Child Nutrition: Healthy, Age-Appropriate Food - Step To Health
 

Child Nutrition: Healthy, Age-Appropriate Food

When it comes to child nutrition, the combination of healthy meals and precise feeding times is key. Find out what's recommended for each age group.
Child Nutrition: Healthy, Age-Appropriate Food

Last update: 12 November, 2021

Children change over the years, so their energy needs must be adapted to the demands of each stage of their lives. Child nutrition, in this sense, takes into account factors such as the pace of development and growth, tastes, appetite, physical activity, and their state of health.

And, although each child is different, there are some guidelines that we can take as general recommendations, which mark a healthy and balanced diet. We’ll discuss them below.

Child nutrition according to the stage of life

The different stages of life have their own requirements. We’re going to analyze which nutritional guidelines are recommended at each specific time.

Feeding during the first year

In the first year of life, milk will be the main food. In principle, breastfeeding is ideal for the baby for at least the first 6 months. Its many benefits are scientifically proven, such as the transmission of defenses to the baby, the supply of all the nutrients they need, and the strengthening of the bond between mother and child.

Breastfeeding must be on-demand, i.e. the baby knows when they’re hungry and will show it by being awake and active, sucking on your hands, or turning their head if you rub their cheek. The length of feedings is variable; the baby should be allowed to suckle as long as needed.

It’s recommended that breastmilk be the infant’s only food for the first 6 months of life. It’s also important for it to be their main food, together with complementary products, during the first year.

However, this doesn’t mean that artificial breastfeeding, with modified formulas, isn’t possible in specific cases. Another halfway alternative would be mixed breastfeeding, which consists of giving milk of both types.

The start of complementary feeding can be brought forward to 4 months, especially in children who receive artificial breastfeeding, but never before. The ideal thing is 6 months onwards.

At around 8 months they can already eat some small, soft, cut-up pieces of solid food. Between 9 and 12 months it’s advisable for them to start to use a spoon and fork, with the help of their parents.. Each new food should be offered separately, without combining it with others, in order to detect any potential food allergies.

Read more about the topic here: Guidelines to Introducing Complementary Feeding

Feeding between 1 and 3 years of age

At this stage, eating habits are definitively established, so the work of parents is very important here. This period is characterized by a transition between the phase of very rapid growth, typical of infants, and stable growth.

The idea that “fat children are healthier and more beautiful” must be forgotten. The serious problem of child obesity takes root from a very young age. In reality, energy needs are around 100 kilocalories per kilogram of weight per day.

It’s recommended to divide their food more or less as follows:

  • Breakfast: 25%. This meal should contain a dairy product, a cereal, and a piece of fruit.
  • Lunch: 30%. Vegetable or vegetable puree with pulses, pasta, rice, casseroles. Meat or fish mashed or in small pieces, or omelettes. For dessert, use fruit, milk, or yogurt.
  • Snack: 15%. Fruit, ham, cheese in small pieces, or yogurt.
  • Dinner: 30%. Give preference to vegetables, cereals, and fruit. Milk with or without cereals.
A child eating a burger.
Certain myths about child nutrition favor the intake of unhealthy products and the development of childhood obesity.

Food between 4 and 8 years of age

Child nutrition, as well as physical exercise, are key to development during this period. An organized, but not too strict, schedule should be established.

Children at this age can already eat on their own. The consumption of food won’t be uniform and there’ll big meals and smaller ones.

The caloric needs for this age, in children with a sedentary lifestyle, are 1200 kilocalories in girls and up to 1400 in boys. The distribution should be as follows:

  • Breakfast: 25% of total calories. Should provide at least 3 of the 5 basic food groups: dairy, cereals, and fresh fruit.
  • Lunch: 30-35% of total calories. The menu may consist of a first course of vegetables and pulses, pasta or rice; and a second course of lean meat, fish or eggs.
  • Snack: 15%. The portions of dairy products, fruit and carbohydrates can be supplemented at this meal with a small snack.
  • Dinner: 25-30%. Good food choices for the evening would be salads, vegetables, creams, soups. As a complement, fish, meat, or eggs.

Feeding between 9 and 13 years

The stage from 9 to 13 years is characterized by a slowly progressive growth during the first half, and a more accentuated growth at the end, with the appearance of the pubertal growth spurt. The basal caloric needs are 1800 kilocalories per day. This will be increased by 200 kilocalories if moderate physical activity is carried out.

In general terms, 50-55% of calories should be provided in the form of carbohydrates, 25-35% in the form of fats, and 15-20% in the form of proteins.

In child nutrition, rather than talking about specific recommended foods, it’s preferable to establish what a diet for children should be like. Therefore, certain characteristics will help adults to adapt meals with a healthy criterion:

  • Variety: You have to get them used to eating everything. The key to instilling healthy eating habits in children is to offer them variety from their earliest years. We need to provide them with food from all the food groups (fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cereals, pulses).
  • Balance: Food should be distributed throughout the day so that the body gets the nutrients it needs. Make sure the child has at least 3 consistent meals a day. Schools also have to take care of the composition of their menus.
  • Appetizing: We can use the different tastes and flavors that we know will be more appetizing to our children.
  • Fun: Encourage them to participate in the shopping, the preparation of meals, and laying the table. This will be an opportunity for them to learn good habits.
  • Surprise: Tell them everything you know about food. They’ll be surprised to understand the importance of being careful about what they eat. Don’t repeat dishes, as this can lead to monotony and boredom.
  • Order: Try to have a good family routine at lunch or dinner time, in a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Don’t leave feeding them to improvisation.

It’s best to forget the idea of “good” and “bad” foods in the framework of child nutrition. It’s better to focus on healthy and unhealthy food.

In recent decades there has been a boom in heavily advertised ultra-processed products that include words such as light, sugar-free or gluten-free. These usually hinder healthy and balanced diets, as they’re high in calories, addictive, and disproportionate in the composition of sugars or fats.

The problem of abusing these unhealthy products is that they predispose children to malnutrition, obesity, and problems in the physical and intellectual development. If we add to this a sedentary lifestyle in front of the TV or with their mobile phones, it’s no surprise that there’s an ever-increasing pandemic of childhood obesity

Can children eat a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is one that doesn’t include animal products such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, or foods that contain any of these. Children can follow this type of diet, but it’s advisable to monitor their needs according to the different stages of their lives, to ensure that there are no nutritional deficits.

Adolescence is the most complicated stage, as it’s a period of great stress both physically and emotionally. We must be very careful to avoid deficiencies of iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamins such as D and B12.

A vegan diet offers benefits, as it provides less saturated fats and a greater amount of fiber, magnesium, potassium and antioxidants. But it’s not all advantages, as there’s also a lower energy and protein intake, with a deficit of essential amino acids, vitamin D, and B12.

Eating frequent meals, as well as using some refined foods (enriched breakfast cereals, products rich in unsaturated fat), can help vegan consumers meet their energy needs. Dried fruits are also a concentrated source of energy and are very appealing to this age group.

According to child nutrition guidelines, children on strict vegan diets may have slightly higher protein needs. Sources of this macronutrient include soy, quinoa, legumes, some cereals, and nuts.

Calcium is very important for the growth of bones and teeth. Fortified plant milks are good sources of calcium, as are juices and fortified tofu.

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional problem in childhood. Sources of iron for vegan children are fortified cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.

A boy doesn't want vegetables.
Although the rejection of vegetables seems to be common at certain ages, it’s also true that more and more families opt for a vegan diet for their children.

How does eating at odd hours affect children?

In child nutrition, not everything is focused on the types of food offered to children. It’s also essential to respect schedules and establish a timetable in order for the nutrients to enter the child’s body.

Sometimes, parents develop unhealthy, dangerous strategies around food, such as punishing without eating or rewarding with sweets.

It’s advisable to eat the 3 main meals of the day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and then a small mid-morning snack and another one in the mid-afternoon. For reinforcements, healthy options would be fruit, vegetables, nuts, dairy products, and complex carbohydrates, such as bread.

When eating too close to another meal, children satiate their appetite earlier and don’t want to eat the next meal, which is very frustrating for parents. If adults force the child to eat, on the other hand, they’ll be causing problems in other areas.

The daily energy intake is neglected when eating at untimely hours. The diet is no longer balanced and disorders appear that, if maintained over time, can lead to pathologies.

If the child is hungry all the time, we should consider how and what we’re feeding them, the times of their meals, and whether they’re doing too much or too little exercise. It can also be an indicator of anxiety problems.

The most obvious consequence of abusing snacking is an increased risk of childhood obesity. Snacking modulates long-term changes and predisposes to digestive symptoms such as gases or heartburn. It also facilitates the development of metabolic syndrome.

Childhood nutrition is a tool

The science of childhood nutrition is an aid to adults. It isn’t a matter of becoming experts in this branch of human health, but of using their knowledge to improve your child’s quality of life.

Along with child nutrition, physical exercise according to age and the resting times for each stage must be respected. This will be the way to reduce the risk of suffering from chronic diseases in the future.

It might interest you...
Malnutrition and Its Problems
Step To Health
Read it in Step To Health
Malnutrition and Its Problems

Malnutrition can lead to the development of chronic diseases, caused by inadequate nutrient intake so it's crucial to meet the requirements.



  • Luna Hernández, José Alberto, et al. “Estado nutricional y neurodesarrollo en la primera infancia.” Revista Cubana de Salud Pública 44 (2018): 169-185.
  • Black MM, Pérez-Escamilla R, Rao SF. Integrating nutrition and child development interventions: scientific basis, evidence of impact, and implementation considerations. Adv Nutr. 2015 Nov;6(6):852-9. doi: 10.3945/an.115.010348. PMID: 26875208; PMCID: PMC4642432.
  • Riley LK, Rupert J, Boucher O. Nutrition in Toddlers. Am Fam Physician. 2018 Aug 15;98(4):227-233. PMID: 30215978.
  • Baroni L, Goggi S, Battaglino R, Berveglieri M, Fasan I, Filippin D, Griffith P, Rizzo G, Tomasini C, Tosatti MA, Battino MA. Vegan Nutrition for Mothers and Children: Practical Tools for Healthcare Providers. Nutrients. 2018 Dec 20;11(1):5. doi: 10.3390/nu11010005. PMID: 30577451; PMCID: PMC6356233.
  • Mameli C, Mazzantini S, Zuccotti GV. Nutrition in the First 1000 Days: The Origin of Childhood Obesity. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016 Aug 23;13(9):838. doi: 10.3390/ijerph13090838. PMID: 27563917; PMCID: PMC5036671.