The Different Food Groups
Milk and dairy products
Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of vitamin A, which helps the body resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes.
From the age of one, you can replace breast or formula milk with cows’ milk or carry on breastfeeding. About three servings of milk a day will provide the calcium your child needs to develop strong bones and teeth. Milk can be given either as a drink or in the form of foods made from milk, such as cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais.
Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of two, provided your child is a good eater and growing well for their age. Skimmed milk doesn’t contain enough fat so isn’t recommended for children under five.
Starchy foods provide energy, nutrients and some fibre. Whether it’s bread or breakfast cereals, potatoes or yams, rice or couscous, pasta or chapattis, most children don’t need much encouragement to eat foods from this group.
You can also give your child wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice. However, it’s not a good idea to only give wholegrain foods because they can fill your child up before they’ve taken in the calories they need.
Don’t add bran to cereals or use bran-enriched cereals as they can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb minerals, such as calcium and iron. Iron is essential for your child’s health. Lack of iron can lead to anaemia, which can hold back your child’s physical and mental development. Children who carry on drinking too much milk are most at risk from anaemia.
The iron in meat and fish is easily absorbed by the body. Even a small amount of meat or fish is good because it helps the body to absorb iron from other food sources. If your child doesn’t eat meat or fish, they will get enough iron if you give them plenty of:
- fortified breakfast cereals
- dark green vegetables
- beans, lentils and dhal
- dried fruit, such as apricots, figs and prunes
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables contain lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre. It’s good to introduce lots of different types from an early age, whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Make sure that fruit and vegetables are included in every meal. If possible, give a mix of green vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage) and yellow or orange vegetables (such as swede, carrots and squash) and fruit (e.g.
apricots, mangoes and peaches).
Different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so the more different types your toddler eats the better. But don’t worry if they’ll only eat one or two. Lots of children don’t like cooked vegetables but will nibble on raw vegetables while you’re preparing a meal. Try putting them on the top of a pizza or puréeing them in a sauce.
Meat, fish and other proteins
Young children need protein and iron to grow and develop. Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses (e.g. beans, lentils and peas) and foods made from pulses (e.g. tofu, hummus and soya mince) are excellent sources of protein and iron. Try to give your toddler one or two portions from this group each day.
Meat and fish also contain zinc, which is important for healing wounds and making many of the body’s processes function properly. If your child doesn’t eat meat or fish, find more advice in Vegetarian and vegan kids.
Young children, especially those under the age of two, need the concentrated energy provided by fat. There are also some vitamins which are only found in fats. This is why foods such as whole milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish are so important.
Once your child is two, you can gradually lower the amount of fat in their diet. Some foods will increase the levels of saturated or ‘bad’ fat in your child’s diet. Cheap burgers, crisps, chips, biscuits, cakes and fried foods are all high in saturated fat. Although they tend to be popular with both children and adults, it’s best to limit them at all ages to keep your family healthy. It can help to think of these sorts of foods as ‘extras’ once your child has eaten well from the four other main groups.
Keep an eye on the amount of fat in the food your family eats. Try to keep it to a minimum. The following tips will help you reduce the amount of fat in your family’s meals:
- Grill or bake foods instead of frying them.
- During cooking, skim the fat off meat dishes such as mince or curry.
- Buy leaner cuts of meat and lower-fat meat products, such as low-fat
sausages and burgers.
- Take the skin off poultry before cooking as this is the fattiest part.
- Reduce the amount of meat you put in stews and casseroles. Make up the
difference with lentils, split peas or soaked dried beans.
- For children over two, use lower-fat dairy products, such as low-fat spreads
and reduced-fat cheeses.
- Use as little cooking oil as possible. Choose one that’s high in omega-3
polyunsaturates, such as rapeseed, soya or olive oil. In the UK, pure vegetable
oil is often rapeseed oil.
To help keep your child’s teeth healthy (in addition to brushing their teeth regularly and visiting the dentist), limit the amount of added sugar they have. Added sugars are found in fizzy drinks, juice drinks, sweets, cakes and jam. If
you give them these kinds of foods and drinks, give them at mealtimes and not as snacks.
Don’t let your child sip sugary drinks and suck sugary sweets too often. The longer the sugar touches your child’s teeth, the more damage it causes.
There’s no need to add salt (sodium chloride) to your child’s food. Most foods already contain enough salt. Too much salt can give your child a taste for salty foods and contribute towards high blood pressure in later life. Your whole family will benefit if you gradually reduce the amount of salt in your cooking.
Babies up to one year old should have no more than 1g of salt a day. The maximum amount is 2g of salt a day for children aged one to three, and 3g a day for children aged four to six.
Want to know more about the eatwell plate?
Taken from the NHS – Birth to Five
For further information on healthy eating for you or your child go to the nhs website