All children are different, so how can you set portion sizes?
Yes, children are different in lots of ways, such as how tall they are, how active they are and what type of foods they like. However, many parents and carers worry whether their child is getting the ‘right’ amount and type of food to keep them healthy.
Our handy portion guide provides a ‘general guide’ on amounts of foods, from each of the food groups, to offer children between one and five years of age. They are based on the nutritional needs of young children, and by working towards these types and amounts of foods, you can feel confident that you are offering suitable amounts.
Of course, young children’s appetites vary from day to day; they will have growth spurts and be more active some days than others, but using the ‘portion guide’ can help you support your child to develop good habits around food and drinks from an early age. If you find your child is regularly wanting much more or much less than these amounts, look at the tips given in other frequently asked questions for further help.
As a general rule, if your child is growing well , this means they are getting enough food.
My child is a fussy eater. What should I do?
It’s very common for toddlers to have phases of being picky eaters as they start to show their independence, and this can be worrying for parents and carers. Read our article on tackling fussy eating for more information and tips.
My child eats well on some days, but doesn’t eat much on others. Should I worry?
It’s common for young children to be hungrier on some days than on others. This will often balance out over the course of a week, so don’t worry. Have a look at our article on fussy eating for further tips and advice.
My child is always hungry, even after meals, what should I do?
Young children need to eat regularly throughout the day. Helping your child to get into a regular routine, aiming for three small meals and 2-3 small healthy snacks each day will help stop them feeling hungry through the day.
Children can sometimes confuse being thirsty for being hungry, so it’s important to offer plenty of drinks through the day; preferably water. Milk can also be offered as a drink, but be careful not to give too much. Children don’t need any more than 300ml of milk as a drink over the whole day; more than this can make them feel full and will mean they will not eat the variety of foods offered to them at mealtimes.
If you’re doing this and your child is growing well, they may sometimes be hungry after a meal, but it’s unlikely they’ll regularly need to eat anything else. It can be helpful to encourage them to eat more slowly, as it takes around 20-30 minutes for their brain to tell their tummy that they have eaten. You could also offer an extra drink at the end of the meal. After meals, encourage them to get involved in another activity or game to distract them, and keep food and snacks out of sight after meals too.
I thought children would only eat as much as their body’s needed. Is this true?
Yes and no. Babies and very young children are good at getting the amount of food they need right, so it’s good in the early days to respond to your child’s cues about feeding.
As your child reaches the age of around three, they can start to be become influenced by ‘cues’ other than feeling hungry, such as the amounts of food they are given and get used to.
This means that parents and carers can start to help toddlers settle into ‘suitable’ portion sizes for their age. This will help them to maintain a healthy weight as they grow. Using the portion sizes and types of foods suggested as a guide means you can be confident that the balance of nutrients is enough to meet your child’s needs. Remember, the Department of Health recommends a vitamin D supplement for under 5s too.
My child is tall/small for their age so they will need different amounts. Is this true?
The amount of food a child needs will depend on many things such as activity levels, growth spurts, what foods they like and how hungry they are.
Some taller children may need slightly larger portions and some smaller children slightly smaller portions, but this is not always the case. Using the portion size guide and checking on how your child is growing (height and weight) over a period of time will help you feel more confident about the right amounts of food to give for your child.
My child’s growth has slowed down. Should I be worried?
During the first year of life children grow very quickly. By their second year, your child’s growth will slow down quite a lot. As growth slows down, children need fewer calories and you may notice they are less hungry.
Two year old children can have very erratic eating habits but continue to grow and be healthy. If your baby or toddler is ill, their weight gain may slow down for a while, but it usually returns to normal within 2-3 weeks.
My child never stops running around so will these portions be enough?
Encouraging activity in young children is a great way to help them to gain confidence and learn new skills. It also helps to develop good ‘active lifestyle’ habits early in life.
National guidelines encourage toddlers to be active for at least 180 mins (3 hours) throughout the day – including light activity such as standing, moving around, rolling and playing, as well as more energetic activities such as skipping, hopping, running and jumping.
Some very active children may need slightly larger portion sizes, but this is not always the case. Using the portion size guidance and checking on how your child is growing (height and weight) over a period of time will help you feel more confident about suitable amounts of food to give for your child.
How will I know my child has had enough?
It’s important to recognise when your child is hungry and when they are feeling full. It’s also important to encourage them to stop eating when they have had enough, helping them ‘listen’ to their bodies and only eat as much as they need.
As a parent or carer, you need to stay in charge by offering healthy meals and snacks. This will help your child to develop healthy eating habits and a healthy attitude towards food.
Signs that your child is feeling full include them shaking their head, saying ‘no’, ‘all done’ or ‘get down’ and playing with food or dropping it on the floor.
If you are concerned about your child and would like more specific advice, contact your public health nurse (health visitor).
Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust runs a confidential secure text messaging service for parents of children aged 0-19 years called Chat Health. The service operates Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, excluding bank holidays. All texts will be responded to by a public health nurse (health visitor/school nurse) within 24 hours. Outside of the service working hours, you’ll receive a message back to inform you that your text will be responded to once the line reopens.
Should you require urgent health advice in the meantime, please contact your GP, visit an NHS walk-in centre or call NHS 111. For emergencies, dial 999 or visit A&E.
Leicester City: text 07520 615381
Leicestershire & Rutland: text 07520 615382
You can also call and speak to a public health nurse on our professional advice line: 0300 3000 007