What should your toddler/child eat in a day?

What should your toddler/child eat in a day?
Note: This blog contains advice for children aged between 2-12 years. Advice is of a general nature only, and may not be applicable to children under 2 yars of age, or with certain medical conditions. For individual nutrition support, speak to your GP or an Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

What our children eat and drink is, very literally, what fuels their bodies. It gives them the energy they need to get through the day, as well as the nutrients their minds and bodies need to grow and develop. So it follows, of course, that regularly providing your children with nutritious foods and drinks can benefit their health, wellbeing and development.

But the world of nutrition can be confusing. With so much ‘noise’ in the media, and online, it’s no wonder parents are confused about what they should be feeding their children. Should they be eating coconut oil by the spoonful, or chia pudding every breakfast? Following a paleo diet, or avoiding sugar at all costs? (Hot tip: it’s none of these).

So what should your child be eating in a day? In this blog, we’ll cut through the ‘noise’ and breakdown the recommendations given in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

An important note: Before we go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that what parents want children to do, and what children actually do, are sometimes very different things.  And that’s ok. In fact, it’s pretty normal. You see, Australian surveys have showed us that less than 10% of children eat the recommended serves of vegetables and fruit each day. Does that mean we shouldn’t keep striving for more? No. But it does mean that if you’re reading this thinking ‘my child will never eat all that!’ you’re not alone. 

So what should your child eat?

Despite the hugely complex and overwhelming world of nutrition advice in popular culture, when you look at the evidence – well – overall, the messages for good healthy eating in childhood are really quite simple: Children should eat a wide range of foods from across the five core food groups. They should limit foods high in salt and sugar (known as ‘discretionary’ foods, as they aren’t necessary for health) and drink water or milk. Most of their diet should be made up of whole (unprocessed) foods.

The five core food groups, explained.

The core food groups outline five groups of foods that are necessary to eat, in order to get all the nutrients they need to live well and reduce their risk of disease.

They are:

  • Vegetables and legumes/beans
  • Grain (cereal) foods
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives
  • Fruit

All whole foods can be allocated to at least one of these five groups. Each food group is made up of similar foods that have similar nutritional value. For example, foods in the ‘Milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives’ group contain foods that are generally good sources of calcium, phosphate and protein.

Highly processed foods, and foods that are high in salt and sugar are commonly considered ‘discretionary’ foods and are not included in these food groups because they are not necessary for good health and wellbeing.

By providing your child with the recommended amounts from the Five Food Groups and limiting the foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugars and added salt, you can help them get enough of the nutrients they need to grow, learn and play.

The tables below outline the recommended number of serves that children should consume each day, and what ‘1 serve’ equals in food terms.

Table of food group requirements for children
 - Remember that every child is different, and while this info is very useful… it is also just a guide. Your child may regularly eat more, or less, than this. Or they may vary their intake from day to day. All of these can be perfectly normal and doesn’t mean you r your child is doing anything wrong. If your child is healthy, growing and developing, and has energy to play each day, then chances are they are doing ok.
 - If you are concerned about your child’s health or eating patterns, it is a good idea to seek individual advice from your GP or an Accredited Practicing Dietitian.


So how does it all come together?

Simply, once you get the hang of it. To get you started, we've developed some sample meal plans that show you the types and amounts of food to offer toddlers and children in order to meet these guidelines.

"But what if my child won’t eat all the good food?"

There is nothing more frustrating than preparing a beautiful, healthy meal full of wholesome foods and presenting it to your child, only to have the whole thing refused, or thrown on the floor. But it’s also very common (it’s happened to us many times). 
  • Being unwell, tired can also impact appetite. This is normal.
  • Don’t judge your toddler’s intake on a single day. Looking at a week, or a fortnight, is much better.
  • Toddlers eat different amounts on different days. That’s ok and perfectly normal.
  • If your child is happy, has energy, and is developing normally then chances are they are getting enough food and nutrients!
  • Some toddlers naturally prefer ‘snacking’ behaviour to the 3 meals/day we usually eat. Make the snacks nutritious and don’t stress if they don’t eat dinner.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are 'guidelines' for a reason: all children are different and will eat different amounts of foods. Of course, if you are concerned about your child's nutrition, we recommend you seek individual advice from a GP or Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

Enter... the division of responsibility

As a parent, it’s your role to provide your children with nutritious foods and drinks, and to provide these in a way that encourages healthy eating habits (regular meal times, social eating, etc.). However, it is your childs' role to decide what and how much they eat. And sometimes (or even often, for some families), your children will decide not to eat the food you provide, or to eat just a little bit.  This is known as the division of responsibility.

Why is it important? Because understanding it can help to remind you of the big picture. That feeding young children is about much more than just getting nutritients into their little bodies each day. Of course that’s part of it, but it’s also about teaching children about health and nutrition, developing their sense of agency and independence to make their own (hopefully good) food choices when they grow, teaching them about the boundaries of their independence in your home, and developing a relationship with food that is based on positive connections. So... well, sometimes you need to play the long game.

Seeking individual help
If you are at all concerned about your childs health or nutrition, or wish to discuss individual health or nutrition concerns, we recommend you seek individual advice from a GP or Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

 For some tips on encouraging little ones to eat all of the nutritious food see our blog 'nurturing little foodies'.

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