Portion size: how much should you give your children?
Helena Gibson-Moore, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation
With increasing concerns about childhood obesity, it is not only important for children to be eating healthier types of foods but also the right amounts of food. Very young children tend to be good at regulating the amount of food they eat but as they get older they can be more easily influenced by outside factors such as what people around them are eating and how much food is on their plate. They can also become less sensitive to their internal feelings of fullness.
Parents or carers usually decide how much food is given to children at meal and snack times and these decisions can be based on their own food likes and dislikes and ideas about how much of that particular food they would like to eat. This sometimes means that adult-sized portions are served which can be much more than a child needs. There has also been a general shift towards bigger portions as studies show that large servings of foods, especially those that are high in energy (calories), are linked to risk of overweight and obesity.
This means it’s important for parents, carers and children to know about healthy eating and appropriate portion sizes.
What proportion of foods should make up your child’s diet?
Children are growing and developing quickly, so it is important that they are offered foods and drinks that provide enough energy and nutrients to meet all their needs. Every child is unique, with different energy requirements depending on their age, weight and activity levels and children’s appetites may vary from day-to-day so it’s not possible to recommend specific portion sizes that are appropriate for all children. But in general, younger children need smaller portions than older children and adults, and active children typically need more food than those who are less active.
It is recommended that children from the age of five years eat a diet based on the principles of the Eatwell Guide, which includes advice on the types and proportions of foods that should come from each food group to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
To find out more about the Eatwell Guide head to our page.
Portion sizes and balanced meals
When it comes to serving the right portion sizes for children you can compare the size of their hand to yours and use this as a guide for how much smaller to make theirs. If you’re not sure what the adult portion should be look out for guidance on food packaging. For example, packs of pasta will usually suggest how many grams should be cooked per person. This may mean you need to weigh out the food or you can estimate the weight based on how much is in the pack. The pack may also tell you how many people it’s supposed to serve and that can guide you on the portion size – for example, a frozen pizza may say ‘serves 2’, so the suggested portion is half a pizza (remember to add extra vegetable toppings to frozen pizzas and serve with a salad or corn on the cob for extra vegetables). Note that information on food packs will usually be for adults so you will need to make portion sizes smaller for children.
When it comes to meals, both for children and the rest of the family, you can also apply the principles of the Eatwell Guide basing them on starchy foods, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein-rich foods and/or dairy foods. An example could be Spaghetti Bolognese:
The meal is based on pasta – a starchy food
The Bolognese sauce makes up a smaller portion and can contain lots of vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and peppers Choose lean minced meat for the protein-rich food in the sauce, or a plant-based protein like lentils, beans or soya mince, or a combination of meat and plantbased proteins
Serve with a crunchy salad for extra vegetables, so you are having a large proportion of vegetables on the plate
For dessert, you could have a yogurt with fruit which would provide some dairy and another portion of fruit
It’s also important that children stay hydrated with around six to eight healthy drinks a day, such as water or milk (fruit juice and smoothies should be limited to a combined total of no more than 150ml a day). Foods high in saturated fat, added sugars or salt, such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, crisps and sugary drinks are not needed as part of a healthy diet and, if included, should be consumed infrequently and in small amounts.
For more information on making sure children eat the right sized portions for their age see change4life: https://www.nhs.uk/Change4Life/supporter-resources/downloads/302468_C4L_MeSizedMealsPosterfamilyacc.pdf
- Johnson SL. Improving pre-schoolers’ self-regulation of energy intake. Paediatrics 2000; 106(6):1429-35.
- McCrickerd K & Forde CG (2016) Parents, portions and potential distortions: Unpicking children’s meal size. Nutrition Bulletin. 41(1): 67-71.
- Ello-Martin JA, Ledikwe JH, Rolls BJ. The influence of food portion size and energy density on energy intake. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005;82(1):236S-41S.
- NHS Choices (2016) The Eatwell Guide https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/the-eatwell-guide.aspx