce iron absorption, so don’t serve these, especially at mealtimes.

Good sources of iron (plant sources)

  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Breads
  • Beans and lentils 
  • Tofu
  • Dried fruit: apricots, figs, prunes

Good sources of iron (animal sources)

  • Lean beef, lamb or pork
  • Liver pâté, liver or kidney
  • Chicken or turkey
  • Canned sardines, pilchards, mackerel or tuna
  • Fat, sugar and salt

  

Foods containing fat and foods containing sugar are the fifth main food group.

Fat 

Young children, especially the under twos, need the concentrated energy provided by fat in their diet. That is why it is important to give foods such as full-fat milk, yoghurt, cheese, and oily fish. Between the ages of two and five you can gradually introduce lower-fat dairy products and cut down on fat in other foods so that by the time children are five they are eating a healthy low-fat diet like that recommended for adults. Make sure you don’t increase the fat in the diet by introducing too many high-fat fast foods, e.g burgers.

Foods such as crisps, chips, biscuits, cakes and fried foods are also high in fat, and they’re popular with children and adults alike. But they should be limited at all ages to keep your family healthy. Consider these sorts of foods as ‘extras’ once your child has eaten well from the four other main groups.

Because fat is such a concentrated source of energy it is easy to eat too much of it and become overweight. It’s a good idea to be aware of the amount of fat contained in foods which the whole family eats and to try to keep it to a minimum. Some ideas for cutting down on fat are shown in the box opposite.

Try some of these ideas for cutting down fat in family meals (especially saturated fat)

  • Grill or bake foods instead of frying 
  • Skim the fat off meat dishes like mince or curry during cooking
  • Buy leaner cuts of meat and lower- fat meat products such as sausages and burgers with low-fat labels
  • Take the skin off poultry before cooking – it’s the fattiest part
  • Use vegetables or soaked dried beans with just a small amount of meat in stews and casseroles
  • Use lower-fat dairy products like low-fat spreads and reduced-fat cheeses (e.g. reduced-fat cheddar or edam) rather than full-fat varieties (but not for children under two)
  • If you use oil for cooking, use as little as possible and choose one which is high in polyunsaturates such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, corn or olive oil

Sugar

Most young children enjoy sweet foods such as biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolates and sweet drinks. A small amount of sugar in foods at mealtimes is OK. But when teeth are in frequent contact with sugary foods and drinks, they will decay. You can reduce the amount of sugar you give by trying the following.

  • Reduce the number of foods and drinks you give which taste sweet, whether from sugar or artificial sweeteners as they encourage a sweet tooth.
  • Try not to give sweet foods and drinks to your child every day. Keep them for mealtimes and don’t use them as a reward.
  • Fruit and vegetables contain sugar, but in a form that doesn’t damage teeth. However, the sugar in dried fruit and fruit juice can cause decay if consumed frequently.
  • Encourage your children to choose breakfast cereals that aren’t sugar-coated.
  • Beware of other forms of sugars on labels – sucrose, glucose, honey, dextrose, maltose syrup, or concentrated fruit juice.
  • Even if diet forms of desserts do not contain these sugars, they are too low in fat for a young child.
  • Do not add sugar to milk.
  • Jaggery can cause the same damage to teeth as sugar. Limit foods containing this, e.g. Indian sweetmeats.

Salt

There is no need to add salt (sodium chloride) to your child’s food because there is enough naturally present in foods. Too much salt can lead to a liking for salty foods and contribute towards high blood pressure in later life. The whole family will benefit if you gradually reduce the amount of salt in your cooking. Keep salt off the table and limit the amount of salty foods (crisps, savoury snacks, bombay mix, bacon, ham and other salted meats) your child has.

Cutlery, chopsticks or fingers?

Be prepared for messy mealtimes with children. It will take time for your child to learn how to behave when eating. You and the rest of the family will set an example, so try to eat and enjoy your food together. Some families prefer to eat with their fingers, while others use chopsticks or cutlery. Whatever tool is preferred, be patient. Your child will need time to get used to them.

By about one year of age, babies should be trying to feed themselves. Some babies are very independent and want no help – so be patient, even if most of the food does not reach their mouths. Others prefer help, but are happy to fiddle with a spoon whilst being fed. Whichever the case, encourage your child to feed him or herself, either with a spoon or by offering suitable finger foods.

Some safety tips

  • Take care that your child only has access to small blunt knives at the meal table
  • Unbreakable plates or bowls are ideal for small children, who often decide their meal is finished when their plate hits the floor
  • When your child no longer needs the high chair, make sure that he or she is sitting at the right height for the table, otherwise your child will find it difficult to eat. Booster seats, cushions or a lap may be useful, but whatever you use, make sure your child is sitting safely.

How much food do toddlers need?

Children’s appetites vary enormously, so common sense is a good guide on how big a portion should be. Be guided by your children – do not force them to eat when they no longer wish to, but do not refuse to give more if they really are hungry.

As long as your child eats a range of foods, and your health visitor is happy with his or her progress, try not to be concerned about the amount your child eats. 


We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.