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appropriate diet for age

Alternative Names 
diet for age

Nutritional needs and developmental skills change as a child grows. An age-appropriate diet is one that provides the nutritional requirements and matches the developmental capabilities of a child. An age-appropriate diet provides the nutrients a child needs to grow and develop. It also includes foods that a child likes and can eat easily. This makes meals and snacks more pleasant.

The Australian Guide To Healthy Eating from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services shows the kinds and amounts of foods that are needed to provide adequate nutrition. A nutritious diet includes grains, fruit, vegetables, meat and meat substitutes and dairy products. Some foods may be nutritious but are difficult or unsafe for children to eat because their chewing and swallowing skills are not fully developed.

From birth until four to six months of age, infants rely on their instinctive ability to suckle. In this way they are able to obtain all their nutrition, either from a bottle or from breast-feeding. Newborn infants will feed every 2 to 4 hours. They will eat as many as eight times a day or more. Breast milk provides all the nutrition a newborn infant needs. Commercial infant formulas are designed to be as much like breast milk as possible.

Between 4 and 6 months of age, an infant begins to take larger amounts of breast milk or formula at one time. This means that they may not want to feed as often. Also, by this time infants' digestive systems have developed more fully, which allows them to consume new foods. An infant that has doubled in weight from birth, can sit upright and has good head support may be ready to begin eating solid foods.

Eating from a spoon is a new skill a baby must learn. From the time solid foods are introduced until about age 12 months, an infant can manage only small amounts of food with a spoon or fingers. This eating method does not provide a major source of nutrition. An infant continues to depend on breast-feeding or bottle feeding for the bulk of his or her nutritional needs.

When offering solid food, infant rice cereal is usually first. It is considered the least likely to cause an allergic reaction, an exaggerated response to food. Either strained fruits or strained vegetables can be offered next.

Strained meats, egg yolks, and small amounts of dairy foods such as yoghurt can be introduced by the time the infant is six to eight months old. By seven to nine months, an infant begins teething and can accept textures in foods. At eight to ten months of age, an infant can usually tolerate more wheat products, whole eggs, and larger amounts of dairy products. In addition, babies at this age begin to use their hands to feed themselves biscuits and soft foods such as pieces of fruits, vegetables and tender meats. Crunchy or stringy foods such as nuts, popcorn, crisp fruits and crunchy vegetables or less tender meats may cause choking. As the ability to eat finger foods and to use a spoon improves, an infant will eat more solid foods and will rely less on breast milk or formula.

Learning to drink from a cup is a difficult and often messy process. But, by age 1 year, most infants master this skill well enough to wean from a bottle. They will also have little demand for breast-feeding at this point. New foods should be introduced one at a time, at least two or three days apart so that the infant's ability to tolerate each food can be observed.

Providing an appropriate diet to a toddler can be a challenging and messy experience. Children this age want to practice their new skills by eating with their fingers or attempting to use a spoon. Appetite varies widely due to a slower growth rate. Toddlers are also more aware of their surroundings and become easily distracted. All these things affect what and how much a child is willing to eat at any given meal. There is no longer one single food that will provide all or most of the child's nutritional needs. A variety of foods is necessary for good health and adequate growth.

Recommendations for offering a varied and nutritious diet are:
  • 4-5 servings of bread and cereals
  • 4 servings of fruit and vegetables
  • 3 servings of dairy products
  • 2 servings of meat or meat substitutes
The appropriate portion size changes with age. One rule of thumb for toddlers is to offer one tablespoon of each food for every year of age. A child may choose to eat more or less than this amount depending on appetite, familiarity with the food and preference for the food. Children should be given whole milk until they are 2 years old because their developing nervous system needs the extra fat. From age 2 to 5, reduced fat milk is adequate, but whole milk is still preferred.

Toddlers often go on what are called food jags, during which they will eat only one or two foods for several meals or several days at a time. Studies show that even when this occurs, most children still meet their nutritional needs over longer periods of time. The challenge for parents is to be patient and continue to offer a variety of nutritious foods. It is not a good idea to try to force a child to eat what he or she clearly does not want. This approach will only ensure that the particular food is never a favourite. Parents also need to remember that they do not have to make favourite foods available when a child refuses what is first offered. Food refusal at one meal will likely result in an improved appetite at the next meal or snack.

Three meals and two to three snacks per day is ideal. Children lack the capacity to eat enough in just three meals to sustain their energy needs. Many parents consider fruit juice to be a good source of nutrition, especially when the child seems to be eating an inadequate diet. Unfortunately, children who drink juice or other beverages such as soft drinks, cordials and fruit drinks between meals are often less hungry at mealtime. This makes them more likely to refuse what is served.

Choking is a problem for children under 4 years old. At this age, chewing and swallowing skills are still developing. Toddlers tend to choke on foods that do not readily dissolve in their saliva such as hot dogs, grapes, raw vegetables, popcorn, nuts, sausages and hard lollies. Choking is also more likely if they are eating while running and playing. Eating and drinking should be allowed only when a child is sitting.

School-age children need the same types and number of servings of foods in their diet, as do preschool children. However, they are able to eat bigger quantities at one time and may eat less often. Most youngsters of 5 years and up can safely consume skim milk and still grow well. If they continue to have high energy needs for growth, they may still need the extra kilojoules that are found in full cream or whole milk.

Food choices are more influenced by their peers at school and by what they see on television. Children are bombarded with advertisements for processed foods such sweetened breakfast cereals, fast food, lollies, chips and sweet drinks. This gives rise to new concerns. Poor eating habits can lead to obesity, and iron deficiency anaemia, or a shortage of red blood cells that carry oxygen to body cells. Children who have been exposed to a variety of nutritious foods during the toddler years and have developed good eating habits are likely to continue to eat well, despite these influences.

Author: Lanette Meyer, CD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 7/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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