Nutrition for Kids

By Rhett Watts

It’s no secret getting kids to eat the right foods can be a challenge, however the first step to establishing healthy eating for youngsters is to understand it yourself.

Children develop a natural preference for foods they enjoy the most, so the challenge for us as adults is to make healthy choices appealing. Of course, no matter how good your intentions are, it is always going to be difficult to convince a 7 year old that an apple is a better treat than a chocolate donut. However you can ensure that a child’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing some of their favourite treats.

Healthy eating can stabilize children’s energy levels, sharpen their minds so they are more attentive at school, and is proven to even out their moods. While peer pressure and TV commercials for ‘junk’ food can make getting kids to eat well seem impossible, there are steps we can take to instil healthy eating habits without turning mealtimes into a battle zone. Making smart nutritional choices during childhood can reinforce lifelong eating habits and help kids grow up to their full potential. So it is important to know where to start.

Nutrition for kids is based on the same principles as nutrition for adults. Everyone needs the same types of nutrients, such as; vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat. What is different about nutrition for kids is the amount of specific nutrients needed at different developmental stages. So what is the best formula to fuel a child’s growth and development? Check out the sections below for my recommendations on the basic nutrition requirements for each age category.

Healthy eating for toddlers & young children

Stashing vegetables in meals is a constant game of hide and seek for fussy kids who only eat finger food. Try adding grated carrot to meatballs, zucchini to frittatas, mushy peas to sandwiches, spinach to lasagne, avocado to wraps or roast some potato and pumpkin wedges

Toddlers can be introduced to new tastes and textures as they transition from baby food to ‘real food’. It is important to keep in mind that this age group have very small stomachs, and it may be more realistic to feed them 5-6 small meals a day, rather than 3 large ones.

Depending on age, size and activity level, toddlers require an intake of 1000-1400 calories a day. It is perfectly normal for a child in this age group to be ravenous one day and shun food the next.

Dietary guidelines for toddlers and young children

Fruits & vegetables

Two servings each per day. These may be given as snacks, such as apple or carrot slices. Also try adding veggies to soups.

Whole grains

Four daily servings. Can include buckwheat pancakes, or multigrain toast for breakfast, a sandwich on wheat bread for lunch and brown rice or another whole grain as part of the evening meal.

Milk and dairy

Three servings or one glass of whole milk per day. Cheeses and yoghurts are useful alternatives.


Two servings a day. It is important to encourage a variety of proteins such as turkey, eggs, fish, chicken, lamb, baked beans and lentils.

Vitamins and minerals

It is recommended that parents and carer’s check with the child’s doctor to be certain their diet is adequately meeting the recommended nutritional needs of this age group.

Healthy diets for school age children

For kids aged 5-12, the key word is variety. Creative serving ideas will go a long way towards maintaining the healthy eating habits established in the first years of life.

Eating becomes a social activity during this stage of a child’s development. These kids spend more time in school than at home, eat meals at friends’ houses and adopt eating habits from their peers. It can often be hard as a Parent or Carer to ensure they are getting the adequate nutrition when you are not around to monitor their choices, so it is important to maintain regular family meal times.

Not only do family meals provide an opportunity to catch up on your kids daily lives, they also enable us to ‘teach by example’ It is important to let kids see you eating a wide variety of healthy foods while keeping your portions in check. As an adult it is important to refrain from obsessive calorie counting or commenting on your own weight, so that kids do not adopt a negative association with food.

A new study in the journal Paediatrics, wrote about regular family meals reducing the risk of obesity, improving children’s nutrition, and encouraging healthy eating habits. The researchers found that; children who eat three family meals a week are also about 20 per cent less likely to eat junk food, 35 per cent less likely to have eating problems like skipping meals or bingeing, and 24 per cent more likely to eat vegetables and other healthy food.

To see more of the researchers results and read more visit:

Dietary guidelines for school age children


3-5 servings per day. A serving might be one cup of raw leafy vegetables, ¾ cup of vegetable juice, or ½ cup of other vegetables.


2-4 servings per day. A serving may consist of ½ cup sliced fruit, ¾ cup of fruit juice, or a medium size whole fruit such as an apple , banana or pear.

Whole grains

6-11 servings per day. Each serving should equal one slice of bread, ½ cup of rice or ¼ cup of cereal.

Milk and dairy

2-3 servings (cups) per day of low fat milk or yoghurt, or natural cheese 40g= 1 serving


2-3 servings of 70-85 grams of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish per day. A serving in this group may also consist of ½ cup cooked dry beans, one egg, or 2 table spoons of peanut butter.

Vitamins and minerals

ZINC- Studies indicate that zinc may improve memory and school performance, especially in boys. Good sources of zinc are oysters, beef, pork, liver, dried beans/peas, whole grains, fortified cereals, nuts, milk, cocoa and poultry.

The nutritional needs of teenagers

Adolescents and teens are at a high risk of developing anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorders.

The teenage years are a growth spurt time. Adolescents gain about 20% of adult height and 50% of adult weight during these years. Because growth and change are so rapid during this period, the requirements for all nutrients increase. This especially rings true for calcium and iron.

Eating habits are generally well set by now, and if a teenagers choices are less than ideal, it can be a challenging time for a dietary overhaul. From my experience of working in the fitness industry and in schools with this age group, the best way to make teen dietary changes is to present information about short term consequences of poor diet, athletic ability, energy and enjoyment of life. These are more important to teens than long term health. For example “Calcium will help you grow taller”, “Iron will help you do better on test and stay up later”.

Dietary guidelines for teenagers


Due to all the growth and activity, adolescent boys need 2500-2800 per day, while girls need around 2,200 per day. It is best to get these calories from lean protein, low fat dairy, whole grains and fruits and vegies.


In order for the body to grow and maintain muscle, teens need around 60 grams per day. Most teenagers meet this need from eating meat, fish and dairy, but vegetarians may need to increase their protein intake from non-animal sources like soy foods, beans and nuts.


Many teens do not get sufficient amounts of calcium, leading to weak bones and osteoporosis later in life. Encourage teens to cut back on soft drinks and other overly sugary foods, which suck calcium from bones. The 1200 mg of calcium needed every day should come from dairy, calcium fortified juice and cereal, and other calcium rich foods such as sesame seeds and leafy greens like spinach


Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, fatigue, and weakness. Boys need 12mg each day, and adolescent girls, who often loose iron during menstruation, need 15mg. Iron rich foods include red meat, chicken, beans, nuts, enriched whole grains, and leafy greens like spinach and kale.


Getting kids on the quest for great nutrition

As an adult, you control the food that comes into the house. Make sure the good food you want your children to appreciate is child accessible. More powerful than any amount of talking about nutrition is the example you set in your home. Give new meaning to ‘fast foods.’ Make nutritious foods readily available for your children. Plan to have fresh foods within easy reach, so that when they're hungry and foraging for something to eat, it's easy for them to help themselves! If you want to control the serving size, consider pre-packaging healthy snacks in plastic sandwich bags. Ideas for accessible snacks:

  • A raw vegetable tray kept in the refrigerator at children's eye level
  • A tempting assortment of fresh fruits washed and ready to eat in a fruit bowl - or cut up in bite-size pieces in the refrigerator, ready to eat
  •  A special place in your cupboard or pantry for ‘kid's snack attacks.’ It may include popcorn, whole-grain crackers, bread sticks, rice cakes or raisins
  • A pre-mixed snack that includes a variety of cereals, pretzels, and dried fruit. And, have fun keeping the best foods, not only available, but accessible!

Aside from role modelling great nutritional habits to children around you and providing healthy and nutritional meals and snacks in your home, it is important to provide educational opportunities to teach children about good nutrition. Simple ways of doing this are;

  • Read picture books about nutrition and then discuss them. Choose books at the library or bookstore that weave a good message about nutritious and adventuresome eating into the story line. Discuss what you read. Ask questions along the way. Did the character learn and eat the food that was good for them? What foods are good for you?
  • Make learning nutrition fun by packing up the kids and discovering good food on a field trip. There are many places to learn about good food right in your own community
  • "Try it, you might like it!" Have children (and parents) take turns choosing a new food to introduce to the family. Don't fall into a food rut. Try new foods with your family and make it fun
  • What's in your food? Knowing how to read a nutrition label is a valuable skill for children
  •  Older children can learn to read and interpret nutrition labels. Comparing labels on different products is a particularly good exercise for kids
  • Give your child opportunities to learn about food by helping out in the kitchen. Kids will be more likely to eat what they have helped cook

Another great way to curve, change and maintain a nutritional diet with a less than willing child or a fussy eater is through feedback. Positive reinforcement is a very effective technique for modifying behaviour. Acknowledging good eating habits with positive feedback will produce lasting positive effects. Praise a child for making good food choices and trying new foods. Resist the temptation to nag or tell them off for poor choices. Avoid praising a child for cleaning their plate or for how much they eat, since linking approval with overeating can lead to obesity. You can also use a reward system with a sticker chart. If a child eats at least five fruits and vegetables each day, put a sticker on their chart. After they receive five (or whatever you agree on) stickers, they get a social reward.

Last but not least, I bet you are asking… “But what about the picky child?” Picky eaters are going through a normal developmental stage, exerting control over their environment and expressing concern about putting trust in the unfamiliar. Many picky eaters also prefer a plate with separated compartments, so that one type of food does not touch another. It is important to remember it takes most children 8-10 presentations of a new food before they will openly accept it.


Rather than simply insisting that a child eat a new food, you may want to try the following;

  • Present only one new food at a time
  • Offer a new food only when your child is hungry and rested
  • Serve new foods with favourite foods to increase acceptance
  • Make it fun- present food as a game, a play filled experience, or cut the food into unusual shapes
  • Eat the new food yourself, children love to imitate
  • Have your child help prepare foods
  • Limit snacks 2 per day
  • Limit beverages, picky eaters often fill up on liquids instead

Final food for thought       

The biggest reason why nutrition is so important for children is because they simply don’t know enough on their own to naturally choose to eat well. Unfortunately, the foods and snacks that taste the best are usually the worst for our bodies. A child left to their own whim will almost always choose junk food over fruits and vegetables. Provide them with the right nutrition now and they will learn at an early age what’s necessary for good health. This will also help to set them up for a life of proper eating and nutrition, almost certainly helping them to live longer. Countless studies show that what someone learns as a child is then perpetuated throughout their life. Teach them healthy eating habits now and you’ll perpetuate a healthy lifestyle for them.

About Rhett
When it comes to children and adolescents, Rhett has a wealth of knowledge and experience. He has spent the last 11 years as a Health & Physical Education Teacher and is currently conducting research into a PHD on exercise physiology for kids and what motivates them to get active and fit. In addition to this, Rhett’s studies have included degrees in Education, Human Movements & Bio Mechanics.
Improving the health and vitality of the younger generation, through improved nutrition and increased engagement in physical activity is at the core of what Rhett has spent a good portion of his life researching and working with children of all ages on, in order to make a difference.
Rhett is joining Les Mills Asia Pacific on the BORN TO MOVE™ Trainer & Presenter team and is excited about sharing his knowledge and experience with you and more children across Australia.