Healthy eating for children
As a parent, one of the most important things you do is to help your children learn healthy eating habits. Children need a balanced diet with food from all 4 food groups—vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives.
Children need 3 meals a day and 1 to 3 snacks (morning, afternoon and possibly before bed). Healthy snacks are just as important as the food you serve at meals.
The best foods are whole, fresh and unprocessed—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and meats; and home-cooked meals.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends the following servings per day (click here for serving examples) for each food group:
Vegetables and fruit
Vegetables and fruit are a source of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
2-3 years of age: 4
4-8 years of age: 5
9-13 years of age: 6
Choose at least one dark green and one orange vegetable or fruit every day.
Grains are an important source of energy from carbohydrates.
2-3 years of age: 3
4-8 years of age: 4
9-13 years of age: 6
Make at least half of the grain products whole grain.
Milk and alternatives
Milk is an important source of calcium and vitamin D, not easily obtained from other food groups. In young children it is also an important source of protein.
2-8 years of age: 2
9-13 years of age: 3-4
After children turn 2 years old, you can offer lower fat milk (1% or 2% MF) or milk alternatives. Wait until children are at least 5 years old before offering skim milk.
Meat and alternatives
Meat and alternatives are an important source of iron and protein.
2-8 years of age: 1
9-13 years of age: 1-2
Choose a variety of lean meat, poultry, and de-boned fish, eggs, tofu, dried peas, beans and lentils.
The Guide recommends at least 2 servings of fish per week.
Your child might not eat the recommended amount from each food group every day. But if you offer a good variety, she’ll probably get what she needs over the course of a week or two.
Sugar and sugar substitutes
- Offer foods that don’t have added sugar or sugar substitutes. Limit refined sugars (sucrose, glucose-fructose, white sugar) honey, molasses, syrups, and brown sugar. They all have similar calorie counts and also contribute to tooth decay.
- Sugar substitutes, such as aspartame and sucralose, do not add calories or cause tooth decay, but they are much sweeter than sugar and have no nutritional value. They may lead to a habit of only liking sweet foods and make it difficult for your child to adjust to fruits and vegetables. It’s a good idea to limit them in your child’s diet.
Juice and water
- Serving fruit instead of fruit juice also adds healthy fibre to your child’s diet.
- Serve vegetables and fruit more often than fruit juice. Offer water when your child is thirsty, especially between meals and snacks. Limit juice to one serving (125 mL [4 oz]) of 100% unsweetened juice a day.
- Sometimes children will drink too much at mealtime or between meals, making them feel full.
What about fat?
Healthy fats contain essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 that cannot be made in the body and must come from the diet. Cook with vegetable oils such as canola, olive and/or soybean. Healthy fats are also found in salad dressings, non-hydrogenated margarines, nut butters (e.g. peanut butter) and mayonnaise.
Many fats that are solid at room temperature contain more trans and saturated fats that can raise your risk of heart disease. Limit butter, hard margarines, lard and shortening. Read labels and avoid trans or saturated fats found in many store-bought products, such as cookies, donuts and crackers.
Limit processed meats, such as wieners and luncheon meats, which are also high in fat, sodium (salt), and nitrates (food preservatives).
As the parent, it’s your job to:
- Set regular meal and snack times that work for the whole family. Share mealtimes and eat with your children.
- Offer a balance and variety of foods from all four food groups at mealtimes. Include at least two of the four food groups for each snack.
- Offer food in ways they can manage easily. For example cut into pieces, or mash food to prevent choking in younger children.
- Help your children learn to use a spoon or cup so they can eat independently.
- Include your child in age appropriate food preparation and table setting.
- Avoid using dessert as a bribe. Serve healthy dessert choices, such as a fruit cup or yogurt.
- Show your child how you read labels to help you choose foods when shopping.
- Avoiding fast food restaurants shows your children the importance of enjoying mealtime as a family, while eating healthy home cooked meals.
It’s your child’s job to:
- Choose what to eat from the foods you provide at meal and snack time (and sometimes that may mean not eating at all).
- Eat as much or as little as she wants.
What if my child is a picky eater?
Don’t stress too much if your child refuses a food product or meal. Refrain from giving him something else in between meals just so that he eats. He will eat better at the next meal.
Don’t worry too much if your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough. If his weight and size is on track, he’s probably getting what he needs. Just make sure to offer your child a variety of foods from all food groups to make sure he is getting the right nutrients. Your child’s doctor will monitor his growth at regular appointments and will let you know if there are any problems.
Children’s appetites change from day-to-day, or even from meal to meal. Because they have small stomachs, children need to eat small amounts often throughout the day. Children know how much food they need and will eat the amount that their body needs.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee
- Public Education Advisory Committee
Last Updated: January 2017