It’s not easy to be sure how much food to serve to toddlers – and it seems most parents are getting it wrong.
New research suggests more than three quarters (79%) of parents routinely offer bigger than recommended portions to preschool children when serving popular meals like spaghetti Bolognese and chicken nuggets with chips, drinks and treats.
And parents unwittingly giving their toddlers too much food is putting the youngsters at risk of obesity, warns the Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF), which carried out the survey of 1,000 mums and dads.
Paediatric dietician Judy More, an ITF member, says: “Practical advice for parents on appropriate portion sizes for toddlers has been lacking, so it’s not surprising our survey revealed a significant lack of understanding about how much to feed toddlers.
“With new evidence linking larger portions to excess weight gain, it’s clear parents need practical advice.”
In a bid to make the appropriate portion sizes clearer to parents, the ITF has launched the #rethinktoddlerportionsizes campaign, supported by 4Children, Family Lives and the Pre-school Learning Alliance. The campaign aims to encourage families to rethink how much is on toddlers’ plates and is calling for guidance on appropriate portion sizes for families of young children to be a key public health strategy in the fight against obesity.
As part of the campaign the ITF, an independent, multi-disciplinary team of experts on infant and toddler nutrition, has created a guide to the recommended portion size ranges for children aged one to four years.
The ITF research found more than 10% of parents usually serve their child close to an adult-size portion of spaghetti Bolognese or cheese sandwiches – yet 73% are more concerned their child doesn’t eat enough than that they eat too much. In fact, only 25% of parents worry their child might become overweight in the future.
However, just a quarter are ‘very confident’ about the amount of food to give their child.
There’s also a tendency for parents to use food or drink between meals as a pacifier, with 36% of parents offering food ‘treats’ to calm upset children.
Experts warn that using food or drink as a reward to comfort and/or distract encourages young children to rely on food to deal with emotions, teaching them to continue this behaviour in later life.
Child and clinical psychologist Gill Harris, a member of the ITF, points out that most toddlers are naturally better than older children and adults at regulating their food intake.
“They usually only eat what they need and don’t overeat. However, portion size is critical – it’s one of the main ways in which we can inadvertently override children’s self-regulation systems.”
She says larger portions form our view of what’s an appropriate amount to eat, and this becomes the norm.
“In other words, how much you offer often determines how much your child will eat, and habits learned in early life generally tend to persist,” she says.
“It’s never too early to start promoting healthy eating habits.”
The ITF says one to four-year-olds eating portions within the following ranges will meet their energy and nutrient needs – except vitamin D, for which it recommends all children take a supplement.
Rice, boiled or fried: 2-5 tablespoons
Bread: Half-1 medium slice
Chips: 4-8 thick cut chips
Mashed potato: 1-4 tablespoons
Pasta (cooked): 2-5 tablespoons
Dry flaked cereal (e.g. cornflakes): 3-6 heaped tablespoons
Banana: Quarter-1 medium banana
Carrot: 1-3 tablespoons/2-6 carrot sticks
Peas: Half-2 tablespoons
Apple: Quarter-half a medium apple
Cow’s milk to drink: 1 cup (100-120 ml)
Processed cheese: 15-21g (1 slice/1 triangle or string)
White/oily fresh fish: Quarter-1 small fillet or 1-3 tablespoons
Ham: Half-1½ small slices
Shepherds pie: 2-5 tablespoons
Pizza (meat/cheese): 1-2 small slices (70g)
Macaroni cheese: 2-5 tablespoons
Foods high in fat and sugar
The ITF says toddlers under two years shouldn’t have puddings, cakes, biscuits, sweets and crisps. Between the ages of two and four biscuits, cakes and puddings shouldn’t be eaten more than once a day, and sweets and crisps should be offered no more than one item once a week.
Chocolate coated biscuit: Half-1
Crisps: 4-6 crisps