For this post I’m taking things back to basics and breaking down the fundamental components of what is a “healthy, balanced diet” for your little ones. I’ve been talking a lot recently about individual nutrients and how to include them in mother and baby’s meals (see iron, iodine, calcium, folate), but sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture when it comes to balancing out baby’s mealtimes!
Aiming to include foods from the 4 main food groups across your little one’s meals and snacks, helps to ensure that you’re providing not only enough energy, but also getting in enough vitamins and minerals throughout the day.
Why nutrition matters for children?
As children grow and develop, many changes are also happening inside their bodies – for example their organs are developing, their chemical composition is altering and even their body proportions are all changing too.
All of these processes require plenty of energy and nutrients, which children will mainly get from the foods that they are eating. On top of this research shows that good nutrition in early childhood is linked to better long-term health (SACN, 2011) – you can see why providing little ones with a balanced diet, and plenty of variety is key. This will help to build healthy children and hopefully also children who grow up with a positive relationship with food, where they’re not afraid to experiment with new flavours and textures!
A balanced diet for toddlers:
Ultimately this blog aims to offer you a simple way to check if your little one is getting a “balanced diet” and also offers some info on portion sizes to give parents an idea of how you can realistically incorporate these food groups into your daily meals. Specific portion sizes will vary depending on your child’s age and body composition so use these as a guide. To learn more about specific guidelines on energy requirements for each age group, the British Nutrition Foundation has some great resources.
The advice here is aimed at children aged 1-4. Between the ages of 2 and 5, children should gradually move to eating the same foods as the rest of the family, in the proportions shown on the Eatwell Guide. For children from 5 onwards, the recommendation is that children follow the Eatwell guide. While the general advice of the Eatwell guide is similar and still focuses on plenty of variety and fruits and vegetables, the proportions are slightly different for children under 5.
Balancing children’s diets:
Many sources, including NHS, BNF, I&TF and Little Foodie recommend following a similar pattern of eating to the infographic below for young toddlers.
We will now break these food groups down to help explain them a little more.
Starchy foods – 5 portions per day
Starchy foods provide children with energy and can be an important source of fibre, B vitamins and calcium. Additionally the brain relies mainly on carbohydrates as an energy source so it’s really important to include these foods in your child’s diet. Ideally, each meal should include some starchy foods. While wholegrain options can be a great source of fibre and are great to include in the diet, for children under 2, introduce wholegrain options gradually with plenty of other foods (and fluids) to encourage them to experiment and get familiar with wholegrain tastes, without filling up on too much fibre.
Some foods from this food group that many people may not think to include for young children are: cous cous, quinoa, buckwheat, oats, pearl barley, cassava and semolina, as well as the traditional bread, rice, potatoes and pasta.
Some examples of portion sizes include:
- ½ slice – 1 slice of bread
- ¼ – ½ slice of pitta
- 1-3 tbsp mashed potatoes
- ¼ – ½ baked medium potato
- 2-4 tbsp cooked pasta / rice
See Little Foodie for more info on portion sizes for this food group.
Fruits & Vegetables – 5+ portions per day
This is such an important food group that provides so many vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, fibre, folate, potassium and small amounts of calcium and iron. Aim to be including at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables in your little one’s diet per day, including as much variety and colour as you can!
An easy way to think about portion sizes for fruit and veg is roughly the amount that fits into the palm of their hand. Don’t forget that tinned and frozen vegetables are just as good as fresh and can be so much more convenient, so definitely don’t be afraid to include them. Just opt for ones without any added sugar, salt or syrups! Remember, children will follow your lead so if they see you eating lots of fruits and vegetables, they’re more likely to eat them themselves!
Note that dried fruits contain a concentrated source of natural sugar and so should ideally be offered at meal times. Adding them into porridge or also in curry sauces can be a great way to incorporate them into mealtimes too.
Some veggies such as avocado, peas, carrots, parsnips, sweet potato and red peppers are usually options that are accepted more readily by children. Options such as broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, mushrooms, spinach, kale, aubergine and sprouts might be a little less well accepted. This means that you should keep offering a variety, even some rejected veggies, as it can take up to 15 times before little ones accept some tastes and flavours.
- ¼ – 1 banana
- 3-8 grapes / blueberries / raspberries (grapes and some large blueberries may need to be chopped for children under 5.
- 1-3 cherry tomatoes
- ½ – 2 tbsp broccoli / cauliflower / cooked peas / cooked spinach
Dairy & Alternatives – 3 portions per day
Milk & dairy can be a great source of energy, protein and vitamins (particularly calcium) needed for strong bones.
After one year of age, whole cows’ milk can be offered as a main drink while before this, whole cows’ milk can be added into an infant’s foods from 6 months of age. If you’re breastfeeding it’s recommended to still breastfeed on demand. Some mothers may also choose to breastfeed into the second year and beyond. If breast milk is still offered as the main source of milk in the diet, there’s no need to specifically measure how much they’re getting as it will naturally adapt to their food intake
From one year of age, generally children don’t need so much milk anymore and therefore around 400ml of cow’s milk a day can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet (less is needed if other sources of dairy are included). Depending on your family’s schedule and your toddler’s sleeping pattern, this might be a glass of milk at breakfast, with snacks or before bed or a nap..If your child does not have dairy in their diet, it’s really important to make sure you’re choosing fortified alternatives where possible to ensure they’re not missing out on some of the key nutrients that milk provides. See my previous blog on plant-based milks for more on this topic as well as my post about raising vegetarian and vegan toddlers.
Aim to include dairy or alternatives around 3 times a day – this could be a portion of grated cheese with a jacket potato, a glass of milk or a dollop of yoghurt with a curry sauce. Here are some more specific portion sizes to help give you an idea:
- 1 beaker (100ml) of milk (dairy or fortified alternative)
- 1 pot (125ml) of yoghurt (dairy or fortified alternative)
- 20g cheese
Protein – 2 per day* (*3 for vegetarian children)
Protein is the major functional and structural component for all of the cells in the body so is particularly important for normal growth and development. Foods in this group such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, tofu and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, beans) also provide key nutrients like iron and zinc – and oily fish is an important source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which we need to get from our diet. If your child is following a vegetarian diet, they’ll need a little more protein so 3 portions per day are recommended. Include a source of vitamin C (tomatoes, peppers, oranges) with vegetarian protein sources to help with iron absorption.
Some sample portion sizes for protein include:
- ½ – 1 egg (boiled, poached, scrambled)
- 2-3 tbsp baked beans / chickpeas / kidney beans / lentils
- 2-3 tbsp minced meat
- Peanut butter on bread / toast
To help put all of this into practical terms – I’ve put together a 7-day meal plan template. Every meal on every day is different in this template to help give some ideas for variety. Naturally, that’s not realistic for many of us so don’t worry if some meals are repeated throughout the week but do try to include as much variety as you can! This meal plan is in line with the recommendations for an average child’s requirements (portion sizes will depend on your child’s age) so if you’re replacing any of the fish or dairy options, make sure to choose fortified options where possible.
Younger children may still have milk on top of these recommendations. For children aged 1-2, 400ml cow’s milk a day is recommended as part of a healthy diet (see above). From 2-4, 300-350ml is more appropriate as they will be eating bigger meals and may be napping less. Large amounts of cow’s milk have been linked to poorer dietary habits as it may mean they have less appetite for others food during mealtimes.
Evidenced-based, practical food portion sizes for preschool children and how they fit into a well-balanced, nutritionally adequate diet (Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics)