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A healthy plate

Understanding how to put together a healthy balanced diet.

This article was written by the Department for Education (DfE) in consultation with a team of early years experts and senior health professionals, including Anaphylaxis UK.

A young child eats lunch in a nursery environment

A healthy plate

Encourage children to eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of foods.

Plan meals and snacks that include a variety of food and drinks from the four main food groups every day. The more children try new foods, the wider the range of nutrients they will get from their meals.

Have children eat together in your setting. This encourages them to try foods that they might not try at home. For example, children who won’t touch broccoli at home might happily try some if they see their peers eating it.

The four food groups

Children aged 5 and under have different nutritional requirements to adults. They need to be fed a healthy balanced diet with a range of foods even as they are introduced to solid foods. You also need to be aware of allergies.

A healthy, balanced diet is based on the four food main groups. These provide essential nutrients to help children grow and develop.

Starchy carbohydrates

These include:

  • bread
  • potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other starchy root vegetables
  • pasta and noodles
  • rice and other grains
  • breakfast cereals

Main nutrients provided: carbohydrates, fibre, B vitamins and iron.

Fruit and vegetables

These include:

  • fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit and vegetables
  • pulses such as lentils and beans

Main nutrients provided: carotenes (a form of vitamin A), vitamin C, zinc, iron and fibre.


These include:

  • beans, pulses and nuts
  • meat and poultry
  • fish and shellfish
  • eggs
  • meat alternatives

Main nutrients provided: protein, iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and D.

Dairy and plant-based alternatives

These include:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • yoghurt and fromage frais

Main nutrients provided: protein, calcium and vitamin A.

PDF downloadA healthy balanced diet for children

Tips for planning menus for children aged 5 and under

To help get the balance of foods right for children each day, think 5-4-3-2:

  • five or more portions of fruit and vegetables
  • four portions of carbohydrates
  • three portions of dairy or plant-based alternatives
  • two portions of protein

This is just a guide. Children should feel able to tell you when they are full or still hungry.

Children older than 6 months should have access to water throughout the day. Children under the age of 12 months should not drink cow’s milk or plant-based alternatives but it’s fine to use these in cooking.

Foods and drinks high in saturated fat, salt, and sugars like cakes, pastries, biscuits, chocolate and crisps should only be eaten occasionally or in small amounts. Artificial sweeteners are not allowed to be used in foods specifically made for infants (under 12 months) or young children (1-3 years old).

Water and milk are the only two drinks that should be offered. These are the only drinks that support children’s good oral health. Sugary drinks, including fruit juices and smoothies, should not form part of a young child’s daily diet.

The Eatwell Guide uses government advice to show what a healthy and balanced diet looks like. It shows what a balance of foods should look like in one day or over a whole week. The advice in the Eatwell Guide applies to children from the age of 2 years.

PDF downloadWhat a healthy plate looks like

Traffic light food labels

Some food labels use red, amber and green colour coding to tell you if a food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt:

  • red means high
  • amber means medium
  • green means low

In general, a food or drink that has mostly greens on the label is a healthier choice. Red means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars, and you should limit how much of these foods you give to children.

Read NHS information about food labelling.

Portion size for children aged 5 and under

A portion size for a child aged 5 and under is generally smaller than an adult portion, so it’s best to use smaller plates for younger children.

Portion size refers to one part of a meal. For example - one portion of vegetables alongside a portion of carbohydrates and a portion of protein could be one meal. There are no official guidelines on exactly how much food children need. Portions should be appropriate for a child’s body size and appetite.

For toddlers, portion size is usually roughly the size of their clenched fist. About half a piece of fruit (cut appropriately) or a tablespoon of vegetables is a good portion size for a snack.

You should monitor a child’s appetite and adjust portion sizes to make sure they get enough energy and nutrients. It can be helpful to start meals with small servings (they can always ask for more if they are still hungry). Avoid making children finish everything on their plate or eat more than they want to.

PDF downloadA guide to portion sizes

Key takeaways

  • Make sure children eat a balanced diet covering the four main food groups
  • Avoid foods and drinks high in salt, sugar and saturated fat
  • Milk and water are the only drinks you should offer
  • Children should eat a variety of fruit and vegetables to access different vitamins and nutrients.