FOOD: The 3 ESSENTIAL nutrients for growth and development

31 March 2016
Reading time1 min

With little bodies and minds growing fast, these three essential nutrients should not be missed.

1. Protein

Childhood is a rapid period of growth, requiring protein as the building blocks to create all the new cells that make bone, organs, hair, skin – every part of your little one’s body. Protein is also used to make enzymes which help digest food, antibodies which fight infection, haemoglobin which carries the oxygen around the body, and hormones.

Relative to their size, children need a higher percentage of protein than adults do, but this doesn’t mean they need protein shakes. They can quite easily get their protein requirements from food, and in fact going overboard on protein can damage the kidneys.

If your child is on a dairy-free diet, be mindful that dairy milk alternatives such as oat, rice and almond milk are not adequate sources of protein as they are diluted heavily with water and will not provide enough protein for their needs.

Where to get protein: Meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, lentils, wholegrains, dairy products, tofu, beans such as chickpeas and baked beans, nut butters.

2. Omega-3s

Omega-3s are a type of fat which literally ‘feed’ the growing brain. This group of three different healthy fats are essential for children because their bodies can’t make them, meaning Omega-3s have to be obtained from food. They play an important role in brain development, concentration and mood regulation, and are also crucial for development of the heart and central nervous system. They also play a role in managing the body’s inflammatory reactions, and the immune system.

Aim to feed your little one to two serves of oily fish per week (1 serve = 75grams). Tinned fish are good options, look for those in spring water rather than brine as the brine contains high levels of salt.

Where to get Omega-3s: salmon, ocean trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna and swordfish*.
Non-animal sources include: Flaxseeds (also called linseeds) or flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds and soybeans.

3. Iron

Iron is one of the most important nutrients for growing children as it carries oxygen to every cell in the body. It also plays a role in metabolism and energy production, concentration, immune function and even sleep regulation. There are two sources of iron - Haem iron (from animal foods) and non-haem (from plant foods). Haem iron is ten times more easily absorbed that non-haem iron.

Where to get iron: Red meat contains the highest levels of iron in the form of haem iron. Other haem sources include chicken, fish and pork, but contain lower amounts of iron than red meat. Children following a vegetarian diet are certainly able to obtain their iron requirements from non-haem sources, if carefully planned. Sources of non-haem iron include: Beans (such as kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas), lentils, wholegrains, and green leafy vegetables. You can maximise the amount of iron absorbed from non-haem sources also by combining these with foods rich in Vitamin C such as capsicum, citrus fruits, berries, guava, paw paw, kiwifruit, rockmelon, mango and custard apples. For example, serve capsicum slices with baked beans.

For more foodie chat, why not check out our mid-week family meal ideas, our 12 veggie smuggler recipes for fussy eaters or our easy Weet-Bix breakfast shake!

*It is recommended that children under 6 years of age consume no more than one serve of swordfish per fortnight due to the risk of mercury poisoning.


Written by

Tara Leong

Tara Leong is a university-qualified nutritionist renowned for her no-nonsense approach to nutrition and health. A new mum and keen cook, she debunks popular nutrition myths, teaching people how to live a healthy life without the fad diets. Tara is passionate about advocating a fear-free and guilt-free way of eating because life is too short not to enjoy a slice of chocolate cake. Find Tara on Facebook at The Nutrition Guru and the Chef and at Baby Guru Nutrition. To book a consultation with Tara, head to

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