Parents' Zone


What should I know as a parent?

As children grow up, they develop their tastes and preferences for different foods. Most food preferences are made before a child is five years old but this doesn't mean that new foods can't be introduced into a child's diet after this age. If the experience is made fun, many children find tasting new foods enjoyable. Research has shown that if children help prepare new foods they will be more likely to try them.

How can I get my child to eat healthy food?

If your child is reluctant to eat vegetables, or try new foods, show them how much you enjoy eating the food before you give it to them. Make the food seem like a special treat rather than a chore to eat. Offer the new food to them and if they refuse, wait a few days and try again. If your child is put off the look of a certain fruit or vegetable, try mixing the food with foods they already like such as yoghurt, pasta sauce or even ice cream.

It is important to expose children to a wide assortment of foods (especially fruit and vegetables) as early as possible, and to demonstrate healthy living to them by eating a balanced diet at home. However, try not to get into confrontations about food or make an issue of eating healthily. The best approach is to offer a variety of foods in interesting ways and hopefully your child will find a healthy selection they like.

What is a healthy, balanced diet?

The eatwell plate shows food is split into five categories according to how much of the diet they should make up.

The eatwell plate


This plate shows:

  • Carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, potatoes, rice, pasta (33%)
  • Fruit and vegetables (33%)
  • Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese (15%)
  • Protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs, pulses, beans, and nuts (12%)
  • Treats high in fat and/or sugar (8%)

A healthy diet contains a balanced mix of food types. It is unlikely that anyone will get the balance shown on the plate at every meal, or even everyday, but we should aim to eat food in these quantities over a week.

In trying to achieve the balance shown on the plate, base meals on the carbohydrate you are going to eat, add fruit and vegetables and a small amount of protein or dairy. Although most people should aim to reduce the amount of fat they eat, fat is an important part of our diet, and some vitamins from fruit and vegetables can only be absorbed by the body if eaten with a small amount of fat.

Meal Plan: Carbohydrate + Vegetable/Fruit + small amount Protein/Diary

Occasionally, as a treat, it is okay to eat small amounts of foods high in saturated fat, sugar, or salt e.g. crisps and fizzy drinks.

Why do I need to eat a balanced diet?

Eating a balanced diet just means eating a variety of foods in the right proportions. Everyone needs enough food to give them energy plus a few ingredients to help their bodies work properly. Scientists have studied eating habits for a long time. They have worked out how foods affect the body and what proportions of different foods allow our bodies to work best. Sometimes it seems that the advice on healthy eating is always changing but most advice hasn't changed in decades. The key is to eat everything in moderation and not eat any one ingredient or type of food all the time.

Everything in moderation

For more on how different foods affect our bodies, read on!

Carbohydrates are starchy foods that provide energy e.g. bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, oats, breakfast cereals and couscous. Carbohydrates also contain some protein, minerals, vitamins and fibre. They are an important part of our diet and should be eaten at every meal.

Fruit and vegetables provide the body with vitamins, minerals, fibre and carbohydrates, usually in the form of simple sugars. It is important for our body to get vitamins from food rather than a tablet, because when we eat the whole food we get other nutrients that help our bodies absorb the vitamins and work better.

You probably know you should eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day, but do you know what a portion is? A portion is approximately the amount of the fruit or vegetable that, if squashed to be a solid round ball, would be about the size of your fist. An adult portion is considered to be 80g.

Each day one portion can come from a fresh fruit juice, but juice only counts as one portion a day no matter how much you drink. If you drink a smoothie or liquidised soup that contains the pulp from fruit and vegetables, you can get two portions. One portion, but no more, can come from dried fruit. One portion each day can come from beans and pulses. All other portions must come from whole fresh, frozen, or canned fruit or vegetables. People who eat a lot of fruit and veg have a less chance of developing heart disease and a variety of cancers.

Remember potatoes don't count as a vegetable because they're a starchy carbohydrate.


Meat, fish, eggs, nuts and pulses are all sources of protein. The body needs protein to grow and repair itself. Protein rich foods also provide B vitamins. B vitamins help release the energy from food so it is available for the body to use. One of the B vitamins, B12, is found in meat, fish and eggs, but not plants, so vegans who do not eat eggs or milk should take a supplement. Protein-rich foods also contain minerals such as:

  • iron, which helps to build healthy blood and prevent anaemia
  • zinc, which helps with wound healing
  • magnesium, which helps the body use energy.

Fish should be eaten at least twice a week as part of a balanced diet. One of these portions should be oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and trout. Oily fish are good sources of a special type of fat, called omega 3, that can help protect against coronary heart disease. They're also good sources of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Tinned tuna is a good source of protein but does not count as an oily fish because the canning process removes the beneficial oils.

Dairy products provide protein and are a good source of calcium, which is needed for healthy bones and teeth. Dairy products also provide vitamin A and B vitamins, especially vitamin B2, which helps the body turn the food we eat into energy.

Fats are an essential part of our diet, as fats help our bodies absorb some vitamins, and our nervous systems need fat to function. But eating too much fat can make a person gain weight. Saturated and trans fats may also increase the level of cholesterol in the blood, and this can cause heart disease. Unsaturated (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) fats reduce cholesterol levels. Most people would benefit from eating less saturated fat, which is the type of fat found in meat, cream, lard, butter, hard margarine, cheese, pies and cakes. Aim to replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats such as rapeseed oil. Fat contains more energy (calories) than any other nutrients so a little goes a long way.

1 gram of fat = 9 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories

Sugar causes a build-up of plaque on the teeth. Plaque contains bacteria that turn the sugar into acid, which causes dental decay. Foods high in added sugar such as soft drinks, sweets, cake, and biscuits should only be eaten occasionally as a treat.

Salt is needed for nerves and muscles to function, but too much salt in the diet can cause high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. Most people take in much more salt than they need, especially if they eat crisps and processed foods, so try to keep these to a minimum and aim to eat no more than 6g of salt a day.

Fibre helps the digestive system work properly and prevents bowel problems. Most people don't eat enough fibre so make sure you eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread or brown rice. Eating wholegrains also reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. But very young children, such as toddlers, need less fibre and should not be given wholegrains.

In summary:

Try to get children to eat a wide variety of foods including lots of fruit and vegetables. Help children to avoid sugary, salty and fatty foods by providing healthier alternatives to snack on e.g. a banana sandwich instead of a chocolate biscuit. But don't worry too much about what your child eats: eating should be a pleasure and no food is 'bad' (unless it is mouldy, or your child has an allergy to it).