Introduction to family foods for children

Establishing good eating habits early in life and having a balanced diet is essential for children’s health and wellbeing. As someone who prepares and cooks food for children, you have the opportunity to positively influence what foods children eat, as well as their eating behaviours. This contributes to their development of good habits and good health in both childhood and later life.

Healthy Eating Guideline

Make sure that food offered to children is appropriate to the child's age and development, and includes a wide variety of nutritious foods consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia (see below).

Food for Health: Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia

Encourage and support breastfeeding.

Children and adolescents need sufficient nutritious foods to grow and develop normally.
  • Growth should be checked regularly for young children.
  • Physical activity is important for children and adolescents.

Enjoy a wide range of nutritious foods.

Children and adolescents should be encouraged to:
  • eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits
  • eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain
  • include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives
  • include milks, yoghurts, cheeses and/or alternatives. Reduced-fat milks are not suitable for children under two years, because of their high energy needs, but
  • reduced-fat varieties should be encouraged for older children and adolescents choose water as a drink
and care should be taken to:
  • limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake. Low-fat diets are not suitable for infants
  • choose foods low in salt
  • consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.

Care for your child’s food: prepare and store it safely.

Commonwealth of Australia, 2003. Reproduced with permission of theAustralian Government, 2009

The basic food groups

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating puts all foods into groups, based on the nutrients that they provide. The basic food groups provide the nutrients necessary for
good health and everyday living.
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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, legumes and nuts.
Foods from the basic food groups are often called ‘everyday foods’. It is important to choose most of the foods eaten each day, whether meals or snacks, from these food groups. Most foods offered at meals can also be offered as snacks. Common suitable snacks include bread or cereals, fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and yoghurt.

‘Sometimes foods’ or ‘occasionally foods’ (see page 21) on the other hand have little nutritional value and are not essential for good health. Eating sometimes foods can reduce a child’s appetite for foods from the food groups.

Three meals and two snacks a day is ideal for young children; children who may not have an evening meal until very late may need a small snack late in the afternoon. Snacks are just as important as meals to children’s nutrition.

Be sure to offer a wide variety of foods, and include traditional foods from various cultures in your menus (see the recipe section for a few ideas). Invite families to share their traditional or favourite recipes. Be mindful of food allergies when introducing new recipes, and check carefully before ading them to your menu - you may need to modify some recipes. Whether you are preparing meals and snacks for a large number of children in an early childhood setting or for just a few children at home, it is important to consider the basic food groups and a few specific nutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin C.

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta and other grains

Offer a variety of bread, cereal, rice, pasta or other grains (such as couscous or polenta) each day. Try different kinds of breads such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain bread, bread rolls, Lebanese bread, pita bread and English muffins.

Vegetables and legumes

Include one or more serves of vegetables in each main meal. Offer a variety of vegetables, choosing different colours and textures. Include cooked vegetables as well as salad vegetables. Be careful to avoid choking risks and do not serve raw, hard vegetables to young children.


Offer at least one serve of fruit each day as a snack or second course. Choose a variety of fruit each week, including fruit that is in season as well as frozen or canned fruit. Most children will enjoy a fruit salad or a fruit platter.

Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives

Plain milk, cheese and yoghurt are the most common dairy foods. 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. Cream and butter are not adequate sources of calcium and are not included as everyday foods.
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Try to offer a serve of milk, cheese or yoghurt at each meal or snack. This could be:
  • a fruit smoothie
  • yoghurt
  • a glass of milk
  • cheese served with a fruit or vegetable platter, bread or biscuits.
  • milk or cheese used in cooking – for example in custard or a pasta dish.
Children over 12 months of age who do not drink cow’s milk or cow’s milk products can have a calciumfortified soy drink instead. Rice and oat milks are not recommended and should only be given to children after medical advice.

Lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives

Offer one children’s serve of meat, or an alternative, in the midday and evening meal. This can be:
  • lean red meat such as beef, lamb and kangaroo
  • lean white meat such as chicken, turkey, fish, pork and veal
  • protein-rich vegetarian foods such as eggs, cheese, legumes (including kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils), nuts and tofu.

Iron-rich foods

When serving white meat or vegetarian dishes, offer an extra serve of another food containing iron with the main meal. This is important because white meat, grains and vegetables provide small amounts of iron compared to red meat. Other foods which provide some iron include:
  • wholemeal bread
  • vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and cauliflower
  • beans such as baked beans and lentils.

Vitamin C-rich foods

Offer a vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable with every white meat or vegetarian meal, because vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. Vitamin C-rich foods include:
  • broccoli, cauliflower, peas, tomato and capsicum
  • citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, rockmelon and strawberries.

‘Sometimes foods’

‘Sometimes foods’ are not included in any of the basic food groups, and are generally high in fat, sugar and salt, or a combination of these. They typically have very little nutritional value and are often processed and packaged. There is no need to offer sometimes foods on a regular basis.

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
  • ice cream, cakes and some desserts
  • soft drinks, fruit juice, fruit drinks, cordials, sport drinks, energy drinks, flavoured milk and flavoured mineral waters.

Healthy Eating Guideline

Provide water in addition to age-appropriate milk drinks. Infants under the age of six months who are not exclusively breastfed can be offered cooled boiled water in addition to infant formula.

Water is essential for many important bodily functions including digestion, absorption of nutrients and elimination of waste products. Babies under six months who are not exclusively breastfed can be offered cooled boiled water. From six to 12 months, cooled boiled water can supplement breastmilk or formula. For children one to five years, water and cow’s milk should be the main drinks offered. Children should have access to drinking water at all times during the day. Where available, offer clean, safe tap water to children – purchasing bottled water is generally not necessary. Plain milk is also important, as it provides a good source calcium.

Sweet drinks are not part of a healthy diet because they do not provide much nutrition and can fill children up, resulting in a decreased appetitie for more nutritious foods. Sweet drinks can also contribute to tooth decay and weight gain. It is important to avoid giving children sweet drinks, such as soft drink, flavoured mineral water, flavoured milk, cordial, fruit drinks and fruit juice.