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What we mean by children’s nutrition

In this article, when we talk about ‘children’ we mean school aged children who are between 3-17 years old. Children in this age group have different dietary needs than babies, toddlers and adults. 


The advice on this page is also intended for an average, healthy child. This means nutrition advice may be different if your child has a health condition.


Children are likely to adopt the same eating patterns as their parents, so it is important that the whole family adopts a healthy lifestyle. You can set a good example by eating healthily and encouraging the whole family to do activities together


Helena Gibson-Moore, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Why is a healthy diet important for children?

It is important for children to have a balanced, varied diet to make sure they get all the nutrients and energy their bodies need to grow, work properly, maintain a healthy weight, and feel good.


If children don’t get all the nutrients they need from their diet, then this could affect their development. For example, children need enough calcium for strong bones and enough vitamin A to support a healthy immunity. Children with unhealthy diets can also have an increased risk of some diseases in later life (for example, type 2 diabetes and heart disease).


Children who get more calories than they need, often as part of an unbalanced diet, may become overweight or obese, which puts them at risk of poor physical and mental health. This also makes them more likely to be obese as adults.


Sadly, there are also many children in the UK who do not get enough to eat, and this will have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. For example, children who are hungry at school will struggle to learn and concentrate.


We know that eating habits are established early in life, so by giving your child a healthy diet now, you can increase their chances of having a healthy diet later in life.

Key facts for children’s nutrition

  • A balanced, varied diet is essential to make sure children get all the nutrients and energy they need to develop and stay healthy. 
  • To get the most out of a healthy diet, children need to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day, get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day and get enough sleep
  • A healthy diet will help your child maintain a healthy weight.
  • Sugary drinks and food should be limited to help prevent tooth decay.

If your child has a health condition we recommend speaking to your GP who can support you with specific dietary advice.

How to maintain a healthy diet for children

Generally, to help your child get all the benefits of a healthy diet, they need to eat a balanced diet from a variety of food groups, be active regularly, drink 6-8 glasses (or beakers for younger children) of water a day and get enough sleep for their particular age.


For energy.

Starchy carbohydrates are the best source of energy for a growing child. Offer a variety of different starchy foods – include wholegrain versions and potatoes with their skins on as they contain more fibre.


Food examples: Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals, oats, couscous and other grains.


For growth.

Protein supports growth, maintenance and repair of the body. Offer a variety of protein foods including pulses like beans and lentils. Try offering two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout or sardines.

Food examples: Lean meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, pulses, beans and soya products.


For balance.

Some fat is needed in the diet, but it needs to be the right type of fat and in the right amount. . Use mainly unsaturated oils for cooking and spreads made from unsaturated fats for spreading and baking. Use leaner cuts of meat and don’t use too much fat when cooking.


Food examples: (Saturated fat) animal products such as fatty meats, butter, lard, ghee, and dairy products and foods made with these such as cakes, biscuits and pastries.


(Unsaturated fats) olive, rapeseed, sunflower and corn oils, oily fish, nuts and seeds. 

Micronutrients for children


For healthy bones and teeth.

If your child is eating well and over 5 years old, then they can eat lower-fat dairy products as they contain less saturated fat and can provide the same amount (if not more) calcium.


Food examples: Milk, yogurt, cheese, soya beans, tofu, green leafy vegetables, soya drinks with added calcium, bread and any food made with fortified flour, and fish that contains edible bones.


For healthy blood.

For transporting oxygen around the body.Iron is especially important for teenage girls.  Their needs are higher because of iron losses from periods.


Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron from plant sources so having a drink or food containing vitamin C with an iron-rich meal is a good idea, for example a glass of fruit juice with a bowl of iron fortified cereal.


Food examples: Lean meat, liver, wholegrain cereals, pulses, beans, nuts, sesame seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.

Vitamin A

For healthy skin and eyes.

Vitamin A also helps to keep the immune system healthy. However, too much vitamin A may be harmful. If you think your child needs a supplement, make sure they are age specific and always consult a health professional before you do so.


Food examples: Milk, yogurt, fortified fat spreads, cheese, eggs, and orange, red and green (leafy) vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers and spinach.

Vitamin C

For healthy body tissues.

For example, skin, gums, bones and teeth, as well as helping the healing process. Offer a range of fruit and vegetables with meals and snacks. You could try having a fruit bowl within easy reach to encourage children to have fruit. 


Food examples: Fruit (especially citrus fruits, blackcurrants, strawberries, papaya and kiwi), green vegetables, peppers and tomatoes.

Vitamin D

For bones and teeth

For growth, development and maintenance of bones and teeth – it also helps to keep muscles and the immune system healthy. 


The main source of vitamin D is from the action of sunlight on the skin. In the UK, the sun is only strong enough to make vitamin D during the summer months (April to October). But remember to protect your child's skin with sunscreen.


Food examples: Eggs, oily fish, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified fat spreads and soya drinks with added vitamin D.

Long chain omega 3 fatty acids

For brain development

Long chain omega 3’s are essential for normal brain development. Our bodies cannot make this type of fat, so it is important we get it from the diet.


Food examples: Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines.


Girls should have no more than two portions of oily fish a week (toxins present at low levels in oily fish can build up in the body over time and may be passed onto an unborn baby in a future pregnancy). Boys can have up to four portions of oily fish a week.

Childhood Nutrition FAQs

If your child does not eat much meat or you choose to give your child a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to make sure that the diet is varied so that they get all the nutrients for growth and general health.

  • Energy - particularly for children on a vegan diet, foods that are nutrient dense may be needed to give them enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. You could try avocados, tofu, bananas and nut and seed butters (such as tahini and cashew or peanut butter). For extra energy, you could add vegetable oils or vegan fat spreads to foods.
  • Protein - good choices of protein include lentils, beans, soya and soya products, milk, cheese, nuts and eggs and they will need 2 to 3 portions of these a day.
  • Iron - meat is a good provider of easily absorbable iron so you will need to offer alternative sources to ensure your growing child gets enough. Foods that provide iron include wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, bread, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots and figs. Remember vitamin C helps our body to absorb iron from non-meat sources so try to include fruit and vegetables at every meal time.
  • Calcium - be particularly careful that vegan children get enough calcium to support their growing bones and teeth. Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, and some dark green leafy vegetables such as kale all provide calcium. Fortified soya drinks, as well as other dairy alternatives, often have added calcium but remember to check the label.
  • Vitamin B12 - vitamin B12 is typically found in products from animal sources. Milk and eggs are important sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians. For vegans, who cut out animal products, useful dietary sources include fortified foods such as some fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extracts and you could also consider offering an age appropriate supplement containing vitamin b12.

For more information on this topic read our page on healthy eating for vegetarians and vegans.

Our recent study showed that 68% of people in the UK have changed their weekly shopping patterns due to the cost-of-living crisis and 26% of people are now worried about being able to afford enough fruit and vegetables to ensure their family eats well. 


We know that food is a big expense for many people so we are committed to sharing advice and tips to ensure any nutrition and diet recommendations are as affordable as possible.

How to help your child maintain a healthy weight

Many school-aged children in the UK are overweight and obese which may affect their health as children and later as adults. 


It can also affect their performance at school. This could be because of some of the social factors associated with obesity such as lack of confidence, stigmatism, discrimination, poor mental health, disordered sleep, less time spent being active  and socialising, and absenteeism.


To help your child maintain a healthy weight try to encourage them to:

  • Eat a healthy, varied diet
  • Be active - children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day.
  • Limit foods and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar such as sugary drinks, sweets, pastries, crisps, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, chips and other fried foods.


It is easier to make sure children are physically active if the whole family is active together and make it a regular part of their family routine. 


Zoe Hill, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

5 Family- Friendly Physical Activities

That don't cost the earth!

  • Go on a long walk - find new trials close to where you live
  • Go for a swim at your local swimming pool
  • Kick or throw a ball around in the park
  • Go on a bike (or scooter) ride 
  • Visit your local woods - build a den or learn about wildlife

Children’s diet and dental health

National surveys show that over 1 in 5 five year olds have had tooth decay and that tooth decay is the top reason for hospital admissions in England. So, it’s important to limit the number of sugary foods and drinks your child has each day to reduce their risk of developing tooth decay.


Soft drinks such as carbonated squashes and fruit juices can be high in ‘free sugars’ which can be harmful to teeth. These drinks may also be acidic, and this can damage the protective enamel on teeth. To help protect teeth encourage your child to drink water or milk and remember to keep soft drinks to mealtimes.


Snack foods containing ‘free sugars’ such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and savoury snacks such as crisps should be limited. If your child eats these snack foods, try not to make them a daily addition to the diet – provide them occasionally and in small amounts. 

5 ways to reduce the risk of tooth decay

  • Pick a day of the week and only allow sugary snack foods on this day.
  • Choose sugar-free versions of soft drinks and dilute fruit juices with water
  • Stick to giving your child water and milk wherever possible 
  • Make sure your child brushes their teeth with a fluoride containing toothpaste at least twice a day for at least 2 minutes at a time.
  • Take your child to visit the dentist regularly.

How much salt should my child have in their diet?

The daily maximum amount of salt your child should be eating varies with age:

  • 4 to 6 years - 3g salt a day 
  • 7 to 10 years - 5g salt a day 
  • 11 years and over - 6g salt a day (6g of salt is about 1 level teaspoon)

These are maximum levels so ideally your child should be eating less. 


There is no need to add salt to your child’s food and by limiting salt in the diet you will also help to ensure that your child doesn’t develop a preference for salty foods.


Salt is also in many processed foods so always read the food label to check how much salt it contains and choose lower salt versions. For more information on how to read food labels read our Looking at nutrition labels guide. 

Healthy eating at school

Schools are encouraged to provide healthier foods throughout the day to promote a consistent message about healthy eating to children. This means meals and other foods served throughout the day should be nutritious and of good quality. 


If your child would prefer a packed lunch, make sure you are aware of the school’s rules before you prepare your child’s packed lunch as many schools have introduced packed lunch policies.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.