The study, which involved 467 children between 2008 and 2015, is the first to compare the eating habits of very young children with the national guidelines.
Lead author, Dr Alison Spence, from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, said it provided good evidence for the first time that children’s diets were diverging from the ideal while they were still very young.
She said this could be partly attributed to changing dietary guidelines as children got older. While babies aged nine months only need about 30 to 40 grams of vegetables each day, that increases to 150 to 225 grams after they turn one.
“In the first year, when they are still supported by breast milk or formula, the guidelines are really encouraging children to try new foods and textures,” Dr Spence said.
“By that second year of life they are getting almost all of their nutrition from food, so the fruit and vegetable recommendation jumps up quite a lot.
“There’s really no room for junk food.”
With three children under eight, Eloise Litterbach is well aware of the challenges of getting toddlers to regularly eat enough vegetables.
“Some of these foods, they aren’t as palatable as the sweet stuff,” she said.
“So if you are in a hurry, or want something a bit clean and not so messy, it’s a bit easier to give them a biscuit or quick snack that they can hold and toddle around with.”
However, Ms Litterbach, a research assistant who lives in Tecoma in the Dandenong Ranges, says it is a challenge, but not insurmountable, especially if you come prepared.
Her trick is to sneak vegetables into the entire day, instead of relying on dinner-time to deliver the recommended dose of healthy food to her children – aged one, five and seven.
“So many people think ‘dinner-time, better pump them full of veggies’,” she said.
“I think that’s where parents could do themselves a favour, by putting less pressure on dinner -time.”
Dr Spence said children who ate more junk foods when they were babies tended to eat more of those foods as they got older.
She said being a positive role model was an important way parents could get their children to eat better, including by not treating vegetables as a chore and preparing them in a tasty way.
“The amount of copying children do of all their parents’ behaviour is astounding and so you can imagine if a parent is eating junk food in front of their child, it’s no surprise the child wants the same things,” Dr Spence said.
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.
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