Nutrition report card – are your kids getting their essential nutrients?

Back to school signals the exciting start to another learning year. But let’s be honest, the biggest challenge often lies with us - the dedicated breakfast making, lunch planning and dinner rushed parents. Increasingly, research shows the importance of eating right not only for growth and development, but also for optimal learning, for mind and mood and for sport and play. Let’s explore the essential nutrients to focus on and practical tips for making the grade.

Rating the nation’s nutrition status

The latest national nutrition survey on kids revealed that:

  • Generally Aussie kids were adequate for most nutrients, without the need for additional supplements.

  • The majority of kids in all age groups met protein and vitamin requirements including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C, suggesting that these nutrients are not at risk.

  • School aged children were notable in missing out on calcium and magnesium with over 80% of teenage girls not meeting calcium requirements. This is a major concern as adolescence is a critical period of development. What happens during this period impacts on a person’s bone health for the rest of their life.

Calcium (and dairy foods) count

Depending on their age and gender, children need between one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half serves of dairy foods every day. Research has found that children older than four years of age are not meeting their daily recommended intake of dairy serves and may be missing out on a range of important nutrients, beyond just calcium.

Dairy foods provide a unique package of more than 10 essential nutrients important for growing children. These nutrients help to support a child’s nervous and immune system, maintain healthy eyesight, skin, muscle and nerve function, as well as provide energy to support optimal growth.

Calcium smart strategies:

  • Aim to include a serve of dairy foods into most meals and snacks in portions to suit your child.

  • Remember that flavoured milks and yoghurts still provide essential nutrients and there are plenty of school canteen approved items.

  • If your child eats or drinks non-dairy milk and yoghurt, make sure you choose a brand that is fortified with calcium.

  • Our top calcium picks for kids include - fresh and long life UHT flavoured milk cartons or tetra packs (great to freeze overnight and include in the lunch box), milk on breakfast cereal, cheese and crackers, cream cheese spread in sandwiches, yoghurt tubs, squeezies or frozen tubes, morning or afterschool smoothies, yoghurt based dips like tzatziki.

Magnesium magic

Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in more than 300 enzyme systems in the body and important for energy metabolism. It is found in many different plant and animal foods, with most green vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals being good sources.

Magnesium smart strategies:

  • The best bet approach with magnesium is making sure your kids learn to love a wide variety of different foods, so switch up their menu selection regularly.

  • Try a tasting plate at every family meal with a few new items each time, just to build their confidence in new foods.

  • If your child eats or drinks non-dairy milk and yoghurt, make sure you choose a brand that is fortified with calcium.

  • Our top magnesium picks for kids include - legumes such as hummus dip or bean and mince tacos, sprinkling of seeds on top of breakfast cereal, wholegrain bread with seeds, baby spinach leaves in a bolognaise sauce and a plate of broccoli florets as an after school snack.

Iron out any problems

If you have a fussy eater it is also a good idea to keep an eye on iron. Studies have shown that children with iron deficient anaemia score lower on tests of mental development and have difficulties with body balance, co-ordination and language skills. Iron-rich lean red meat is also a source of other essential brain nutrients like zinc and vitamin B12.

Iron smart strategies:

  • Prevent iron deficiencies and boost zinc and B12 intakes by including lean red meat in the diet 3-4 times a week. Slip a serve in lunchboxes once a week, like sliced roast beef sandwiches and don’t simply save red meat for evening meals.

  • Boost iron absorption by pairing with a vitamin C rich food like fresh berries on iron- fortified breakfast cereal, or red capsicum strips in a beef sandwich.

  • If your child eats or drinks non-dairy milk and yoghurt, make sure you choose a brand that is fortified with calcium.

  • Our top iron picks for kids include - Unprocessed meats like lean roast beef sandwiches, mini-meat balls and leftover BBQ lamb cutlets (great for lunch boxes with a frozen chiller block), iron fortified foods such as breakfast cereals with at least 25% of iron requirements per serve.

Count to 1,2,3 with Omega 3’s

Omega 3 fats are well-known for their heart health benefits, but their role in brain development and function is also being researched. Omega 3’s, particularly the long chain DHA, have been studied for their role in cognitive function, visual acuity and overall brain development.

Omega 3 smart strategies:

  • Keep a count on the number of fish serves your kids have each week, aiming for at least three. Favour oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Fish and seafood is also a good source of iodine, another brainy nutrient.

  • Enrich intakes with omega 3 fortified foods. Surprisingly, lean red meat is also a significant source of omega 3’s in the Australian diet.

  • If your child eats or drinks non-dairy milk and yoghurt, make sure you choose a brand that is fortified with calcium.

  • Our top omega 3 picks for kids include – can of tuna with easy peel lids, smoked salmon and fish based sushi, omega 3 boosted eggs for breakfast or in mini quiches, bread and milks fortified with omega 3.

Strike a healthy balance

It’s best to aim to meet nutrition requirements from food first and always speak to a health professional or an Accredited Practising Dietitian before giving your child a vitamin or mineral supplement. To strike a healthy balance check out the comprehensive Australian Guide to Healthy Eating on the recommended serve sizes for kids of different ages across the five food groups.

Did you know?

The latest national nutrition survey showed that only 22 per cent of 4–8 year old children and 5 per cent of 14–16 year olds met the dietary guidelines for vegetable intake.


  1. 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey – Main Findings. Commonwealth of Australia. 2008.

  2. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013.

  3. Baird DL, Syrette J, Hendrie GA, Riley MD, Bowen J, Noakes M. Dairy food intake of Australian children and adolescents 2-16 years of age: 2007 Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. Public Health Nutr. 2012 Nov;15(11):2060-73.

This article has been written by the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at


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