Portion sizes for pre-school children

We quite often find that parents worry about how much their child is eating through the day… and a visual guide to appropriate portion sizes for their pre-school child can really help to reassure them. I have borrowed this picture from Your Kids Table because it is a pretty good representation of pre-school lunch time portion sizes –

Portion sizes

Food portion sizes have been increasing in recent years and we are told that we are over-feeding children… this is leading to a lot of concern when they get to school about children being overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is likely to lead to health complications in later life so this is something we need to get right in the early years.

The main guidance for childminders comes from the ‘Voluntary food and drink guidelines for early years settings in England’ on the Children’s Food Trust website. It contains advice about portion sizes, healthy food and drink to offer children, suggested menus, bowl sizes and much more.

A toddler / pre-school child needs about 1000 – 1200 calories a day. A healthy child who enjoys food will normally stop eating / turn away / push away a spoon when they have had enough – listen to them, respect that they know their own bodies better than us and do not force extra food on them because that will stretch their tummy and they will not learn to control their own portion sizes.

The calories should be spread across 3 meals (breakfast, lunch and tea) and 2 snacks a day because experts tell us that children should have 2 healthy snacks each day (one morning and one afternoon) and not go longer than 2.5 – 3 hours between food so they stay alert and do not feel hungry.

A healthy pre-school diet includes –

  • 4 portions of starchy foods – half of the grains offered should be whole grains. Do not serve sugary cereals or foods high in salt, sugar or saturated fat – stick to whole grains and good quality foods, home-made where possible. Offer a selection of grains – rice, couscous, 1 medium slice of bread or 2 breadsticks, ½ chapatti, pasta, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, noodles etc.
  • 2 portions of milk products – milk, cheese, yoghurt, custard, milky puddings etc.
  • 2 portions of protein – chicken, beef, pork, egg, hummus, fish, beans etc.
  • 2 – 3 portions of fruit – fresh, tinned or frozen. Latest advice is to give dried fruit as part of a meal but not snack because of the damage it will cause to teeth.
  • 2 – 3 portions of vegetables – fresh, tinned or frozen – cooked or raw.

An easy way to work out a portion size = 1 tablespoon per year of their life… so a 3 year old portion of grains or milk products is approximately 3 tablespoons. A child’s hand is a good gauge when working out portion sizes as well… there are some useful portion size tables on the Infant and Toddler forum here.

There are some really important rules from the experts that we should follow when feeding children – our own children as well as childminded. We want children to have healthy attitudes to food so –

  • Don’t withhold one food group until another is eaten – food is necessary for life and must not be used as a treat or punishment.
  • Don’t confuse hunger with thirst or boredom – offer a drink or distract a child who is asking for food between meals so they are more likely to eat properly at the next meal time. Most children in school environments do not drink enough through the day and need a good drink because they are thirsty when they arrive in our care.
  • Teach children how many sticks of carrots or pieces of fruit are in a portion and where possible let the children serve themselves – they are more likely to take what they want and if they are hungry they can always be offered a little more.
  • Don’t give children low calorie food – they need the calories because they burn them off. If a child is overweight, any diets must be monitored closely by a qualified nutritionist.
  • Don’t withhold a food group without ongoing advice from a doctor or nutritionist.
  • Don’t tell a child to eat more – just one more mouthful or try to force a spoon in. If the child says s/he is not hungry or starts messing around, take the plate away and praise them for what has been eaten.
  • Sit down and eat together, encouraging children to take their time and recognise when they are full. All day grazing does not help children to listen to their bodies.
  • Don’t stop a child from eating if he says he is hungry – the child needs to be in charge if his own growth spurts.
  • Latest advice to share with parents is that we should not offer babies and children under the age of 2 years sweet puddings, chocolate, sweets, cakes, biscuits, crisps etc because they do not need these foods in their diets.

We need to trust children that they will eat as much as they need. Like adults they have hungry and less hungry days – and days when they are going to be stubborn and refuse to eat things. Instead of forcing the issue we need to get creative and offer, for example, a tomato sauce packed full of other vegetables or a fruit compote rather than individual fruit pieces if they are going through a picky phase. Parents should be giving vitamin drops at home to supplement their diets as well.

It can be quite a shock to look at portion sizes and really think about what children are offered through the day. Many children eat far too much because adults put it in front of them … or think they must be hungry and offer them a biscuit or sweet ‘treat’ at the end of their meal when they have said they are full! You can use the NHS Eatwell Plate for children over the age of 5 … but up to 5 they need to eat less because their tummies are smaller!

For more detailed information about food and healthy eating, please see e-book 21 ‘healthy eating’ from my Knutsford Childminding website.

More advice…

Self-reflective moment – it might be time to re-evaluate our own portion sizes as well and set a good example for children to copy.

Sharing information with parents – provide parents with the link for this blog or provide them with your own information about portion sizes and healthy eating tips. Your local Children’s Centre might have some information booklets for them to read as well.

Supporting home learning – share children’s favourite recipes with parents so they can be made at home. Let parents know how independent their child is at meal times – preparing food, pouring drinks, serving friends, working out portion sizes etc to encourage them to allow their child to help at home.

I hope you have found this blog interesting. You can click below to ‘like’ the blog and you will be informed when I write new ones. Thank you! Sarah.

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