Tips for parents, family/whānau and caregivers on the kinds of food and how much of each children need to eat to be healthy.
Teaching kids to eat healthily
Both children and adults need to be active and eat healthily to live well. Just like adults, children can sometimes be fussy about new flavours and textures, and at times may eat too much of the wrong kinds of food.
You can help your child develop healthy eating habits by providing them with lots of healthy foods and letting them choose what they would like to eat and how much they want to eat.
Make each meal enjoyable
Use meals as a time for family/whānau to hang out and chat about their day.
- Eat together as a family (if you can).
- Make sure you switch off any devices, including mobile phones.
- Choose meal times well suited to your children – this might mean eating a bit earlier than you usually do.
- give your child 3 healthy meals a day – don't forget breakfast!
- give your child a wide range of healthy food options
- encourage your children to taste and eat new foods
- do your food shopping with your children and help them to select healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables.
- make cooking and food preparation exciting – include your children from a young age and involve them more and more as they grow up.
- provide healthy snacks (low in salt, fat and sugar) during the day and in-between meals
- remember that it takes 8-15 times trying something new before it becomes familiar so keep trying new foods all the time.
Try to avoid:
- having takeaways – preferably not more than once a week
- bribing your child with treats or rewards or forcing them to eat when they don't want to
- encouraging constant eating – try to develop a routine and keep to specific meal and snack times.
Providing a variety of foods
Like adults, children need to consume a range of foods to be healthy and grow well. There are 4 main food groups which provide a variety of fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. To be healthy, children need all of these.
Choose a variety of foods from the 4 following groups every day:
- vegetables and fruit
- breads and cereals
- milk and milk products
- lean meats, chicken, seafood, eggs, legumes (ie, cooked dried beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds.
Read more about food groups and providing variety for children.
Choosing the right serving size
Make sure your children’s meal sizes are smaller than yours (your child doesn't need to eat as much as you). Encourage your child to eat slowly, so that their stomach has time to tell them when it's full of food. When they are full, let them stop eating – they don't need to finish everything on their plate!
Recommended serving sizes are a guide only. They may be too big for your child to eat in a single meal, especially if they are younger. If so, try dividing one serving into several smaller amounts for your child to eat throughout the day.
Read more about serving sizes
Limiting foods high in sugar, fat or salt
Like adults, children need to eat healthily most of the time. It’s OK to have foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt rarely (not more than once per week), but never every day. Eating a lot of these foods can lead to health issues like obesity (becoming overweight), high blood pressure, heart disease and/or diabetes.
A few examples of foods high in salt, fat, or sugar are sweets/lollies, meat pies, muesli bars, potato chips, chocolate, cookies or sweet biscuits, takeaways and fizzy drinks.
Aim for healthier takeaway meals
Many takeaways contain a lot of fat, salt and/or sugar. Only have these as a rare treat, and never as a daily option. Some takeaways with slightly less fat may include:
- kebabs or wraps
- pizza with lots of vegetables and a bit less cheese
- pasta including tomato-based sauce (rather than cheesy sauce)
- thick wedges or chips rather than thin chips
- rice/noodle takeaways with plenty of vegetables – (not fried)
- baked potatoes served with a side of salad, meat, and beans.
For more information see our healthy eating and drinking section.
Snacks & little meals
Children need to eat consistently throughout the day to fulfil their energy needs so they can grow well. Offer 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks each day.
- Avoid giving snacks within 1 hour of a main meal, or your child may not have an appetite for their food.
- View snacks as a miniature meal that provides protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.
- Select healthy snacks that are low in salt, sugar and saturated fats.
- You may need to change the size and/or texture of certain foods to make them safe for young children – to prevent choking (see below).
Read about healthy snack ideas for children
Healthy vegetarian diets must include a variety of vegetables and fruit, cereals, breads, legumes, eggs, milk products, seeds and nuts. If your child doesn't consume cow’s milk, provide a soy milk with vitamin B12 and added calcium instead. If you're worried about your child's diet, consult a nutritionist or dietitian.
Read more about vegetarianism and veganism
Fussy eating is normal in young children and quite common – however, usually, your child will eat if they're hungry. You might have to offer your child a new food 8 to 15 times, or even more before they will try eating it.
Let your child choose the amount of food they eat – make mealtimes exciting and relaxing rather than stressful or rushed. Consult your GP if you are concerned about your child’s fussy eating or they are failing to thrive.
For more information see our fussy eating section.
Choking in youngsters
It’s pretty easy for young kids to choke on their food/kai, since they're still learning how to chew, grind and swallow food correctly.
To limit choking risk:
- Always have young children sit down during eating or drinking and have an adult supervising.
- Provide foods that are suited to your child's chewing or grinding abilities.
- Sometimes it can help to change the texture of your child's food – to help with chewing and grinding – cook, grate, mash, chop or boil it.
- Remove any tricky/dangerous parts of the food – slice off the apple skin or chop out any tough fibres.
- Don't give small or hard foods, like whole nuts and big seeds, to any child under 5 years old.
Intolerances & allergies
Food allergies and/or intolerances affect about 4–8% of children, however, a lot of children will outgrow these in time.
If you're ever unsure – consult your:
- GP, practice nurse, public health nurse.
- Nearest District Health Board and request a dietitian or Public Health Service.
- Registered nutritionist or dietitian (see the Yellow Pages).
- Māori/Pacifica health workers and/or marae-based health services.
For more information see our allergies section.
Food labels contain lots of information, some of this can help with your healthy food decisions. To discover more about reading food labels easily, see the Food Safety website (Ministry for Primary Industries) or see our food safety section.
Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Children and Young People (Aged 2–18 years): A background paper NZ Ministry of Health, 2015
My Family Food – meal ideas that are tasty, fast, easy and low-cost Health Promotion Agency
Preventing choking in young children NZ Ministry of Health
Nutrition for young children (1 year and over) NZ Ministry of Health
Kai Maori – traditional and ‘semi-traditional’ Māori foods Toi Tangata
Under fives nutrition Heart Foundation of NZ
Pacific Heartbeat Programme - list of useful resources to help keep you healthy Heart Foundation of NZ
Tips on how to get 5+ a day everyday 5+ a day
Eating safely when you have food allergies booklet The Ministry for Primary Industries, NZ
Heart Foundation of NZ