1. School Age
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  3. Healthy eating

Healthy food for school-age children: the five food groups

5-8 years

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

What is healthy food for kids?

Healthy food for school-age children includes a wide variety of fresh foods from the five food groups:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • grain foods – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
  • reduced-fat 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.

The healthy food groups

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

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.

Reduced-fat dairy products
Milk, cheese and yoghurt are high in protein and calcium, which helps to build strong bones and teeth. Try to offer your child different kinds of dairy each day – for example, drinks of milk, cheese slices, bowls of yoghurt and so on.

Children aged over two years can have reduced-fat dairy products, unless a doctor or dietitian tells you otherwise.

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.

Try to include a few different food groups at every meal and snack. Have a look at our illustrated dietary guidelines for children aged 4-8 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

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.

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 her 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
Encourage your child to choose snacks from the healthy food groups. This can include things like nuts, cheese, low-fat yoghurt and fresh fruit or vegetables – for example, carrot and celery sticks.

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 school-age children

At this age, your child might have a busy social life, his own pocket money to spend and some definite preferences when it comes to food. He’ll also be influenced by friends and trends, and might be eating away from home more. This is a great time to reinforce messages about fresh healthy foods and to model healthy eating yourself.

For example, you can explain to your child that a healthy breakfast helps her concentrate on schoolwork and gives her lots of energy for the day. And sharing healthy meals and snacks with your school-age child can encourage her to develop a regular eating routine and make healthy food choices.

When you’re packing your child’s lunch box, healthy variety is the way to go. You might include vegies, fruit, a dairy food, meat or egg, a grain food like a roll, pita bread or flat bread, and water.

You might like to read more about healthy eating habits for kids.

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Last updated or reviewed
31-03-2016

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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.

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