Resources for health professionals and policy makers

Applying Canada's Dietary Guidelines

Nutrition considerations for children and adolescents

Regular consumption of nutritious foods promotes growth and development in children and adolescents and helps reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases impacted by diet later in life.

Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants - Recommendations from 6 to 24 months

Some types of foods are particularly important to emphasize because they provide nutrients that are key to growth and development at this life stage.

Childhood and adolescence are also a time for learning and shaping food skills, attitudes and eating behaviors.

The advice on this page is about children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 18.

On this page

Nutrition in early childhood

Early childhood is a time of rapid growth and development. Children 2 years and older who are breastfed or receiving breast milk should continue as long as mother and child want to, in addition to being offered nutritious foods.

Early childhood is an important life stage to begin developing healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. Offering children nutritious foods with little to no added sodium and saturated fat, and little to no free sugars can support them in acquiring a taste for nutritious food.

Some foods require additional attention for safe preparation, serving and storage, especially to avoid choking.

At 2 years of age, young children are transitioning from the diet of infancy towards that of the general population. This transition brings with it some nutrition considerations. For example, lower fat unsweetened milk or unsweetened fortified soy beverages are options that can replace homogenized (3.25% M.F.) milk.

Fortified plant-based beverages other than soy, such as almond and oat beverages, also provide important nutrients, but have less protein and energy.

For plant-based beverages other than soy, ensure that:

  • the beverages are labelled ‘fortified’
  • the child’s diet contains adequate energy and protein from a variety of other nutritious foods to support healthy growth and development

Continue to offer a variety of food sources of iron

Offering a variety of food sources of iron daily should continue as young children transition from their diets during infancy to early childhood. Young children have higher iron needs relative to energy when compared to older age groups. Food sources of iron include:

  • nuts
  • seeds
  • legumes
  • eggs (yolk)
  • fish and shellfish 
  • dark green vegetables
  • lean red meat, including wild game
  • whole grains and whole grain foods

Regularly offer foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat

The proportion of energy required from fat is highest in young children and remains slightly higher throughout childhood and adolescence than in older age groups.

To help young children meet their needs for energy and fat, regularly offer foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat. Examples of these foods include:

  • avocado
  • fatty fish
  • hummus
  • soybeans
  • nuts and nut butters
  • tofu (firmer varieties)
  • seeds and seed butters
  • many vegetable oils, such as olive and canola oil
  • spreads made with unsaturated oils, such soft margarine

Emphasize foods that are sources of calcium and a dietary source of vitamin D

Young children have higher needs for calcium and vitamin D relative to energy to support bone growth and height gain. In addition, many young children living in Canada have low dietary intakes of calcium and vitamin D. To help meet these needs, emphasize offering:

Young children can choose how much to eat

Parents and caregivers play an important role in the development of healthy eating habits and behaviours.

Encourage parents and caregivers to recognize and respond to a child’s hunger cues. It is important that children decide how much food they will eat at one time.

Younger children may eat smaller amounts of food more frequently throughout the day than older children, adolescents and adults, because of their smaller stomachs. There may also be a wide variation in the amount eaten at each meal, or from day to day, depending on factors such as appetite, level of activity and growth spurts.

Nutrition in later childhood and adolescence

Growth and development continue in later childhood and adolescence. The onset of puberty brings a growth spurt that increases needs for energy and nutrients.

Emphasize a variety of nutritious foods to support the increased need for many nutrients

The need for many nutrients that are key to growth and development increases during later childhood and adolescence:

  • Calcium and phosphorus needs are highest during this time to support many functions, including bone growth.
  • Folate, vitamin A and magnesium needs increase, becoming similar to those of adults.
  • Iron needs also progressively increase throughout childhood and adolescence to support increased blood production. For females, the need for iron increases further when they start to menstruate.

In addition to increased needs, older children and adolescents in Canada have low dietary intakes of many nutrients, such as:

  • vitamins: A, C and D
  • calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and zinc
  • dietary fibre

Female adolescents also have low intakes of certain B vitamins (folate, B6 and B12) and iron.

Reinforcing the advice on nutrition for different life stages and emphasizing the consumption of nutritious foods is particularly important during this life stage to help improve dietary intakes and meet increased nutrient needs.

Advice on vitamin and mineral supplementation includes additional information about folic acid and vitamin D, which could apply to this life stage.

Adolescent females have higher nutrient needs relative to energy

An increased emphasis on certain types of foods can be particularly important for adolescent females because:

  • their need for many nutrients increases more than their need for energy
  • they have low intakes of these nutrients

This can put them at increased risk for inadequate intakes of important nutrients for growth and development. Encourage the intake of:  

  • dark green vegetables, including those that are food sources of calcium
    • to help with calcium, folate, iron and vitamin C
  • whole grains, whole grain foods, whole wheat foods, nuts and seeds
    • to help with folate, iron and magnesium
  • legumes and tofu, including those that are food sources of calcium
    • to help with calcium, folate, iron and magnesium
  • lean red meat including wild game, eggs, fish and shellfish
    • to help with iron and vitamin B12
  • unsweetened lower fat milk, yogurt, kefir or fortified plant-based beverages
    • to help with calcium and vitamin B12

Resources to use with consumers