Trying to balance your child’s diet with the right proportion and variety of foods can sometimes feel more challenging than mastering Pythagoras’s theorem. New research from the Infant & Toddler Forum supports this, revealing that while the majority of the nation’s parents are confident naming the main food groups that should form a balanced diet, they frequently struggle to combine them in appropriate quantities.
A healthy balance
A healthy balanced diet for children aged one to five years is based on the four food groups listed below, which together provide a range of essential nutrients that children need to grow and develop:
- Starchy foods (such as bread, rice and pasta)
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- Milk and dairy foods
- Fruit and vegetables
Whilst parents are familiar with these food groups, the study reveals that over a third of parents admit they are worried that their child doesn’t receive the right balance of these foods and more than a quarter feel their child doesn’t consume sufficient variety. The survey also revealed some worrying parental misconceptions surrounding recommended quantities of each food group.
- Nearly 65% of parents believe they should only offer their toddler starchy food once or twice a day
- Only a quarter of parents are aware that they need to be offered three-to-five times a day.
Starchy foods provide energy, carbohydrate, fibre and B vitamins. With this in mind, a portion of starchy food should be offered as part of every meal plus at least one snack each day.
There is also a common misconception amongst parents that wholegrain carbohydrates (such as brown rice and brown pasta) are a healthier choice for children than refined alternatives (white rice and white pasta). In fact, while young children should be
encouraged to eat some wholegrain starchy foods, they shouldn’t be restricted to these alone as they are very high in fibre. These means toddlers can fill up before they have taken in the energy they need. Parents should therefore provide a variety of wholegrain and white starchy foods each week.
- Only half of parents are aware that they should offer protein in the form of meat, fish, eggs, nuts and pulses two or three times a day
Food from this group provide protein, iron and zinc and should be included as part of lunch and tea each day. Protein can also be provided as part of snacks once or twice each week.
Despite protein being the most important food source of iron, which one in eight toddlers don’t get enough iron in their diet. Poor iron levels are linked to slower intellectual development and poor behaviour in the longer term.
However, parents should be mindful of the protein sources they provide. Meat and fish products, and products made from meat alternatives (such as Quorn), can be high in salt and saturated fat. Parents should limit bought and homemade meat and fish products to no more than once a week. Making homemade versions of these products can ensure that the fat and salt content is lower.
- 22% believe there should be a complete ban on giving their child cakes, biscuits and sweet puddings
Most parents confess to being overly cautious of sugary foods, no doubt due to extensive media coverage relating to the obesity epidemic. However, desserts and cakes can provide an important source of energy (calories), plus essential nutrients such as calcium and iron. Desserts, puddings and cakes made with cereals (such as rice or oats), milk and fruit should therefore be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet for young children and children should be encouraged to learn how to enjoy healthy foods and sweet treats side-by-side.
For this reason, the Children’s Food Trust recommend that a dessert should be provided as part of lunch and tea each day. They suggest a variety of options (such as crumbles or baked apples, semolina, rice pudding or custard, yoghurt or fromage frais, carrot cake or fruit flapjack and fruit salads) rather than relying on fresh fruit alone. The exception to this is confectionery and sweet drinks, (including fruit juices) which should be limited to once a week, to help protect children’s teeth.
Meal planning: a practical guide
One of the basic principles of healthy eating is variety – simply put, eating a wider range of different foods provides a better balance of nutrients. Planning meals and snacks to include a variety of food and drinks from the four food groups each day will therefore provide children with a good balance of nutrients they need to ensure they receive the right amount of energy and nutrients. It can also help encourage them to develop good dietary habits to take with them into later childhood and beyond.
The trick is to mix it up at every meal, being mindful to include a little bit of every food group and not rely too heavily on any one type of food. Since children have smaller stomachs and might not get all their energy from the three core meals, they also need nutritional snacks in between the meals to boost their energy intake.
To help guide parents and care providers, the Children’s Food Trust provide the following summary of the 4 food groups, the nutrients they provide and recommended servings: