Like adults, children need to eat a variety of foods to be healthy and grow well.
Key points about food groups and serving sizes for children
- There are 4 main food groups that provide a variety of fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals for your child.
- Healthy eating is important for your child as they need a variety of foods to support their wellbeing, growth and development.
- The recommended serving size for each food group is different for different ages and genders.
- Eating the recommended number of serving sizes of each food group each day is the best way for your child to get all the nutrients they need.
- To prevent choking, you may need to change the size and/or texture of certain foods to make them safe for young children.
Why is healthy eating important for your child?
Your child needs to eat a variety of foods to support their wellbeing, growth and development. They are still growing and developing, so they need all the essential nutrients for them to grow healthily.
Other benefits of healthy eating for your child include:
- maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of health problems such as obesity
- lowering risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
- supporting your child’s wellbeing and stabilising their mood.
Read our tips for healthy eating in children.
What are the different food groups in your child’s diet?
Provide your child with a variety of foods from these 4 food groups every day:
- vegetables and fruit
- grain foods
- legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry or red meat with fat removed
- milk and milk products.
How much is a serving?
While it’s good to choose a variety of foods, it’s also important to keep food serving sizes appropriate for your child’s body size and energy levels. A serving or portion is a standard amount of food. Too large a serving of a certain food group can cause weight gain.
Children have smaller stomachs than adults, so they need smaller meals and snacks. The guide below shows what a standard portion is. However, you can spread these out during the day as some children will not be able to eat a whole portion in one sitting.
What is the recommended serving size for each food group for my child?
The Eating and activity guidelines from the Ministry of Health recommend different serving sizes for each food group in order for children to get all the nutrients they need. The recommended serving size for each food group is different for different ages and genders.
Vegetables and fruit
Vegetables and fruit contain fibre, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. They are best eaten with most meals and are a great snack option.
- Buy fruit and vegetables in season to reduce cost.
- Canned and frozen options are just as nutritious and can be cheaper options. Choose fruit canned in fruit juice rather than in syrup.
- Include a range of raw and cooked vegetables and fruit in meals and snacks.
- You get different nutrients from different coloured fruits and vegetables so try to offer a variety, eg, beetroot or plum, tomato or strawberry, broccoli or kiwifruit, carrot or orange.
Fruit juice and dried fruit are not included in this category as they are high in sugar, which can cause problems with teeth. If you do offer these to your child, limit them to 1 serving each week and follow this guidance:
- Offer small quantities of dried fruit, eg, 3 dried apricots or 2 tablespoons of raisins (25g dried fruit).
- Dilute juice with water so it is half juice and half water.
- Offer these with other food, rather than in between meals. Cheese is a good option as it can help get the dried fruit out of teeth.
|1–2 year olds||2–3 servings per day||Half serving per day|
|2–3 year olds||At least 2.5 servings per day||At least 1 serving per day|
|4–8 year olds||At least 4.5 servings per day||At least 1.5 servings per day|
|9–11 year olds||At least 5 servings per day||At least 2 servings per day|
|12–13 year olds||At least 5.5 servings for boys and 5 servings for girls per day||At least 2 servings per day|
|14–18 year olds||At least 5.5 servings for boys and 5 servings for girls per day||At least 2 servings per day|
Children should eat these foods every day since these are a high quality energy source. You should offer mostly wholegrain foods from 2 years old. Wholegrain and high fibre grains provide energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- These foods include whole grain bread, whole grain cereals like oats (porridge) and whole wheat biscuits, brown rice and wholemeal pasta.
- Breads and cereals can make healthy snacks for children.
- Choose wholegrain options (eg, brown bread with whole grains, rolled oats, brown rice) as much as possible.
|1–2 year olds||4 servings per day|
|2–3 year olds||At least 4 servings per day|
|4–8 year olds||At least 4 servings per day|
|9–11 year olds||At least 5 servings for boys and 4 servings for girls per day|
|12–13 year olds||At least 6 servings for boys and 5 servings for girls per day|
|14–18 year olds||At least 7 servings per day|
Legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry or red meat with fat removed
These foods contain protein, which is vital for children’s development. They also include fat and a range of vitamins and minerals – including iron, which is important for your blood and brain.
- Your body gets iron from lean meats, chicken and seafood more easily than from plants.
- To help your body take in iron, have foods high in vitamin C with meals. Try fresh fruits and vegetables, like oranges, kiwifruit, tomatoes and broccoli as these are all full of vitamin C.
- To lower fat levels, try to choose lean meat, remove bits of fat you can see on meat and chicken, and take off chicken skin after cooking.
- Children should eat some fat, but too much can cause health issues later on in life.
- Restrict processed meats, like luncheon, bacon, salami and ham, as they are often high in fat, salt and preservatives.
- Start adding lentils, chickpeas or beans to meals such as casseroles, spaghetti bolognese and curries to introduce children to these as part of a mixed meal.
Note: To reduce the risk of choking, don’t give small, hard foods such as whole nuts and large seeds until children are at least 5 years old.
|Ages||Legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry or red meat with fat removed|
|1–2 year olds||1 serving per day|
|2–3 year olds||At least 1 serving per day|
|4–8 year olds||At least 1.5 servings per day|
|9–11 year olds||At least 2.5 servings per day|
|12–13 year olds||At least 2.5 servings per day|
|14–18 year olds||At least 2.5 servings per day|
Milk and milk products
Milk contains energy, protein and a range of vitamins and minerals including calcium. Children and pre-schoolers need milk and milk products so they can grow healthy bones and teeth.
- When children reach 2 years old, you can begin to slowly introduce low-fat (yellow or green lid) or reduced-fat (light blue lid) milk and milk products.
- Try to encourage children who don’t drink milk to eat other milk products like yoghurt, fruit smoothies and cheese.
Limit milk to 2 cups (500ml) each day for young children. Drinking too much milk may fill them up and they may not eat enough food to get the nutrients they need.
|Ages||Milk and milk products|
|1–2 year olds||1-1.5 servings per day|
|2–3 year olds||At least 1.5 servings per day|
|4–8 year olds||At least 2 servings for boys and 1.5 servings for girls per day|
|9–11 year olds||At least 2.5 servings for boys and 3 servings for girls per day|
|12–13 year olds||At least 3.5 servings per day|
|14–18 year olds||At least 3.5 servings per day|
The following links provide further information about food groups and serving size for children. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Healthy eating for children Ministry of Health, NZ
Healthy eating for babies and toddlers from birth to 2 years old Ministry of Health, NZ
Eating for healthy children aged 2 to 12 Ministry of Health, NZ
Healthy eating for young people Ministry of Health, NZ
- Eating and activity guidelines for New Zealand adults Ministry of Health, NZ, 2020
|Amanda Buhaets works as a liaison dietitian for the Auckland District Health Board. Her role includes supporting primary care and public health programmes with up-to-date nutrition information. She has a special interest in child health and supporting health professionals to have successful conversations to whānau about health and lifestyle.|
|Julie Carter works as a liaison dietitian for the Auckland District Health Board. Her role focuses on improving nutrition environments, sustainable food, food systems and food security, and connecting these into a range of health and other settings.|