Adults and children need energy and nutrients to carry out everyday tasks and to maintain a healthy weight. Nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are currently overweight in the UK. A healthy lifestyle can help to reduce our risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

What influences a child appetite?

The appetites of children will vary considerably from day to day, meal and meal and from child to child. The appetite can be influenced by age, gender, activity level, growth spurs, puberty and whether the child is unwell or recuperating from being ill.

Portion sizes should increase gradually as a child gets older. Remember a five year old will eat less than a 16 year old and you should feed to appetite rather than specific servings. For this reason, there are no specific recommendation on how much a child should be eating, but we have provide a rough guide to help gauge whether a child is over or under eating. The following tips will support you at mealtimes:

  • Gradually increase portion sizes as the child grows older
  • Avoid over filling plates as this can be off putting for younger children particularly for fussy eaters
  • Ensure that the proportions on the plate are correct
  • Offer small portions to begin with and allow second helpings if they eat it all
  • Remember that second helpings should still be nutritionally balanced so use the Eatwell guide to ensure a second helpings includes food from each food group not just the food group that may be the child favours
  • Offering second helpings of the vegetables, salad or fruit is a good idea to ensure your child gets plenty of vitamins and minerals but not too much energy

Starchy Foods

Adults and children should try to eat something from this food group  3-4 times a day. Base main meal around starchy foods and include some at snack time.

Fruit and Vegetables 

Adults and children should have at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day. A child’s portion is the size that will fit into the palm of their hand. An adult portion is around 80g.

Dairy and Alternatives

Children should be offered 3 servings of milk and dairy foods a day to ensure they meet their calcium needs.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other non dairy sources of protein

To ensure we receive enough iron we should try to have something from this food group at least twice a day (if we eat meat and fish), and 3 times a day if we are vegetarian. Children and adults should aim to have 2 portions of fish a week, including a portion of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines.

Puddings and Desserts

Children should be offered desserts/puddings and cakes made with cereals (such as rice or oats), milk and fruit.

  • Desserts which include fruit should aim to contain 40g of fresh fruit or 20g fried fruit per portion.
  • Hot fruit based, for example apple and rhubarb crumble (60g) with custard (60g)
  • Milk based desserts, for example rice pudding (75g) with sultanas (25g)


Children should be offered 2-3 healthy snacks across the day.

Examples of typical portion sizes:

  • Oatcakes- 1-2 oatcakes
  • Apple- ¼-½ medium apple
  • Cheese- 15-21 grams cheese cubes
  • Popcorn (unsweetened)- ½ – 1 cup

Note: If children are offered items such as crisps, sweets and chocolate on occasions, the below are useful portion sizes to bare in mind:

  • Crisps- 4-6 crisps
  • Sweets- 2-4 sweets
  • Chocolate- 1 small fun- sized bar

How to tell when a child is full?

  • We should start to feel fuller as we eat each mouthful, if we are chewing slowly we should get the sensation of fullness in our stomach’s.
  • For children They may say their tummy feels big or full up and refuse to eat anymore food. If your child shows these signs allow them to stop eating even if they haven’t eaten everything on their plate. It is important not to teach children to over-ride this sense of fullness.

How to tell when a child is hungry?

  • With children they may ask for food, their tummy might rumble, they might cry (especially if they are younger) or become irritable.
  • Children should be encouraged to recognise these signs of hunger and remember it is OK for a child to feel hungry.
  • As the child gets older, it can be helpful (as it is with adults) to look at when the last time they ate and ensuring it isn’t longer than 3 hours. As older children should still be having 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day

How to get reluctant eaters involved?

  • Children could design a healthy eating board which can be displayed in the eating area. This could be used as a talking point to encourage children to try new foods
  • Have your school’s menu on display and made public so children and parents both know what to expect. Make sure its clear which menu is being served on which week.
  • Get volunteers or dinner monitors to have roles to help with lunch times. For Example jobs may include:
      •  washing fruits and vegetables
      •  helping to clear tables after meals
      • putting water jugs on the table

For more practical tips and information take a look at our online nutrition training designed by our team of expert early years nutritionists!

Leave a Comment