Nutrition for Children

What is a balanced diet?

Whatever their age, children can easily maintain a balanced diet – and lower their risk of becoming overweight or obese – by eating a variety of foods from four main food groups:

Bread, pasta and potatoes –starchy foods, which also include cous-cous,  rice and other cereals provide energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals

Fruit and vegetables – these provide fibre, vitamins and minerals and are a source of antioxidants.

Milk and dairy foods – these provide calcium for healthy bones and teeth, protein for growth, plus vitamins and minerals.

Meat, fish and alternatives – these foods, which include eggs and pulses (grains, beans, lentils), provide protein and vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Pulses also contain fibre.

In contrast, fatty and sugary foods like biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, chocolate, sweets, crisps and pastries, should be limited because of their high fat, high sugar and high calorie levels.

Growing teenagers

Choosing foods from each of the four main food groups helps to ensure that children receive all the vitamins and minerals they need for good nutrition and health. It is very important that children and teenagers eat a diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals. Teenagers often have higher requirements for nutrients than adults in order to support growth – for example, 15 to 18 year old boys need more thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus and iron than adult men.

Similarly, 15 to 18 year old girls need more niacin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium than adult women.

How many calories per day?

Although obesity is a growing problem in children of all ages, children and teenagers still need enough calories to grow and develop into healthy adults. This is a rough guideline to the daily calorie needs of boys and girls at different ages. Children who are very active may need slightly more whereas children who are inactive may need less.

Age (years) Calories per day
  Boys Girls
1–3 1,230 1,165
4–6 1,715 1,545
7–10 1,970 1,740
11–14 2,220 1,845
15–18 2,755 2,110
Adults 2,550 1,940


Salt in the diet

It is also important to ensure that children don’t have too much salt. While adults should have no more than 6g of salt a day, children need even less, since they have smaller bodies. The easiest way to restrict salt intake is to not add salt to cooking or meals, and to check the information on labels if you buy processed foods such as crisps, ready meals and sauces. Try to buy those with the lowest sodium as it is the sodium in salt that’s linked to health problems like high blood pressure.

The maximum amounts of salt children should have at different ages are;

Age (Years) Recommended salt intake per day Recommended salt intake as sodium per day
1- 3 2g 0.8g
4-6 3g 1.2g
7-10 5g 2g
11 + 6g 2.5g


Keeping Hydrated

It should also be remembered that children are at greater risk of dehydration than adults due to their lower body weight and smaller reserve of body fluids. Equally, whilst adults often have easy access to a supply of water, children tend to rely on other people to provide drinks and often don’t recognise the early stages of thirst. As a child’s body is around 60% water, it is important to keep them topped up with fluid during the day. Just a 1% to 2% body fluid loss can lead to significant reductions in concentration and mental performance. Key tips to keep children hydrated include;

  • Children should aim to hydrate healthily with plain, natural drinks that are unsweetened and free from additives.
  • Limit empty calories by putting a bottle of water in lunchboxes instead of a sugary drink.
  • Parents and other caregivers should offer younger children drinks on a regular basis and actively encourage consumption.
  • Children should aim to have 6-8 drinks per day which should ideally be water, milk or fruit/vegetable juices.
  • Children taking part in sports need to replenish the lost fluids by drinking more water.

A good role model

Finally, remember that parents are role models for their children, and so the dietary habits formed by parents are likely to be reflected in children. Having healthy eating patterns as an adult can have a very significant positive influence on their children's eating patterns when providing healthy meals and snacks at home. Parents should provide a variety of foods and establish regular meal and snack times, sitting down to eat as a family whenever possible.