Blog series: Understanding portion sizes for children

Posted 14 September 2015

Ana-Kristina Skrapac

Today, let’s take a look at the guidance on what is a portion size for different foods in each food group and how to achieve the right balance between the food groups.

The Eatwell Plate* helps to illustrate that proportionally carbohydrate foods are needed in the greatest amount, roughly 1/3 of total energy intake. This means that we should aim to include foods such as breads, cereals and grains with each main meal.  Protein foods equate to approximately 15-20% of total energy intake, and we should aim to include a small portion with main meals, 1 – 2 per day. The remainder of energy intake should come from dairy foods, fruits and vegetables, which provide essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The foods with greatest controversy are those that are classed as sometimes foods or treat foods, those that provide us with energy (calories) but minimal or no nutrients. We should limit the intake of treat foods in children’s diets to a few times a week.

Sport and exercise increase the demand for energy, as the body needs more fuel. The main food group that is important for fueling the body is the carbohydrate group, this is because during exercise our muscles burn more energy, and the main fuel for this is glucose, which we get from breads, cereals and grains. Glucose is also the main fuel for the brain, and if we eat too little, we may feel tired, lethargic or lack in concentration.

Children need a regular source of energy throughout the day, so that they have the fuel for active play, concentrating throughout the school day and for their growing bodies. The simplest way to ensure your child is getting enough of the energy they need from foods is to think about these key points:

  • Ensure a carbohydrate is served at each meal. Choose a mix of grains, cereals and starchy vegetables for variety. These foods are all low in fat, provide a good source of fibre and are rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • Encourage your child with a protein-rich food with the main meal at lunch and dinner. These could be lean meats, chicken, fish or eggs or vegetarian alternatives such as legumes and pulses. Meat sources are also rich in iron and zinc, which are needed for growth. Legumes and pulses help to increase the fibre in the diet to help keep your child regular.
  • Milk and diary foods provide a good source of calcium for growing bones and teeth. These foods make great breakfast foods or snacks. Children need 2 – 3 serves of dairy foods each day to meet their needs for calcium, and this increases in adolescent years to 4 serves a day.
  • Fruit and vegetables are a great source of essential vitamins and minerals and also help to increase fibre intakes. Choose different coloured fruits and vegetables for a variety of nutrients. To meet the 5-a-day requirement, encourage children with 2 serves of fruit and 3 serves of vegetables every day. We know that most children are not meeting their needs for fruit, vegetables and fibre on a daily basis – encourage with easy peelers, chopped fruit or vegetables and combine with other familiar foods for better acceptance.
  • ‘Treat’ foods such as biscuits, cakes, chocolate and desserts may be included as part of a healthy diet, and it is important for children to learn how to eat these in moderation. The important message for children is to learn to consume these foods sometimes and not to have these every day. It is important to limit consumption of these foods to ensure your child is maintaining a healthy weight and healthy teeth. Limit consumption of sweetened drinks, including fruit juice, as drinking these throughout the day coats the teeth, which overtime leads to tooth decay. We also know that eating and drinking too much of these energy-dense–nutrient-low foods can sway the balance towards weight gain over time.

Portion guide for children

A serve of starchy carbohydrates:

1 slice of bread, ½ medium roll, small pita, ½ bagel, ½ cup or 4 heaped tbsp of cooked pasta, 2 heaped tbsp cooked rice, 1 small bowl breakfast cereal flakes (40g), 4 heaped tbsp cooked porridge, 2 small potatoes

A serve of protein:

65-100g cooked lean meat, 65-100g cooked chicken, 80-120g cooked fillet fish or canned in water 120g tofu / quorn
2 small eggs, 3 – 4 heaped tbsp beans/lentils/peas, 2 tbsps nuts / nut butter

A serve of dairy:

Small pot of yoghurt (125g-150g), 2 slices of cheese (20g-30g), Glass of milk 120ml-200ml

A serve of fruit or vegetables:

Fresh or frozen fruit, tennis ball size (roughly 80g), for young children aim for ½ an adult’s portion for a serve or the size of your child’s hand, Fresh fruit juice, 120ml-150ml, Handful dried fruit, 40g (approx 1 tbsp), 2 serving spoonfuls or ½ a small cereal bowl of cooked vegetables, 1 cup or small cereal bowl of salad vegetables

Source of reference:

Eat Well Plate, UK; The Dairy Council UK; SACN (2011) Energy Requirements for the UK, Department of Health

*The Eatwell Plate was updated to the The Eatwell Guide March 2016.