1. Babies
  2. Nutrition
  3. Healthy eating

Healthy food for babies and toddlers: the five food groups

1-3 years

Choosing healthy food for babies and toddlers isn’t hard. It just means offering a range of food from the five food groups right from the start – and it adds up to the best possible nutrition for your child’s growth, development and learning.

What is healthy food for babies and toddlers?

Healthy food for babies and toddlers includes a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy food groups:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • grain foods – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
  • dairy – milk, cheese, yoghurt and so on
  • protein – meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, tofu and so on.

Each food group has different nutrients, which your child’s body needs to grow and work properly. That’s why we need to eat a range of foods from across all five food groups.

Going from drinking breastmilk or infant formula to eating family meals takes time, and your baby won’t be eating food from all five food groups straight away. Starting your baby on solids is the first step. Once your baby has started eating solids, try to include foods from a variety of groups at each meal.

The healthy food groups

Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegies give your child energy, vitamins, anti-oxidants, fibre and water. They help protect your baby’s body against all kinds of diseases.

It’s a good idea to offer your baby fruit and vegetables at every meal and for snacks. Try to choose fruit and vegies of different colours, textures and tastes, both fresh and cooked, for your baby.

Wash fruit to remove dirt or chemicals, and leave the skin on, because the skin contains nutrients too.

If your child seems to be ‘fussy’ about eating fruit and vegies, it doesn’t mean he’ll never like them. Did you know that if your child sees you eating a wide range of vegetables and fruit, he’s more likely to try them too?

Grain foods
Grain foods include breakfast cereals, breads, rice, pasta, corn and more. These foods give your child the energy she needs to grow, develop and learn.

Grain foods with a low glycaemic index, like wholegrain pasta and breads, will give your child longer-lasting energy and keep him feeling fuller for longer.

Dairy products
Milk, cheese and yoghurt are high in protein and calcium, which helps to build strong bones and teeth.

Until your baby is 12 months old, she should have only breastmilk or infant formula as her milk drink. After that, she can start drinking full-fat cow’s milk. Because children in this age group are growing so quickly and need lots of energy, they need full-fat dairy products until they turn two.

Protein
Protein is important for your child’s growth and muscle development. Foods with lots of protein include meat, fish, chicken eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts. These foods also contain other useful vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Iron and omega-3 fatty acids, from red meat and oily fish, are particularly important for your child’s brain development and learning.

Have a look at our illustrated dietary guidelines for children 2-3 years for more information about daily food portions and recommendations. You can also speak to a dietitian if you have concerns about your child’s eating.

Healthy drinks

Water is the healthiest drink for children over 12 months. It’s also the cheapest. Most tap water is fortified with fluoride for strong teeth too.

From six months, breastfed and formula-fed babies can have small amounts of cooled boiled tap water from a cup.

Foods and drinks to avoid

Your child should avoid ‘sometimes’ foods (sometimes called ‘discretionary’ foods). These include fast food and junk food like hot chips, potato chips, dim sims, pies, burgers and takeaway pizza. They also include cakes, chocolate, lollies, biscuits, doughnuts and pastries.

These foods are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre and nutrients. Many of these foods also contain bad fats that can increase the risk of childhood obesity and conditions like type-2 diabetes.

Your child should also avoid sweet drinks like fruit juice, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured waters, soft drinks and flavoured milks. Sweet drinks are high in sugar and low in nutrients. They can cause weight gain, obesity and tooth decay. These drinks fill your child up and can make him less hungry for healthy meals. And if children start on these drinks when they’re young, it can kick off an unhealthy lifelong habit.

Foods and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for children, because caffeine stops the body from absorbing calcium well. Caffeine is also a stimulant, which means it gives children artificial energy. These foods and drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate.

Healthy alternatives for snacks and desserts
It’s fine to offer your child snacks, but try to make sure they’re healthy – for example, grated or thinly sliced carrot.

The same goes for dessert at the end of a meal. Sliced fruit or yoghurt is the healthiest option. If you want to serve something special, try homemade banana bread. Save the seriously sweet stuff, like cakes and chocolate, for special occasions like birthdays.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines say that both children and adults should limit how much sometimes food they eat. It’s best to save these foods for special occasions.

Healthy food tips for babies and toddlers

Babies
Many parents start thinking about introducing solids at about six months or so. You can introduce solids in any order. For example, you could try infant rice cereal, soft cooked vegetables and stewed or mashed fruit. Then you can move onto mashed foods like eggs, grains like wheat, cooked fish, pureed or minced meat, and more fruits and vegetables. You can also try tofu, beans, lentils, nut pastes and so on.

By 12 months, your baby can try most healthy foods that your family is eating, like fruits, vegetables, nuts (but as a paste to prevent choking), grains, cereal, meat, fish, chicken, egg, tofu, lentils, pasta, rice and bread.

If your baby doesn’t like one of the new foods you offer, try it again some other time. You might have to try lots of times before your baby accepts a new taste or texture.

Toddlers
Lots of parents describe their toddlers as ‘fussy’ with food. This can make mealtimes stressful, especially if you’re worried your toddler isn’t eating enough.

If your toddler seems to eat less than she used to, try not to worry. She needs less food because she’s growing more slowly. But she does still need regular meals and snacks – three meals and several snacks every day.

It’s normal for toddlers’ appetites to vary a lot from day to day. The key thing to remember with toddlers is that you decide what foods to offer your child, and he decides how much to eat. Keep offering lots of variety from the main food groups, but try to limit sometimes foods as much as you can.

It’s also a good idea to wean your toddler off bottles and introduce her to a cup to avoid her having too much milk, which can make her less hungry for healthy meals.

Rate this article (499 ratings)

Tap the stars to rate this article.

Thanks for rating this article.

Last updated or reviewed
31-03-2016

  • Tell us what you think
  • References
 
 

Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

Follow us

© 2006-2017 Raising Children Network (Australia) Ltd