It’s important for us to eat a variety of foods from the four main food groups to ensure we get all the nutrients we need. However, it can be tricky to know how much is enough. That’s why we’ve created this blog, to help outline rough portion size guidance and to think about how to support children to eat according to their own individual appetite.
What influences a child appetite?
The appetites of children can vary considerably from day- to- day, meal-to- meal and from child- to- child. Their appetite can be influenced by age, gender, activity level, growth spurs, puberty and whether their unwell or recuperating from being ill. There are no specific recommendation on how much a child should be eating, but we’ve provided a rough guide below.
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 ensure that they include food from each food group and not just the food group/s that children prefer.
- 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.
Portion Size Guide
Organisations, such as Eat Better Start Better and The First Steps Nutrition Trust, have developed helpful guides providing simple ideas for the balance of different meal components that will meet the energy and nutrient needs of children aged 1-4 years. They provide simple food-based recommendations for each food group, followed by photos showing appropriate portion sizes for 1-4 year olds.
The adult portion sizes that you see below have been adapted from the British Heart Foundation.
Let’s take a look at the portion size guide below.
Portion Size Guide for 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.
Portion size guide for 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.
Portion Size Guide for Dairy and Alternatives
Children should be offered 3 servings of milk and dairy foods a day to ensure they meet their calcium needs.
Portion Size Guide for Protein Foods
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.
- Children 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 for your early years setting, take a look at our online nutrition training designed by our team of expert early years nutritionists!
If you’re a parent, check out our free parent e-guide and webinars for more tips, information and advice!