With obesity on the rise in young children as well as adults, and until recently, a lack of guidance on appropriate portions for children, there’s a renewed interest in just how much pre-schoolers should eat.
The alarming rise in obesity levels in the UK is popularly attributed to sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of unhealthy foods. There’s also an increasing recognition that it’s how much we eat, not just what we eat, that is expanding our waistlines. Since the 1980s, there’s evidence that portion sizes in restaurants and supermarkets have increased in the UK, and that households have followed this trend.
In India too we see a similar pattern emerging according to news reports with one claiming that 22% of Indian kids are obese, face health risks*.
Recent government-commissioned research found that while 4–6 month olds consumed the right amount of calories for their level of activity, by 12–18 months, around one third of toddlers were consuming more calories than they needed for their energy requirements, increasing their long-term risk of obesity.
So, while there’s plenty of advice on what and how much to give when weaning babies, it seems the message on feeding toddlers and young children is sometimes getting lost.
As with adults, pre-school children need a healthy, balanced diet that includes foods from the four main food groups for them to grow and thrive. These foods should be given at regular meal and snack times during the day so that children learn the cues for hunger and recognise when they’re full.
Young children need to snack as their smaller tummies can’t cope with large amounts of food, so smaller meals and regular snacks are preferable to three large meals. This regularity is important, too, because when children are allowed to ‘graze’ throughout the day in an unstructured way, they lose the ability to self-regulate their appetite. Snacks should be thought of as healthy extensions of mealtimes, not as sweet or savoury treats, so offer things like:
So far so good, but it’s often during mealtimes that confusion arises as to how much children should eat. Young children are notoriously fickle eaters, one day picking at the food on their plate, the next wolfing down a bowlful of pasta. This behaviour can be stressful for parents, who worry about whether they’re getting an adequate intake of food overall.
Keeping an eye on your child’s growth chart (which you will find in his red book) if you are anxious about his eating habits will tell you if he is getting an adequate intake. A child who eats what you think are small portions but whose growth follows the same weight centile line and is in the normal range is getting enough.
Children have an inbuilt ability to regulate the food they eat to match their energy needs for activity and growth, so again they may eat less on more sedentary days, and compensate by eating more on more active days. Co-ercing your child to ‘clear’ his plate, or offering larger portions in an attempt to increase his food intake, interferes with this ability to self-regulate appetite.
The Infant and Toddler Forum (ITF), a body set up to provide healthcare professionals with the latest evidence-based thinking on children’s eating habits, has provided new guidance on appropriate portion sizes for young children.
Rather than recommending exact amounts, they suggest portion ranges to take into account how children's' appetites fluctuate, and also how younger and less active toddlers need less than older pre-school and more active children. So, your very active three-year-old would be at the upper end of the portion range, while your 18-month-old would be at the lower end.
You can interpret the ranges to suit your child, and parents can be reassured that a relatively small amount of food can be enough. Generally, taller, more active children need more calories. If you are still not completely sure how much you should offer your child, consider offering him a smaller sized portion first. A sense of fullness takes a little while to kick in, so having to think about whether he is still hungry and giving him the option of having more if needed is a simple way to help your child tune in to inbuilt fullness signals. It also helps to teach a child to choose appropriate amounts for themselves as they grow.
The portion sizes shown below, based on those suggested by the ITF, show some of the main foods across the four main food groups:
Suggested portions are also given for the fifth group of sugary and fatty foods, which should be limited in young children, and not offered as ‘treats’.
You can use these portion ranges to guide you on how much food to offer your child at each meal. So, for example, if you are giving pasta Bolognaise to your two-year-old, you would give around 1 tablespoon of pasta and 2 tablespoons of the minced sauce and perhaps a couple of broccoli florets. Of course, children’s appetites vary, so a hungrier child may need a bit more than this.
The serving suggestions at the top of each group indicate how many times a day your child should have a serving from this food group, so there should be a starchy food, such as bread or potatoes, offered at each meal, and a protein food should be given two to three times a day.
Foods given at snack times count as portions too, so apple slices and some grated cheese would count as one fruit and one dairy serving. Following these serving suggestions will ensure that your child receives a healthy, balanced diet and are particularly important if your child’s weight is above or below the normal range. Remember though, that if your child is thriving and his weight is in the normal range and stays on the same weight centile over time, you have nothing to worry about and you can learn to trust your child’s appetite.
You can visit the ITF website for a more complete list of foods to guide you on your child’s meals:
*Source: Times of India Jan 28, 2016