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How to get the balance right when it comes to kids' diets

What, how much and just how often should we feed preschool children? Lisa Salmon talks to the experts

Most parents know what healthy foods they should give their toddler, but many don't know how much of that food to give him/her, and how often.

New research by Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF) shows that while 80% of parents with children aged under five know the key food groups that form a balanced diet for toddlers, more than a third (35%) are worried they don't give their children the right balance of foods.

So what should we be feeding kids?

What to feed

Offer foods from all five food groups each day, in three meals and two to three snacks. There should be two courses at each meal, and only nutritious snacks.

The five food groups are:

1. Bread, cereal and potatoes: serve at each meal and offer some as snacks.

2. Fruit and vegetables: serve at each meal, and aim for about five servings a day.

3. Milk, cheese and yoghurt: serve three times a day.

4. Meat, fish and vegetarian alternatives: serve once or twice a day for non-vegetarians and two or three times a day for vegetarians.

5. Foods high in fat and sugar: allow some each day with, but not instead of, the other food groups.

How to get a balance right

Only half of parents are aware they should offer their toddler meat, fish, eggs, nuts and pulses two or three times a day.

This is the most important food group for iron, which one in eight toddlers don't get enough of, even though iron deficiency anaemia can affect development and growth.

Conversely, while 22% of parents think children shouldn't ever be given cakes, biscuits and sweet puddings, official guidelines state that it is fine for them to have these foods once a day.

But sweets and sweet drinks, including fruit juices, should be limited to once a week.

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Judy More

How to get the portion sizes right

Research shows the majority (79%) of parents routinely offer portions bigger than the recommended size for toddlers.

This may be one of the reasons the UK has a child obesity problem.

The correct serving sizes, offered two to three times a day, include 1/2-1 medium slice of bread, 3-6 heaped tablespoons of dry cereal (eg cornflakes), half to one boiled, poached or fried egg, quarter to one medium sausage, 125ml pot of yoghurt, three to 10 small grapes/berries (you can give them more fruit and vegetables if they want them).

The expert view ITF paediatric dietitian Judy More says: "A lot of parents overestimate how much food their toddler needs, and put a lot of pressure on them to eat more.

"The vast majority of toddlers are very good at regulating how much they need to eat, and when they say they've had enough, it's important parents respect that.

"It's about offering them a good balance of foods and not pressuring them to eat more than they want.

"Preschool children need a more nutritious diet than adults because they're growing - so, for example, two thirds of parents thought they should only give their toddlers carbohydrate foods like bread, rice and pasta twice a day, but really it should be three to five times a day to give them the energy to run around and keep their blood sugar levels even.

"That way, you don't get really bad behaviour if they drop too low."

The ITF has launched an online competition to get parents to design a tool such as an app, a plate or a set of measuring cups, which would offer other parents a reliable way of making sure that their toddlers are eating a healthy, balanced diet. The best suggestion will win £1,000. For further information log on to: www.infantandtoddlerforum.org

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