Ha ha hooked you didn’t I? But seriously, in my life as a dietitian I get a lot of questions from mums about how much their children should be eating. It’s a really confusing question because every child is different and it’s hard to beat out misguided community messages to do with food intake. So, I thought it might be a good idea, in light of the new Dietary Guidelines for Australians (which of course includes guidelines for Australian children too) to clear the air about food intake recommendations for children.
Now for the purpose of this post I will focus on small children 1-3 years because this is where the most concern is about children not getting enough. The next age category it 4-8 and most often if I see kids in this group it is for are they getting too much which is a totally different kettle of fish. So I am talking about the concerns along these lines: “my child hardly eats a thing” “I’m worried that my daughter/son is not meeting their requirements” “my toddler hardly ever eats 2 fruit and 5 veg”.
So let’s start by talking about toddlers/pre-schoolers and their eating habits in general. I’ve said this before but they are not consistent eaters. One day they will eat 6 meals, the next day they may survive on a mouthful here and a sniff there. Just because your little darling doesn’t eat exactly what the guidelines tell us does NOT mean that they are unhealthy, undernourished or in some way in trouble. Toddlers and pre-schooler’s food intake is also highly determined by the environment they are in. Have you ever had a phase of worrying about your child not eating a thing but childcare workers/grandma/babysitters told you they sat at the table quietly, ate everything offered and did not complain once? Kids change how much they eat, depending on the situation. This is normal, and not a problem.
Okay so onto the guidelines. And they are exactly that. A guideline. Not a diet plan to follow. Not a cause of concern if they are not followed every day. But a guide, to help us work out in general if food groups are getting covered. It’s also very important to remember here that some children have needs more or less than the guidelines. The guidelines are based on an average intake of all healthy kids. That means that there are kids eating above and below the recommendations and meeting their requirements just fine. I once met an amazing autistic boy who survived solely on vegemite on white bread and milky ways. He did not have any nutritional deficiencies, he had an amazingly developed brain and was partaking in about 5 hours of basketball at a high level every week.
So in terms of our 1-3 year olds…
This group is actually divided up into toddlers 1-2 years of age (not in the publically available booklets) and 2-3 year olds (shown in the booklet Healthy Eating for Children).
Fruit and vegetables
I’m going to start with fruit and vegetable requirements because this is the most troublesome and confused. Now contrary to popular belief (which was influenced by the very misguided Go For 2&5 message) young children do not need 2 fruit and 5 vegetables every day. As you will see on the table below for 1-2 year olds fruit is ½ a serve and for 2-3 year olds it is 1 serve. Not too hard to manage mums, and most kids I see will be eating at least 1 serve of fruit. Vegetables again is less than most think being about 2 ½ serves a day which also includes things like vegetables, baked beans, corn and tomato based sauces like spaghetti bolognaise. We don’t expect your toddler to be sitting down to 2 cups of salad for lunch guys.
Grain foods is the largest amount of serves recommended and its 4 serves. In saying that, with 1 slice of bread, or ½ cup pasta or 1 crumpet or 3 crackers being 1 serve, a lot of kids over the day would meet this. If you are worried then do this simple test. Grain foods mainly give us energy. So, if your child runs around, plays, talks or basically just exists without too much trouble, then they are getting enough energy/grain foods.
For 1-3 year olds meat is 1 serve/day. And meat is a 65g cooked serve. It’s not much. As a guide (not that they are an everyday recommendation) 2 fish fingers and you are just about there! Or a few slices of ham is generally 65g. 2 eggs is a meat serve as is 1 cup of baked beans or just over 1 tablespoon of peanut butter. Chances are in general, your kiddie is meeting their meat serve.
Here is where most kids do really well. A little too well actually. For 1-3 year olds you are looking at 1 ½ serves. Ouch. With 250ml of milk being 1 serve it is most often easily met. I know for a fact my Miss 1 has 1-2 bottles during the day, 1 to go to sleep, 1 through the night if it’s a bad night, plus 1 yoghurt and definitely some cheese in there somewhere. Eeekk, probably why she’s quite high on the weight scale (in my defence, she is also high on the height scale so she is actually okay). And oh yes I know, you shouldn’t put your kids to sleep with milk blah blah blah, but it’s something we are working on and as soon as the teething/ear infections/handfootmouth/whatever else annoys her, is over we are planning on gently changing that. But yes, you can see how easily it is to go over and most often, if your child is not eating much food from the other groups, it’s because they are having a lot of dairy.
Lastly there is an allowance for 4-5g unsaturated spreads and oils throughout the day so don’t feel like you need to be “fat free” for your kiddies. They need this for growth.
So there you go, the guidelines in a nutshell. But PLEASE remember, these are a guide. Some kids eat more, some kids eat less, some kids eat like this sometimes, some kids eat like this all the time. Use your child’s growth and development as your guide and take the stress out of providing for your little eaters!
Note all pictures are from eat for health and you can find the whole guidelines in the same place.
If you are really concerned about your kiddies feel free to PM me on facebook and we can set up a consult!