Balancing your child’s diet – are you getting it right?

Trying to balance your child’s diet with the right proportion and variety of foods can sometimes feel more challenging than mastering Pythagoras’s theorem. New research from the Infant & Toddler Forum supports this, revealing that while the majority of the nation’s parents are confident naming the main food groups that should form a balanced diet, they frequently struggle to combine them in appropriate quantities.

A healthy balance

A healthy balanced diet for children aged one to five years is based on the four food groups listed below, which together provide a range of essential nutrients that children need to grow and develop:

  • Starchy foods (such as bread, rice and pasta)
  • Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • Milk and dairy foods
  • Fruit and vegetables


Whilst parents are familiar with these food groups, the study reveals that over a third of parents admit they are worried that their child doesn’t receive the right balance of these foods and more than a quarter feel their child doesn’t consume sufficient variety. The survey also revealed some worrying parental misconceptions surrounding recommended quantities of each food group.

Starchy Foods

  • Nearly 65% of parents believe they should only offer their toddler starchy food once or twice a day
  • Only a quarter of parents are aware that they need to be offered three-to-five times a day.

Starchy foods provide energy, carbohydrate, fibre and B vitamins. With this in mind, a portion of starchy food should be offered as part of every meal plus at least one snack each day.

Starchy_CarbohydratesThere is also a common misconception amongst parents that wholegrain carbohydrates (such as brown rice and brown pasta) are a healthier choice for children than refined alternatives (white rice and white pasta). In fact, while young children should be

encouraged to eat some wholegrain starchy foods, they shouldn’t be restricted to these alone as they are very high in fibre. These means toddlers can fill up before they have taken in the energy they need. Parents should therefore provide a variety of wholegrain and white starchy foods each week.


  • Only half of parents are aware that they should offer protein in the form of meat, fish, eggs, nuts and pulses two or three times a day

proteinsFood from this group provide protein, iron and zinc and should be included as part of lunch and tea each day. Protein can also be provided as part of snacks once or twice each week.

Despite protein being the most important food source of iron, which one in eight toddlers don’t get enough iron in their diet. Poor iron levels are linked to slower intellectual development and poor behaviour in the longer term.

However, parents should be mindful of the protein sources they provide. Meat and fish products, and products made from meat alternatives (such as Quorn), can be high in salt and saturated fat. Parents should limit bought and homemade meat and fish products to no more than once a week. Making homemade versions of these products can ensure that the fat and salt content is lower.


  • 22% believe there should be a complete ban on giving their child cakes, biscuits and sweet puddings

Most parents confess to being overly cautious of sugary foods, no doubt due to extensive media coverage relating to the obesity epidemic. However, desserts and cakes can provide an important source of energy (calories), plus essential nutrients such as calcium and iron. Desserts, puddings and cakes made with cereals (such as rice or oats), milk and fruit should therefore be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet for young children and children should be encouraged to learn how to enjoy healthy foods and sweet treats side-by-side.


For this reason, the Children’s Food Trust recommend that a dessert should be provided as part of lunch and tea each day. They suggest a variety of options (such as crumbles or baked apples, semolina, rice pudding or custard, yoghurt or fromage frais, carrot cake or fruit flapjack and fruit salads) rather than relying on fresh fruit alone. The exception to this is confectionery and sweet drinks, (including fruit juices) which should be limited to once a week, to help protect children’s teeth.

Meal planning: a practical guide

One of the basic principles of healthy eating is variety – simply put, eating a wider range of different foods provides a better balance of nutrients. Planning meals and snacks to include a variety of food and drinks from the four food groups each day will therefore provide children with a good balance of nutrients they need to ensure they receive the right amount of energy and nutrients. It can also help encourage them to develop good dietary habits to take with them into later childhood and beyond.

The trick is to mix it up at every meal, being mindful to include a little bit of every food group and not rely too heavily on any one type of food. Since children have smaller stomachs and might not get all their energy from the three core meals, they also need nutritional snacks in between the meals to boost their energy intake.

To help guide parents and care providers, the Children’s Food Trust provide the following summary of the 4 food groups, the nutrients they provide and recommended servings:

summary table

Healthy school lunches

With many children consuming at least half of their daily meals at school, good nutrition in schools is more important than ever. Research suggests that providing well-balanced, nutritious school meals not only improves children’s general health but also drives up standards in classrooms, with well-nourished pupils showing clear academic benefits. With this in mind, it’s important for parents and school workers to collaborate in a bid to encourage and deliver healthy, nutritious choices every day.

A healthy balance

No single food group will provide all the nutrients that growing children need. A balanced school meal should therefore follow the following formula:

4364* Energy-giving carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes)

* A source of protein (from lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses)

* A dairy item (such as cheese or yoghurt).

* Vegetables or salad, and a portion of fruit.

Following this formula for school lunches will ensure that each meal provides the key nutrients children need for energy, weight management, cognitive function, growth and development

Lunchbox nutrition

All meals served in schools must meet strict nutritional standards, and lunchboxes should be no exception. Despite this, a 2010 report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency found only 1%of lunchbox meals met the same healthy standards as school canteen meals. More than four-fifths contained foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, only one in five contained any vegetables or salad and only half included a piece of fruit.

Sandwiches are the obvious choice for packed lunches, but the nutritional content depends largely on the filling. Spreads such as jam and honey have high sugar content and are low in protein, which is essential for growing tissues. Meals than are low in protein are also not as satisfying as protein-rich alternatives, so may leave children feeling hungry soon afterwards.

With this in mind, some ideal protein-rich sandwich fillings include:

* Sliced ham, chicken or turkey with mixed salad

* Hummous and grated carrot

* Cream cheese with sliced tomato or cucumber

* Egg and cress

* Peanut butter

Dark green salad leaves such as rocket and watercress are a great addition to any sandwich as they are higher in heart-healthy nutrients than standard iceberg lettuce, as well as being rich in flavour. Extra fillings such as sliced avocado (rich in beneficial monounsaturated fats) and beetroot (an excellent source of potassium, magnesium and iron as well as vitamins A, B6 and C) will provide a further nutrient-boost to any sandwich.

Brown vs. white34

Wholemeal bread and pasta contain more nutrients and fibre than white alternatives, meaning they take longer for the body to digest and keep children feeling fuller for longer. ‘Best of both’ varieties of bread (made with 50% white and 50% wholemeal flours) or wholemeal pitta breads are a good alternative for children who are more used to white bread.

Healthy snacks

Healthy snacks for children should provide a source of energy as well as a selection of key nutrients. Most crisps, chocolates and biscuits are high in sugar or fat but low in vitamins and minerals, meaning they provide very little nutritional benefit. They are therefore best as a treat a couple of times a week, rather than an everyday staple.

Nutritious alternatives include:

* A small pot of nuts (in non-allergic individuals)

* Individually wrapped cheeses (such as Babybels or mini Cathedral City squares)

* Fresh or dried fruit (such as a banana, an easy-peel satsuma, dried apricots or a small box of raisins)

* Chopped vegetables such as celery, carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes

* Yogurts (opt for natural yogurt where possible, with fresh berries for natural sweetness)

* Vegetable crisps made with carrots, parsnip and beetroot.
Try to give them plenty of variety so they’ll have enough energy to last throughout the day and won’t get bored of the same textures and flavours. Snacks that include a mix of brightly coloured produce will also provide the most varied selection of beneficial nutrients:

44050902574705617xtH0qrFGc* Fresh fruits are a great source of vitamin C, which strengthens children’s connective tissue, muscles and skin and increases resistance to infection

* Dried fruit is an excellent source of iron, which is especially essential during periods of rapid growth

* Orange vegetables such as carrot sticks are a great source of vitamin A, which promotes normal growth, healthy skin, and tissue repair, and aids in night and colour vision

* Yogurts are a good source of calcium, perfect for developing bones. An inadequate calcium intake during childhood can not only affect present growth but might also help contribute to the development of osteoporosis later in life.

Here’s to happy, healthy lunches!

© Sarah West Nutrition