How do you create healthy habits that last a lifetime?: Here’s what to eat at every age

Know your nutrients and protect the body from the inside out
Know your nutrients and protect the body from the inside out
Breastfeeding is best source of nutrition
Ensure a healthy shopping list
Fruit and vegetables are important in every stage of life

How do you create healthy habits that will last a lifetime? It’s not always easy; children gravitate naturally towards the less healthy treat foods after all, so finding a way around that is essential. Below is a stage-by-stage guide to help you.

* Age 0-1

The best source of nutrition for a baby is breast milk. Breastfeeding rates in Ireland have increased slowly over the last 10 years. This is great news, but there is a long way to go. Current rates of exclusive breastfeeding on discharge from maternity hospital are just 46pc. After a mother leaves hospital, there is a large drop off.

According to statistics from 2013, just 15pc of Irish babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, which when compared to the global average of 38pc is worrying. Breastfeeding gives a child the optimum start in life. If Ireland was to improve its rates, research suggests this will lead to reductions in childhood obesity and chronic diseases.

Breastfeeding is best source of nutrition

For example, breastfeeding may protect the mother from developing breast and ovarian cancer as well as rheumatoid arthritis. Breasting feeding may protect the baby from developing coeliac and Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as reduce the risk of diabetes, asthma and allergy.

At about six months of age, a baby starts weaning on solids. At this age they’ll be

physically able to start eating, be able to sit up, have stronger immune systems and be able to teach themselves to move food around their mouth and chew it. This is a gradual process, starting with puréed bland food, with a focus on plants and specifically vegetables. As time goes on, they will progress to lumpier textures and stronger tastes. A priority during the weaning process is to introduce your baby to as many new foods as possible.

However, certain foods need to be avoided at this time. For example, raw eggs, unpasteurized cheese, bran, whole or chopped nuts, high mercury fish such as swordfish, honey, salt, added sugar and processed meats. There are other foods that need more focus as they provide the baby with critical nutrients during this particular stage in life.

Nutrients to focus on during weaning:

Iron: By six months of age, an infant’s store of iron, provided by the mother during pregnancy, is depleted. Rich iron sources are critical during the weaning process to prevent anaemia and optimising growth and development. Suitable sources of iron include beef, pork, lamb, poultry, well-cooked eggs, peas, beans, lentils and leafy green vegetables.

Vitamin D: By six months of age, an infant’s stores of nutrients such as vitamin D are decreasing. Vitamin D has many functions within the body.

However, it plays a crucial role in bone health. Due to their rapid growth rates, Irish babies should be given a vitamin D supplement providing 50g or 200IU of vitamin D from birth to 12 months.

DHA: Consuming enough foods rich in Omega-3 fats particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is important for the brain and eye development of infants. During weaning, an infant’s DHA levels can drop due to lower levels of DHA commonly found in the weaning diet. Infants between the ages of seven to 12 months should consume 100mg of DHA per day or 700mg of DHA per week.

This can be met by offering oily fish once or twice a week such as salmon, trout, herring, mackerel and sardines.

* Toddler years

A toddler’s stomach is small. In fact, it’s about the same size as their clenched fist. Considering their small stomach size, every spoonful counts. Getting them into a habit of three healthy meals and three healthy snacks will take time but is a helpful and healthful routine to aim for.

When feeding toddlers, portions do not need to be exact as toddlers grow at different rates and have different levels of physical activity. Fortunately, toddlers know when they are hungry and when they are full. Make sure to be looking out for the cues that they are full and want no more food.

For example, spending an age chewing a mouthful, holding food in their mouth, playing rather than trying to eat the food, making efforts to leave their chair, and saying ‘no’ or a word they use for no.

Just like us, toddlers need to be adequately hydrated. They require about 1,200-1,500ml of fluid each day. However, too much fluid can fill them up and leave them eating less. This can lead to an inadequate intake of important nutrients at this critical growth stage. To start with, it is best to serve them a drink in a beaker without a lid as bottles and beakers with lids can result in them drinking too much. Also, try to avoid giving them a beaker before their meal, as their bellies fill up fast which can lead them to refusing meals. The nutrients to focus on centre around their continuous growth spurt.

Nutrients to focus on during the toddler years:

* Vitamin D and calcium: A toddler grows really fast. From the age of one to three years a toddler nearly doubles in height and weight. They are growing faster at this age than at any other time in their life. For this reason, vitamin D and calcium are nutrients to watch out for. Per kg of body weight, a toddler requires five times more vitamin D and calcium than us adults. These two nutrients, alongside protein, help feed their growing bones.

Excellent sources of both calcium and vitamin D include oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna, sardines and mackerel as well as fortified milks and yoghurts. Toddlers require two beakers of 150-200ml of milk each day.

* Iron and vitamin C: A toddler not only grows in height, but also in brain size. Their brain is growing rapidly. By age three, a toddler’s brain will be 80pc of its adult size. Therefore, this is a time to optimise nutrition for brain development. A nutrient that is important in the early years, but continues to be important is iron. It helps to support healthy brain growth and development. Vitamin C helps us to absorb the iron found in plants, which helps them to meet their rather high iron requirements. A toddler requirements are so high that, pound for pound, they require four times more vitamin C and four times more iron than us adults.

Beef is one of the best sources of iron, while red and yellow peppers provide lots of vitamin C – other sources include oranges, mango, pineapple, strawberries, cabbage and brussel sprouts.

* Four and over

When it comes to optimising your child’s diet, it’s important that they are on board. Similar to adults, explaining why you need to eat certain food can help. No matter what age someone is, the message needs to be kept clear.

• Carbohydrates are to go

• Protein is to grow

• Fruit and vegetables protect you

These simple messages can be helpful when talking with a younger child. As a child gets older, they find a more in-depth explanation of food groups helpful in encouraging them to eat well. When a child eats well, the majority of their vitamin and mineral requirements are met. This is why the focus turns to macronutrient intake and variety of foods eaten.

Macronutrients include proteins, carbohydrates and fats. › Carbohydrate: When explaining carbohydrates, it can be helpful to use the analogy of a car and petrol. We put petrol into a car so that the car can move. The further we drive a car, the faster we drive it and the more frequently we drive a car, the more petrol you require. Carbohydrate is the same for our bodies. The further we move our bodies, the faster we move and the more frequently we move, the more carbohydrate we burn through. A car stores petrol in its tank, we store carbohydrate in our muscles.

Examples of carbohydrate include potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, oats and cereal.

The amount of carbohydrate a child needs at each meal does depend on their age, activity levels and when older, their gender.

However, an easy guide to use is their fist. For example, their potato portion should take up the same amount of space on their plate as one clenched fist. The chart above gives an idea of how much carbohydrate is required. This is simply a guideline, as some kids need a lot more.

* Protein: Our muscles and our bones are active tissues. They keep breaking down and rebuilding. When we eat protein, it signals to our muscles and bones to build. Our muscles and bones then keep building at their maximum speed until our next meal. We can only absorb and use a certain amount of protein at each meal. Therefore, we need to spread out our protein intake across the day. For a child to grow tall and strong, they need to eat some protein with each meal. Examples of protein include meat, poultry, fish, dairy and pulses.

The amount of protein that a child needs to eat at a meal depends on their size. However, again the hand can be used as a measure. The amount of protein that a child needs to eat at a meal takes us the same space on their plate as the palm of their hand. For example, a palm size piece of chicken may be equivalent to half a chicken breast or half an adult’s portion. As they get older, their hand has grown, and so does their protein portion. Although dairy provides the body with protein, it also provides a multitude of other nutrients. For example, it provides calcium. A child needs about three portions of dairy a day.

However, their need for dairy increases from about age nine when recommended portions increase to five portions of a dairy a day. This provides them with the extra calcium they need to growth taller.

* Fats: Fats are needed for a multitude of reasons. When a variety of fats are eaten, they help to control inflammation within the body. This is important for disease protection, as well as more visible reasons such as skin health.

Fats are also need to absorb certain fat soluble vitamins – D, A, K and E. Vitamin D and K help to build strong bones while vitamin A and E act as excellent antioxidants within the body. Although the functions of fat are plentiful, the important role to note is the incredible job it plays in protecting our heart and blood vessels. Heart disease is something that starts to develop when we’re young and rears its ugly head later in life. A healthy intake of a variety of fats when young helps to keep the heart healthy for a lifetime. Healthy fats include avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish and olive oil.

Fruit and vegetables are important in every stage of life

* Fruit and vegetables: Last, but certainly not least, fruits and vegetables help protect the body. When you talk to parents there is one thing they all seem to have in common. Most parents want to protect their child from harm so much that they would wrap them up in cotton wool if they could. Fruit and vegetables protect the body from the inside out. This protection would include common illnesses as well as the more frightening conditions and diseases. Eating an array of colours of fruits and vegetables each day helps to ensure that the body is receiving the array of protective properties within these important plants. A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar levels, mood, behaviour and body weight.

Example meal plan for a toddler


Porridge made from 30g rolled oats, 100ml whole milk, one small apple and

30g blackberries.


One bowl of lentil soup – preferably homemade and made with low-salt stock cubes or homemade stock.


Salmon fish cakes with three small florets of broccoli, providing about 50g of fish.

Snack option

Smoothie made using half a banana, a few berries and 125 grams of yoghurt.

10 must-haves for a healthy shopping list

Ensure a healthy shopping list


1. Beef for iron

2. Eggs for vitamin D

3. Oily fish such as salmon for omega-3 fats

4. Milk for calcium

5. Yellow or red peppers for vitamin C

6. Beans for plant iron

7. Potatoes for healthy carbohydrate

8. Chicken for some lean protein

9. Nuts and seeds for some healthy fat

10. Five different colours of fruits and vegetables! (Blue/black/purple, red, orange/yellow, white, green).


Meal plan: 5-12 year old child or sedentary 13 to 18 year old girl


½ cup of muesli, 200ml milk, 1 handful of nuts and 1 banana.

*If age nine or above, why not also offer a glass of milk?

Little break

One yoghurt /one apple


One wholegrain pita with salmon, avocado and spinach, or vegetable soup

*If age nine or above, why not add cheese to their sandwich?


Two medium potatoes, palm-size portion of beef with onions and mushrooms.


Smoothie made from 200ml milk and berries.

Increase carbohydrate portions by one serving a day if an active female. If an active male, carbohydrate servings may need to increase by one to three servings per day.

Children do vary so please take this as a general guide, and tailor as required.

Health & Living