The basic food groups are:

  • breads, cereals, rice, pasta and other grains
  • vegetables and legumes
  • fruit
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives
  • lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes.
A balanced diet includes a variety of foods from each of the food groups, and offers different tastes and textures. A variety of foods from each of the food groups, and offers different tastes and textures. A variety of these foods from each of the food groups, and offers different tastes and textures. A variety of these foods should be provided for children each day, either by parents or the early childhood setting.

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta and other grains

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grainbased foods provide carbohydrates, which the body uses for energy. The best choices from this group are wholemeal and wholegrain breads, cereals and dry biscuits. Other good choices include brown rice, couscous, wholegrain pasta and polenta.

Vegetables, legumes and fruit

Fruit and vegetables are divided into two separate food groups, because they provide slightly different nutrients. However, both groups provide vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fruit and vegetables should be included in meals and snacks each day. In settings that do not provide food, encourage parents to include fruit and vegetables in children’s lunchboxes. In settings that provide food, be sure to offer a variety of fruit and vegetables, including different colours, textures and flavours. This will ensure that you provide children with a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives

Plain milk, cheese and yoghurt are the most common, recommended dairy foods, and main dietary sources of calcium. Having enough calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth.

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 plain 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. If children do not drink cow’s milk or cow’s milk products, a calcium-fortified soy drink can be substituted. Rice and oat milks are not recommended, and should only be given to children after medical advice.
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Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes

The meat and alternatives group includes red meat such as beef, lamb and kangaroo; white meat such as pork, chicken and turkey; fish; and eggs. Non-animal products in this group include nuts, legumes and tofu. Meat and alternatives are rich in protein, iron and zinc, and essential for children’s growth and development. Using lean meat and skinless poultry will ensure that children’s diets do not contain too much fat.

Vegetarian and vegan eating practices

Some families follow vegetarian eating practices. Usually, this means they do not consume animal products such as meat, poultry and fish. Many vegetarians still consume animal-related products, such as eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt.

It is especially important for vegetarians to consume a variety of legumes, nuts, seeds and grain-based foods, to provide the nutrients that would otherwise be provided by meat, poultry and fish. Vegans do not consume any foods which have an animal origin. It is very difficult to meet children’s nutritional needs with a vegan diet, in part because the amount of food needed to meet these needs may be too large for the child to manage. Families must plan carefully for a child on a vegan diet, and it can be difficult for a setting to offer vegan meals and snacks. Families may need a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian for further information.

'Sometimes foods'

'Sometimes foods' are not included in the basic food groups as they have little nutritional value and are not essential for good health. Sometimes foods include foods high in fat, sugar, salt or a combination of these, and are often processed and packaged. 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.
There is no need to offer sometimes foods on a regular basis, and families should be asked not to include them in lunchboxes.

Food provided by the setting

Many early childhood settings are responsible for a substantial percentage of children’s daily nutritional intake, through the meals and snacks they provide.

Be sure to include foods from the basic food groups in each meal and snack. Do not serve sometimes foods for meals or snacks, and do not offer them to children as rewards.

Food brought from home

Encourage parents to provide fruit, vegetables and other foods from the food groups in their child’s lunchbox each day. Food brought to the setting should be consistent with the setting’s healthy eating policy. Provide parents with helpful resources, including lunchbox and snack ideas. Ask all children to bring with them each day a clear water bottle, labelled with their name. A clear water bottle allows you to see that the bottle contains water and not a sweet drink.