Few other aspects of food supply and metabolism are of greater biological importance than the feeding of mothers during pregnancy and lactation, and of their infants and young children. Nutritional factors during early development not only have short-term effects on growth, body composition and body functions but also exert long-term effects on health, disease and mortality risks in adulthood, as well as development of neural functions and behaviour, a phenomenon called ‘metabolic programming’. The interaction of nutrients and gene expression may form the basis of many of these programming effects and needs to be investigated in more detail. The relation between availability of food ingredients and cell and tissue differentiation and its possible uses for promoting health and development requires further exploration. The course of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation as well as human milk composition and the short- and long-term outcome of the child are influenced by the intake of foods and particularly micronutrients, e.g. polyunsaturated fatty acids, Fe, Zn and I. Folic acid supplementation from before conception through the first weeks of pregnancy can markedly reduce the occurrence of severe embryonic malformations; other potential benefits of modulating nutrient supply on maternal and child health should be further evaluated. The evaluation of dietary effects on child growth requires epidemiological and field studies as well as evaluation of specific cell and tissue growth. Novel substrates, growth factors and conditionally essential nutrients (e.g. growth factors, amino acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids) may be potentially useful as ingredients in functional foods and need to be assessed carefully. Intestinal growth, maturation, and adaptation as well as long-term function may be influenced by food ingredients such as oligosaccharides, gangliosides, high-molecular-mass glycoproteins, bile salt-activated lipase, pre- and probiotics. There are indications for some beneficial effects of functional foods on the developing immune response, for example induced by antioxidant vitamins, trace elements, fatty acids, arginine, nucleotides, and altered antigen contents in infant foods. Peak bone mass at the end of adolescence can be increased by dietary means, which is expected to be of long-term importance for the prevention of osteoporosis at older ages. Future studies should be directed to the combined effects of Ca and other constituents of growing bone, such as P, Mg and Zn, as well as vitamins D and K, and the trace elements F and B. Pregnancy and the first postnatal months are critical time periods for the growth and development of the human nervous system, processes for which adequate substrate supplies are essential. Early diet seems to have long-term effects on sensory and cognitive abilities as well as behaviour. The potential beneficial effects of a balanced supply of nutrients such as I, Fe, Zn and polyunsaturated fatty acids should be further evaluated. Possible long-term effects of early exposure to tastes and flavours on later food choice preferences may have a major impact on public health and need to be further elucidated. The use of biotechnology and recombinant techniques may offer the opportunity to include various bioactive substances in special dietary products, such as human milk proteins, peptides, growth factors, which may have beneficial physiological effects, particularly in infancy and early childhood.