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Your growing child

child eating melon When your child first starts school, he or she will suddenly start growing fast and becoming more active. Children's energy and nutrient needs are high in relation to their body size compared to adults.

Contact your GP or health visitor if you want any more information.

What to give

child girl Children need a healthy, balanced diet, which is rich in fruit, vegetables and starchy foods.

Encourage your child to choose a variety of foods to help ensure that they obtain the wide range of nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Remember to include these sorts of foods:
  • Milk, cheese, yoghurt, soya beans, tofu and nuts are rich in calcium, which is needed for healthy bones and teeth.
  • Fortified breakfast cereals, margarine and oily fish are good sources of dietary vitamin D, which helps ensure a good supply of calcium in the blood and therefore healthy bones. The main source of vitamin D is from the action of sunlight on skin, but avoid strong sun especially around midday when there is a risk of burning.
  • Meat, particularly red meat and fish are rich sources of iron. Pulses (beans and lentils), green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals are also good sources of iron. Iron is needed for healthy blood and research has shown that some children have low intakes of iron, particularly older girls.
  • At least two portions of fish a week because fish are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals and they are low in saturated fat. Oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, also contain omega 3 fatty acids. You can give boys up to four portions of oily fish a week, but it's best to give girls no more than two portions of oily fish a week.
  • Citrus fruit (such as oranges and lemons), tomatoes and potatoes, are all good sources of vitamin C which is essential for health. Vitamin C may help the absorption of iron, so having fruit juice with an iron-rich meal could increase iron absorption.
  • Milk, margarine with added vitamins, green vegetables and carrots are all good sources of vitamin A which is important for good vision and healthy skin.
Avoid giving children shark, swordfish and marlin. This is because these fish contain relatively high levels of mercury, which might affect a child's developing nervous system.


milk poured Cartons of fruit juice are extremely convenient, but like dried fruit, are high in sugar and should be eaten at mealtimes.

Sweet drinks also damage the teeth, especially if drunk frequently or sipped from a bottle over long periods between meals.

So, keep drinks such as fruit juices or squashes to mealtimes, and try to encourage your child to drink water or milk in between.

Foods to limit

Sweets and snacks

Eating sweet and sticky foods frequently between meals causes dental decay. Snack foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate and sweets can be high in sugar and saturated fat, and low in certain vitamins and minerals. So if your child does eat these sorts of foods:
  • try to make sure they eat them only occasionally or in small amounts, so they only make up a relatively small part of the overall diet
  • help and encourage your child to clean their teeth every day
  • try picking a weekly sweet day, or choose the weekends as a time when your child is allowed to eat sweets
  • Check the label and choose those options lower in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt

Watch out for salt

The maximum amount of salt children should be having varies by age:
  • 4 to 6 years - 3 g a day
  • 7 to 10 years - 5 g a day
  • 11 year upwards - 6 g a day
There's no need to add salt to your child's food. If you're buying processed foods, even those aimed at children, remember to check the information given on the labels to choose those with less salt.

Healthy weight

boy If you encourage your child to eat a healthy balanced diet with only small amounts of foods containing sugar and fat, and you encourage your child to get plenty of physical activity, they should maintain a healthy weight.

But if you are concerned contact your GP for advice before starting any sort of diet.

School meals and packed lunches

bread sticks As your child grows older, they will tend to follow the eating habits you've established at home.

If your child has school dinners, talk to them about what they eat and try to encourage them to vary their meals.

School caterers are being encouraged to use healthier recipes and more raw ingredients to provide freshly cooked meals. This means you can expect:

  • better quality and more nutritious food
  • less processed food
  • healthier, more balanced meals
  • better choices
If you choose to give your child packed lunches, it can be a challenge to keep them varied, interesting and healthy. See our tips and menu suggestions in the Lunchboxes section.

Some schools let children keep their packed lunches in a fridge at school, which is ideal. If this isn't possible, you could use freezer blocks or gel packs to keep the food cool and safe. Or you could freeze a carton of fruit juice and use that to keep the lunchbox cool - the juice will have defrosted by lunchtime.

Vegetarian diet

If you want to give your child a vegetarian diet, it's important to make sure their diet is balanced.

You'll need to:

  • make sure you find an alternative to meat, fish and chicken as the main sources of protein. These could include pulses (lentils and beans), milk, cheese and eggs.
  • make sure your growing child is getting enough iron. Good sources of iron include wholegrain cereals, leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and watercress), pulses and dried apricots or figs. Remember, eating foods containing vitamin C with iron-rich foods, might make it easier to absorb iron from our food.
Also try not to give your child too much tea or coffee because it could reduce the amount of iron they can absorb.