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Healthy eating for families

Healthy eating is important at every age. This page contains information for families with children aged 5 years and older.

As a parent or guardian, you play an important role in:

  • supporting your child’s interest in healthy food
  • shaping your child’s eating habits and behaviours

Nutrition for 0 to 1 year olds

Nutrition for 1 to 4 year olds

Benefits of eating healthily

Children grow and develop fast, so they need food to give them the right amount of energy, protein and other nutrients.

Eating the right amount of a variety of foods can help children grow, learn, and play well. 

What a healthy day looks like

Eating well everyday can be hard for busy families. But good habits that children learn in the home will stay with them for life.

Plan healthy choices

Choosing a mix of foods every day will help you and your family get all the nutrients you need.

The amount and types of food a child needs depends on their age and activity levels.

In the food pyramid, foods that contain the same types of nutrients are grouped together as:

  • vegetables, salads and fruit
  • wholemeal cereals and bread, potatoes, pasta and rice
  • reduced-fat or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese
  • lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts
  • fats, spreads and oils

Vitamin D advice

Offer your family a variety of foods from each of the food groups in the food pyramid.

Food pyramid for 5 and older
Food pyramid for 5 and older

Healthy meal times

Eating well everyday can be hard for busy families.

Here are some tips to make each mealtime more healthy.

Breakfast for children

A nutritious breakfast is an essential way to start the day.

If you eat breakfast, your children are likely to do so too. Sit down with them for a few minutes and have your own breakfast.

Some breakfast cereals can contain lots of added sugar, check the food label for those with the lowest sugar.

How to read food labels -

Save time in the morning by setting the table and preparing items the night before. For example, chop some fruit and store it in the fridge

If your child is not keen on breakfast cereal, you could try:

  • yogurt with some chopped fruit
  • boiled egg with a slice of toast
  • egg muffins or wholemeal pancakes with fruit

Lunch for children

Lunches have around one third of our daily nutritional needs, so it’s important to plan them.

Here are some tips on how to prepare a healthy lunchbox that your child will eat and enjoy:

  • Fluids are important for children – they should have up to 6 cups of fluid each day. Milk and water are the best options.
  • Get your child involved in packing lunches. Let them help choose part of their lunch. Pick a colourful lunchbox or let them decorate one with stickers.
  • Children often need to see and taste new foods several times before they accept them. Try out new ideas at dinner or the weekend before including them in their lunchbox.
  • Cook extra rice or pasta in the evening – these can make great salads.
  • Choose different types of bread - for example, pitta bread, bagels, wholemeal rolls or wraps.
  • Children aged 9 to 12 years need more calcium. They need 5 servings of milk, yogurt and cheese every day. Add an extra portion at lunchtime by including a low-fat yogurt or a portion of low-fat cheese.

Get some tips on how to prepare a healthy lunchbox that your child will eat and enjoy

Dinner for children

A healthy dinner for your child should include 3 or 4 foods from different food groups.

Serve vegetables in different ways - boiling, steaming, roasting, stir-frying or raw.

Processed foods can be convenient, but making your own can be easy and much healthier. Look up a recipe for your favourite sauce. Make homemade pasta sauce using fresh or tinned tomatoes.

Use less salt by adding herbs, spices and seasonings. Your taste buds will adjust to less salt in your food.

Enhance the flavour of your food by adding:

  • citrus - lemon juice used in salad dressing or with fish dishes
  • fresh or dried herbs or spices, for example rosemary or thyme with chicken

Make the most of your time and money by cooking larger amounts, and freezing some portions to eat on busier days.

Snacks for children

Healthy snacks are a very important part of your child's diet. They help keep up children’s energy levels between meals.

Here are some ideas for a light snack:

  • a piece of fruit
  • vegetable sticks
  • a small pot of yogurt
  • a glass of milk
  • 2 to 3 crackers
  • 1 to 2 oatcakes
  • 2 rice cakes
  • 1 to 2 breadsticks
  • a small handful of nuts and seeds

Some days children may be hungrier than others. They may need more snacks between meals, especially if they are very active.

Some more filling snack ideas:

  • 1 slice of wholemeal toast with some mashed or chopped banana.
  • A cheese, meat or fish sandwich using one slice of bread. You could add some sliced tomato and make a toasted sandwich.
  • Cheese with 2 or 3 crackers or breadsticks.
  • Sliced apple with a teaspoon of peanut butter for smaller children, and 1 to 2 teaspoons for children under 12.
  • Sliced hard-boiled egg with a slice of toast.
  • Hummus with vegetable sticks.

Drink tips

Give your children water or milk at snack time and with every meal. They are the best drinks to give your children for healthy development.

Meal plan ideas using the food pyramid 

Jakub, an active boy aged 5 who loves being outdoors playing with his friends


200ml of low-fat milk for cereal and to drink
1 cup of wholegrain cereal

Mid-morning snack

10 grapes


75g of tuna
1 wholemeal pitta bread
2 heaped tablespoons of sweetcorn
150ml unsweetened orange juice

Afternoon snack

Low-fat fruit yogurt drink


75g lean mince beef burger
200ml of low-fat milk
4 boiled small potatoes
Half a cup of peas

Evening snack

1 apple

Niamh, a very active 10-year-old, plays GAA and loves to dance


200ml of low-fat milk for cereal and to drink
2 wholemeal breakfast biscuits
6 strawberries

Mid-morning snack

25g of reduced-fat cheese
10 grapes


50g of chicken
Low-fat fruit yogurt drink
2 thin slices wholemeal bread
1 small bowl of salad - cucumber, iceberg lettuce, tomato

Afternoon snack

1 apple


75g lean mince
200ml low-fat milk
1 cup of cooked pasta
1 serving of mixed vegetables - for example, chopped carrots, onion, celery, and tinned tomatoes cooked in sauce.

Evening snack

200ml of low-fat milk for cereal and to drink
1 cup of wholegrain flakes
1 banana

Eating well as a family

Try to have meals together as a family as often as possible.

It is a useful way to:

  • explore new healthy foods
  • establish healthy eating routines
  • spend quality time together


  • sit down together for a meal when you can

  • turn off the TV and put away screens and devices so you can enjoy eating the meal and spend quality time together

  • make changes as a family - for example, a healthy swap from white bread to wholemeal bread

  • plan your meals - include quick and easy dishes, or leftovers, on nights that are extra busy

  • let your child help you plan and prepare food. This may encourage them to eat what they have made and try new foods

How to start making healthy changes

Making changes is not about being perfect. It's about starting with a change, sticking with it and getting a small daily win. The good habits that our children learn in the home will stay with them for life.

Making healthy lifestyle changes for your family

Making small changes to your child's diet and activity can make a big difference for their future health. If you’re regularly active and eating healthily, it’s also more likely that your children will be too.

Learn more about your child's weight

Contact your local HSE dietitian for more information on the Healthy Food Made Easy programme. This is a 6-week free cooking course that helps you to plan and prepare healthy meals on a budget.

Free recipe book with simple and tasty meals for the whole family -

Page last reviewed: 23 February 2023
Next review due: 23 February 2026