Children 10–18 years

“Free foods” for hungry children

If your child is on the hunt for something to snack on this summer then “free foods” will certainly help to fill them up as well as offering plenty of health benefits.

What constitutes a “free food”?

These are a group of foods that are very bulky and contain more water and plant cellulose than absorbable sugars. An average serving (½ cup) may yield only 2-3g of carbohydrate (i.e. ½ slice medium sliced bread).

“Free foods”, while bulky, are very low in energy and filling. So their cost in terms of kilocalories is much lower than most other dietary components, hence the term “free”.

List of free foods

Alfalfa Sprouts Asparagus Bamboo shoots Bean sprouts
Beans, green/butter Broccoli Brussel Sprouts Cabbage
Carrots Cauliflower Celery Chokos
Courgettes Cucumber Egg Plant Leeks
Lettuce Marrow Mushrooms Onions
Peppers Pumpkin Radish Silverbeet
Spinach Tomatoes Swede Turnip
Cantaloupe Feijoas Gooseberries NZ Guava
Lemon Pepino Passionfruit Rhubarb
Tamarillo Watermelon


What are their health benefits?

As these foods are also naturally fat-free they make ideal snacks for anyone trying to control body weight. They should however never be relied on as the sole source of carbohydrate (particularly for athletes or young children) as they are unable to deliver carbohydrate in sufficient quantities to the working muscle or adequately replace muscle glycogen stores by themselves for good post-exercise recovery or growth.

Never the less they are a good source of water, dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Green vegetables e.g. silverbeet, spinach, broccoli contain iron and folate important for mental functioning. Yellow vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin, capsicum and tomatoes contain vitamin A important for skin and eye sight.

Many of these”free“ fruits and vegetables are also in season right now making them cheaper, fresher and more plentiful than at other times of the year.

How much can be eaten?

Carbohydrate v’s energy

While these foods may only contain  2-3g carbohydrate per ½ cup on average, kilocalories will eventually start to accumulate if you eat enough of them. For instance one carrot is free but three would  provide enough carbohydrate to equal a medium-sized slice of bread.

Body weight issues

If you or your child is overweight then free foods can provide a useful, cheap snack between meals and also these foods can help to add bulk, interest and nutrient value to main meals such as soups, salads, vegetable dishes and desserts.

On the other hand if your child is underweight then while small amounts of these foods will add variety and nutrition to their diet, too much could also take up excess room in their stomachs leaving less space for the protein, fat and absorbable carbohydrates required for their growth.

Age issues

Free foods tend to be very fibrous and require a lot of chewing. While this once again can be helpful by aiding satiety (filling) factors in overweight people of any age, people struggling to eat may give up quickly. This is particularly so if they have sore gums, erupting teeth, braces on teeth or issues of fatigue.

The 5+ a day vegetable promotion by NZ Vege Fed® aptly recommends a serving of 2 fruits and 3 vegetables the size of a person’s hand each day. That is the size of the recipients hand, i.e for a child’s servings it is the size of the child’s hand not the parent serving it, that needs to be considered.

Food processing

When fruits and vegetables are processed to make soups, sauces or juices the plant fibre is reduced and the kilocalories are concentrated. So while a carrot may be free, a glass of carrot or vegetables juice may equate to the energy  of one or two slices of bread. It is always better to let our body do the processing if it can by eating foods in a whole, unprocessed form when possible.

What to do if children hate fruit or vegetables?

If you start early it’s a easier for children to acceptance new foods. Try the following:

  • Ask children to help collect fruit and vegetables at the supermarket
  • Start a garden by encouraging children to grow pumpkins, carrots, radishes or even herbs in a pot.
  • Encourage children to help make salads and to help with making tea by podding peas or beans or cutting up or peeling vegetables (as is age appropriate).
  • Make model animals out of vegetables
  • Keep quantities small to start with.
  • Parents need to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables themselves as children learn most about foods by modelling the behaviour of their parents.1

Tips for serving free foods

  • Carrot and celery sticks with humus as a lunchbox snack
  • Bulk up rolls and sandwiches with lettuce and tomato
  • Serve cherry tomatoes, gherkins, pickled onions, chunks of asparagus, radish or cucumber as snacks or as toothpick nibbles.
  • Add watermelon and cantaloupe to bulk up a fruit salad.
  • Vary lunches by adding a small box of salad with tuna or chicken and a fresh bread roll so they can assemble their own roll if they wish. Don’t forget to add a fork.
  • In winter make soups but if you want to preserve as much dietary fibre and goodness as possible then cut rather than process the vegetables.

If you would like to discuss practical ways of increasing your family’s intake of fresh fruits or vegetables then contact us today.



1. Scaglioni. S,Arrizza C, Vecchi F, Tedeschi S. Determinants of children’s eating behaviour. Am.J.Clin. Nutr doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.001685. 2011.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

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