healthy eating tips

dadzclub support team member, and registered dietitian, Dr. Sarah Schenker shares some tips.


Dr Sarah Schenker, Registered Dietitian


A varied nutritious diet and regular physical activity are very important to ensure healthy growth and development in young children. It not only improves growth but also improves concentration and supports children’s learning. As we all know poor eating habits in childhood can lead to the development of obesity and anaemia as a result of iron deficiency. Even more importantly, a good diet and regular activity in childhood can help to prevent the risk of serious diseases common in later life, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.

From weaning to the age of five years old, children grow extremely quickly and are very active. Because of this it is important to ensure that their diet is healthy, balanced and meets their requirements for energy and nutrients.

Pre-school childen also have small stomachs and relatively under-developed guts which prevents them from consuming large quantities of food at a time and causes harmless bowel problems, if you are the chief nappy changer you will witness poo in all its various guises, colours and odours. They also have variable appetites, related to fluctuations in growth rates and levels of physical activity. This can explain why your little one will eat you out of house and home one week and then reject her favourite food the next.

Pre-school children need small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. A wide range of foods should be eaten to ensure that nutrient requirements are met. Therefore it is important to include these sorts of foods every day:

Healthy eating for young children

At this age, children grow very quickly and are usually very active, so they need plenty of energy and nutrients. A healthy and varied diet should provide all the nutrients a toddler needs.

These sorts of foods should be included every day:

Bread, and other cereals such as rice, pasta and breakfast cereals, and potatoes, yams and sweet potatoes – these starchy foods provide energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Provide a variety of white and wholegrain versions.

Fruit and vegetables – they are a good source of vitamin C, and other vitamins and minerals needed for good health, as well as fibre.

Milk and dairy foods – these foods are one of the best sources of calcium needed for bone health. They also provide protein, vitamins and other minerals and are a good source of energy for growing children.

Meat, fish, eggs, beans, peas and lentils – these foods are rich in nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is included in this group which can be offered up to twice a week for girls and up to four times a week for boys. A typical child’s portion is about 70g.

Toddlers can eat the same food as adults and this should be actively encouraged, however, up until about two years old children can't eat large amounts of food at one sitting. So, it is important to offer them small meals and nutritious snacks in between to help them meet their need for energy and nutrients.

Some fibre is good for young children, but be aware that young children's stomachs can't cope with a lot of fibre-rich foods such as wholemeal pasta and brown rice. Also, too much fibre can sometimes reduce the amount of minerals they can absorb, such as calcium and iron.

There are some foods that should be avoided in the diets of very young children, these include:

Raw eggs and food that contains raw or partially cooked eggs because of the risk of salmonella, which causes food poisoning. If you give eggs to your toddler, make sure the eggs are cooked until both the white and yolk are solid.

Whole or chopped nuts for children under five years old because of the risk of choking. It's a good idea to crush or flake them.

Shark, swordfish and marlin because these fish contain relatively high levels of mercury, which might affect a child's developing nervous system.

Raw shellfish to your toddler to reduce their risk of getting food poisoning.

Do not add salt to a toddler's food. From the age of 1 to 3, children should be having no more than 2g a day. If you're buying processed foods, even those aimed at children, remember to check the information given on the labels to choose those with less salt.

Do not add sugar or honey to a toddler’s food.

Avoid offering sweet drinks such as fizzy drinks and fruit squash between meals because they can cause tooth decay. A fruit squash should be well diluted with water and drunk at mealtimes. Between meals, it is better to give water or milk to drink.

Which milk?

From two years old, a toddler can have semi-skimmed milk as a main drink. Fully skimmed milk is not suitable as a main drink until the age of five years, because it doesn't contain enough energy or fat soluble vitamins for a growing child

Developing good eating habits:

Encourage children to experiment: offering a variety of foods and repeatedly introducing new foods from an early age encourages children to experiment and accept different tastes and textures.

Plan snack and mealtimes: most children enjoy food and usually welcome an opportunity to take a snack or drink when they are hungry or thirsty. However, some children can become distracted by other activities and this can result in them become ‘over’ hungry or thirsty, leading to difficult behaviour. Therefore, it is important to organise snack time so that every child has a chance to eat and drink.

Snack time provides an excellent opportunity for children to: practice personal hygiene by washing their hands before eating and drinking.; learn about healthy snacks and drinks; learn to try new foods and talk about their likes and dislikes. Children are more likely to try new foods if they see other children eating them. For all these reasons, a scheduled snack time for children and staff is considered best practice.

Allow plenty of time: give children time to finish eating and drinking – once they have started to eat, this may take around 15 minutes for a snack and 30 minutes for a meal. Children need to eat regularly and it is recommended that they be offered something to eat at least every 3 hours. Snacks are best given well before or after meal times to avoid spoiling the appetite for the next meal.

Develop social skills: when children sit down together to eat and drink this provides an excellent opportunity for them to learn good social skills and behaviours associated with eating and drinking. For example, chatting to other children and adults, developing good table manners, offering and sharing food, learning to respect others, tasting and trying foods from different cultures.

Provide good role models: children often model their behaviour on others. Therefore, encouraging good food choices and eating habits in others around children is important in reinforcing the right messages.


Children need a varied diet to ensure that they get all the nutrients they require for growth and development. Pre-school children often have small appetites and need regular meals with snacks in between. Snacks should be nutritious and low in added sugars to prevent tooth decay.

There are some snacks that can be harmful to children’s health if they are eaten frequently. These include soft drinks, sweet, chocolate confectionery, chocolate and cream-filled biscuits, pastries, desserts and sweetened cereals.

Nutritious snack ideas:

  • Fruit: bite-sized chunks, cubes or slices of apple, pear, satsumas, orange, banana, kiwi, melon, strawberries, sliced grapes, peaches and plums
  • Raw vegetables: carrot, pepper, celery, cucumber, sliced cherry tomato, courgette, broccoli
  • Toast, breads, rolls, baps, French bread, pitta pockets, wraps with a small amount of butter or spread; mini sandwiches with marmite, cheese, tuna, banana, slices of meat, hummus
  • Bread sticks with a soft cheese dip
  • Homemade pizza slices
  • Oatcakes, rice cakes, crackers, crispbreads with toppings such as soft cheese, mashed avocado and hummus
  • Yoghurt or fromage frais with chopped fruit
  • English muffins, scones, potato bread, crumpets, teacakes, plain popcorn, low sugar cereals


It is important for young children to have plenty to drink to help their bodies to function properly, keep cool and prevent constipation.

Children should be encouraged to drink plain, still water throughout the day.

Plain, still water quenches thirst, replenishes body fluid, does not spoil the appetite and is not harmful to teeth.

Fresh fruit juice is a good source of vitamin C and is best given with breakfast or a main meal to help the absorption of iron. Fresh fruit juices are acidic and can cause dental erosion and therefore should be served in a cup, not a bottle, and at meal times only.

Fizzy, carbonated drinks which are sugar free are harmful to teeth due to their high acid content.

Tea and coffee are not recommended for children under 5 because they contain tannin and caffeine. Tannin interferes with the absorption of iron.


Remember, this is great advice but we appreciate it is sometimes difficult to do the 'right thing all of the time'. All you can do is listen to the advice and do the best you can! - dadzclub team

If you need any support from us or indeed, the expert - then you can contact our nutrition expert here

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    We value your opinion. Here are some of our readers thoughts on this item.

    • dadtobe
    • Thursday 18 August 2011 9:56 AM
    • very useful information

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