Balanced Diet for Children
The importance of a balanced diet for children
As a parent or caregiver, one of the most powerful ways you can support your child’s physical and cognitive development is through a balanced diet. But encouraging your child to eat a healthy, balanced diet can sometimes be challenging. This may be especially so if they have a developmental delay or disability which impacts their nutritional needs or feeding behaviours.
Before we look at ways to encourage healthy eating habits in children, it’s important to understand what a balanced diet means, and how it promotes children’s health and development.
What is a balanced diet for children?
A balanced diet is one that provides the essential nutrients your child needs for optimal growth, development, and energy. It comprises a variety of foods from different food groups, ensuring your child gets the right combination of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
The benefits of a healthy diet for children
A healthy, balanced diet fuels growing minds and bodies, contributing to physical health, cognitive function, and mental wellbeing. Some of the benefits of a healthy diet for children include:
- stable energy for play and learning
- better ability to focus and concentrate
- strong, healthy bones and muscles
- development of healthy teeth and gums
- reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
- healthy brain development
- lower disease risk, both now and in later life
- better mental wellbeing.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines: A balanced diet plan for children
So, what does a balanced diet for children look like? To help parents and caregivers make good choices about what their kids eat, the Australian Government worked with nutrition experts to create the Australian Dietary Guidelinesi. These guidelines are based on evidence about eating and health at different life stages, including during infancy and childhoodii.
They are like a trustworthy roadmap for crafting a nourishing, balanced diet. Following these guidelines can ensure your child gets all the essential nutrients they need for growth, development, and overall health.
Here’s a summary of what they recommend for children and teenagers.
1. Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods
The guidelines emphasise the importance of offering children a wide array of nutritious foods. This variety ensures children get all the essential nutrients they need. Each day, children should be eating foods from the five food groups, including:
Fruit and vegetables
Aim to include plenty of vegetables (including beans and legumes) and fruits in your child’s diet. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre, all of which contribute to their overall health. Encouraging a rainbow of colours on their plate ensures they get a diverse range of nutrients.
This food group includes cereals, breads, pasta, noodles, oats, quinoa and rice. Aim for wholegrain or high-fibre types, which support healthy digestion and provide sustained energy.
Lean protein sources
Proteins provide the building blocks for tissue growth and repair. It’s best to focus on lean, healthy sources like poultry, fish, eggs, legumes/beans, nuts, seeds and tofu.
Dairy or alternatives
Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium, which is crucial for bone health. If your child doesn’t eat dairy products, opt for calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like almond or soy milk.
2. Drink water
Our bodies need water to work properly and maintain our energy levels. Water is the best drink to support healthy physical and cognitive function and development.
3. Consider energy needs
Children and adolescents should eat enough healthy food to reach and stay at a healthy weight for their age and height. They should also be physically active each day. Have your child’s growth checked regularly to help make sure their development is on track.
4. Limit unhealthy foods and drinks
Some foods and drinks are low in nutrients and high in unhealthy saturated fats, added salt, and added sugars. Examples include lollies, chips, chocolate, cakes, pastries, pizza, deep fried foods, juices and soft drinks. Limiting these foods can contribute to healthy weight gain, balanced energy levels, healthy teeth and overall wellbeing. These ‘discretionary’ or ‘sometimes’ foods should be reserved for special occasions.
7 ways to encourage healthy eating habits in children
It’s one thing to understand the benefits of a balanced diet for children, but how do you put it into practise? Here are some ways you can encourage healthy eating patterns at home.
1. Make healthy changes as a family
You can help your child build habits that will set them up for lifelong health and wellbeing. Some ways to create healthy family diet patterns include:
- talking about healthy eating choices as you plan your family’s meals
- pointing out and talking to your child about healthy foods while you do your grocery shopping
- trying new foods as a family (children are more likely to try and enjoy foods they see their parents or carers eating)
- reading the nutrition information panel on food labels together
- preparing and cooking healthy meals and snacks as a family
- making healthy food choices yourself whenever possible.
2. Make small changes for big impact
Building healthy eating habits does not mean having to make sweeping changes. Even small changes can make a difference to your child’s health and wellbeing. For example, if they skip one soft drink per week, that’s 52 fewer over a year. Or if they eat one extra serve of vegetables or fruit each day, that’s 365 more serves per year. Over time, you can gradually increase the amount of healthy food your child eats.
3. Make healthy food swaps
Look for healthy alternatives to less healthy favourites. For example, your child could:
- have a side of baked potato instead of hot chips at dinner
- have wholegrain bread instead of white bread for sandwiches
- choose lean meat or chicken instead of a fatty meat
- drink water instead of fruit juice or cordial
- have a piece of fruit instead of a cookie.
4. Encourage variety
Remember, eating a wide variety of foods from the five food groups helps your child get all the nutrients they need. Aim to introduce a diverse range of foods to your child’s diet. You can experiment with different fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats (like nuts and seeds) to see what they might like.
5. Be persistent
It can take several attempts to get children to try new foods. If you offer something and they refuse it, don’t force it. Just clear it away and try again another time.
6. Make healthy choices easier
It can be harder to avoid temptation when it’s right in front of you. To help your whole family eat healthier, you can set up your environment to make healthy choices easier. For example, you could:
- avoid buying or keeping junk food at home
- keep a bowl stocked with fresh fruit handy for snacking
- keep cut up vegetable sticks (such as carrots, celery and capsicum) in the fridge for snacking
- make a weekly meal and snack plan so you know what you’ll be eating in advance
- cook up healthy meals in batches on weekends to freeze and serve on busy weeknights.
7. Be mindful of portion sizes
Pay attention to portion sizes to help prevent overeating. Allow your child to choose if they eat a food and how much. Encourage them to respect their body’s hunger and fullness signals.
Balanced diet plans for children with disability
Children with disability, developmental delay or medical conditions can have unique dietary needs, so a balanced diet menu may look a bit different for each individual. For example, dietary adaptations might include texture modifications or tailored meal plans to ensure they receive adequate nutrition.
If your child has specific dietary needs or restrictions (such as gluten intolerance), it’s essential to work with your child’s dietitian or doctor to make sure their diet is healthy and balanced. At Active Ability, our paediatric dietitians work specifically with children who have feeding or dietary issues related to autism, intellectual disability, neurological conditions and mental health issues.
Our caring, experienced paediatric dietitians work closely with your child and family to help them reach their goals. Through our early intervention services, we create tailored meal plans and provide personalised support to ensure your child’s diet meets their needs. We can also help you address any concerns about eating or mealtime behaviours. Remember, a balanced diet isn’t just about physical nourishment; it provides the foundation for healthy growth and development.
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