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 and what type of foods they like.
Children’s appetites vary from day to day, they will have growth spurts and be more active some days. Portion guidance is based on the nutritional needs of young children, and can help you support your child to develop good habits around food and drinks from an early age.
Portion information is intended as a guide, and you may find there are some days where your child eats a little more and days where they eat less.
If you find your child is regularly wanting much more or much less than what you’re offering, it may help to reflect on the types of food they are being offered. Some processed foods and products with high amounts of added sugar do not satisfy our hunger for very long, nor do they offer many nutrients. Check that are they having something from all the food groups every day.
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 won’t eat vegetables. What should I do?
It is not uncommon for children to favour other foods over vegetables, but the early years are vitally important in developing a positive attitude to all foods and starting healthy habits, such as having vegetables at every meal.
- You can ‘hide’ vegetables in meals by blending, mashing or chopping very small, but also serve some vegetable so children can see it and understand what they’re having. For example, if you mash parsnip into potato, also serve a piece of parsnip with their meal.
- Children learn by copying, so eating vegetables yourself and talking about them – how nice they taste, what colour they are etc. will help children become familiar with the foods and develop a positive association.
- Reflect on what other food your child is having. Do they have processed foods which tend to be more sweet or salty? e.g. flavoured yogurts, fruity bakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps. These foods can overwhelm young tastebuds and cause them to become ‘blind’ to the natural flavour of food such as plain yogurt or fruit and vegetables. It is recommended that processed foods are limited and if given, only offer them during meals in appropriate portions. Avoid all processed foods at snack time.
- Check the portions of the other foods on their plate. Offering too much of the other food groups might mean children fill up on those first and have no room left for vegetables. Take a look at this portion guide video.
- Always offer vegetables, even if your child has not been eating them. It can take 10-15 tries before we learn whether we like a food or not, and this can change over time so it’s always good to return to foods they haven’t had in a while. If they pick it up or put it to their mouth, offer praise. If they do not eat it, make no fuss and try again another time.
- Children will be more likely to eat foods they are familiar with, so allowing them to play with foods – touching, smelling, licking is all beneficial exploration.
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. Having a regular routine, 3 meals and 2-3 small healthy snacks each day will help keep their appetite healthy. Ensure they’re offered foods from all the food groups (carbohydrate, fruit/vegetables, protein, dairy) and limit high fat and sugar items which can cause cravings for more high fat/sugar foods and carry little in the way of nutrients.
It is healthy for children to feel hunger and understand this as a cue to eat when meal or snack time is approaching.
It can be helpful to:
- Encourage them to eat slowly, as it takes 20-30 minutes for their brain to tell their tummy that they have eaten. Allow that amount of time for them to sit and eat until they show or tell you they do not want any more.
- Avoid screen time during meals/snacks. This can disrupt their bodily cues for feeling full or hungry, meaning they may overeat or not eat as much as they need.
- 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.
Children can confuse thirst for hunger, so offer plenty of drinks through the day; preferably water. You could also offer an extra drink at the end of a meal. Plain milk can be offered as a drink, but be careful not to give too much – up to 300ml of milk as a drink in a day is enough; more than this can make them feel full and will mean they will not eat foods offered at mealtimes.
If you’re doing this and your child is growing well it is unlikely they’ll regularly need to eat anything else.
I thought children would only eat as much as their bodies needed. Is this true?
Yes and no. Babies and very young children are good at getting the amount of food they need right. By offering appropriately portioned meals and snacks regularly throughout the day you can be confident you’re offering a balance of nutrients.
Although, it is recommended that children aged 6 months to 5 years take vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. You can purchase multivitamins from your local supermarket/pharmacy, or you may be eligible for free Healthy Start supplements.
As your child reaches the age of around three, they can start to be become influenced by other ‘cues’ to eat other than feeling hungry, such as the amount of food they are given and get used to.
Remember that tiny hands mean tiny tummies and it is important to not encourage children to overeat. Using portion guidance, hand sizes and appropriate bowls/plates, can help toddlers settle into ‘suitable’ portion sizes for their age. This will help them to maintain a healthy weight as they grow.
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, child hand sizes and regular meal/snack times each day can help you feel more confident about the right amounts of food to give your child.
Regularly check on how your child is growing (height and weight) over time and if you have any concerns, speak with your health visitor.
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, as this happens they will 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, develop strong bones and muscles and learn new skills. It also encourages 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. Offering regular meals and snacks, using the portion size guidance and monitoring 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 full. Signs that your child is feeling full include them shaking their head, saying ‘no’, ‘all done’ or ‘get down’. If they’ve eaten and start playing with food or dropping it on the floor this might also be a sign they’re full.
Regularly planned meals and snacks throughout the day allows children opportunity to start to feel hungry and then eat. It is healthy for children to feel hunger and understand this cue to eat. As meal and snack times are regular it is unlikely they will become ‘over hungry’ and overfill their tummy.
Help children to ‘listen’ to their bodies and only eat as much as they need. Generally speaking if your child has eaten about 4-5 handfuls (their own hand size) of food then they have eaten well. Using portion guidance can help you to serve meals appropriate for their tummy size.
Do not allow screen time during meals/snacks as this can disrupt their bodily cues for feeling full or hungry, meaning they may eat too much or too little.
If you are concerned about your child and would like more specific advice, contact your Health Visitor.