Bitesize: What our pre-schoolers should be eating

Investing in children's nutrition during their early years will lead to longterm health dividends, writes Clodagh Finn
Bitesize: What our pre-schoolers should be eating
Milk is a key food for children. Picture: iStock.
Milk is a key food for children. Picture: iStock.

Toddlers have their own very definite idea of what they like and don’t like to eat. Just ask parents trying to coax a vegetable into a pre-schooler.

Now, for the first time, parents have science on their side. New guidelines from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) address the lack of scientific dietary recommendations for the one to five-year-old age group.

Children at this age are at a vital stage in their development, Dr Pamela Byrne, the Authority’s CEO tells Feelgood, but up to now there have been no firm dietary guidelines.

“We know that dietary habits, which can last for a lifetime, are formed during this critical phase. Also, many children in this age group develop a preference for sweet, salty and energy-dense foods, which can be difficult for parents and guardians to manage,” she says.

That’s why it is key to have evidence-based guidelines to help Irish parents, guardians and health professionals support their children at this essential time, adds Ita Saul, chair of the Public Health Nutrition Subcommittee.

Eating habits formed in the early years persist into later life and scientific research increasingly shows that early feeding practices are linked to many adult illnesses, such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions, she explains.

Eating well from an early stage, then, is vital, so what should our toddlers be eating?

Milk, says the report, is a key food and it recommends a daily intake of 550ml of cow’s milk, or equivalent amounts of yoghurt or cheese.

Parents are warned against so-called alternative milks, such as almond, coconut and rice ‘milks’ as many milk substitutes are not as nutritious. However, if a plant-based drink is needed to replace cow’s milk, then opt for a soya ‘milk’ as long as it is fortified with nutrients, particularly calcium.

When it comes to drinks, pre-schoolers should have either water or milk, nothing else. “Sugar-containing and acidic drinks should be limited and, if consumed at all, should be kept to mealtimes,” the report says.

As for veg, always try to include a portion at the main meal along with a number of small portions of salad, veg or fruit to match the age of your child. For example, include two small portions for a two-year-old, or four for a four-year-old. The portion size should fit into a child’s hand so smaller children are given less and bigger children more.

Lean red meat (about 30g) is recommended three days a week for iron, other essential minerals and protein. On other days, red meat can be replaced with poultry, fish, eggs, beans or lentils, which also provide iron, protein and minerals. Smooth nut butters are also good sources of protein, the report outlines.

For fibre, consider both white and wholemeal breads, cereals, potatoes, pastas and rice.

It’s hardly surprising to find that foods high in fat, sugar or salt, such as cakes, crisps, biscuits and sugar-coated breakfast cereals, are off the menu.

The report is very definite on this point: “There is very little room for such foods in a one to five-year-old’s diet as such foods either overwhelm the child’s capacity for nutritious foods or provide additional calories that lead to… obesity.”

Good diet is not always enough either. From October to March, children need low doses of the so-called sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D. A dose of 5 µg is recommended. Iron supplements or iron-enriched foods are also advised for children between one and three who are naturally small.

Be careful of eliminating certain foods from a child’s diet because of suspected food allergies or intolerances. Always seek medical advice, the report’s authors say.

Eating should be fun, too, they say and suggest that parents encourage their young children to try a wide range of flavours and textures and experiment with an expanding variety of vegetables, salads, meat and fish.

There is also room for treats. Small amounts of sugar can be used – in stewed fruit, milk puddings, as jam on wholemeal bread or as a small portion of ice cream on fruit – to encourage a reluctant toddler to try something new.

Mealtimes might never be the same again.

For more, see the full report on the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s website.

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