Forget calorie counting: Healthy food habits for your child

Two experts tell Sharon Ní Chonchúir how parents can ensure a healthy diet for their child. Watching portion size and the treats are both key

If your child asks for something to eat between meals offer an apple or chopped fruit. Picture: iStock

WE appear to be in a constant panic over children and their diets. Earlier this month there was widespread shock at the news that school uniforms with 46in waistlines are now being sold to Irish primary-school children. In Britain, health officials called for calories in popular foods to be cut amid concerns children are consuming too much.

Today, 25% of children in Ireland are overweight or obese. What should worried parents do? Should they try to cut back on their children’s calorie intake?

Dietician Sarah Keogh thinks not. “A child’s calorie needs vary so much,” she says. “They may go through a growth spurt or a time when they are doing a lot of exercise, which means they need more calories than at other times. Calorie counting can just make things difficult for parents.”

Official guidelines suggest that school-age children need between 1,600 and 2,500 calories a day, depending on their age, body weight, and activity levels. But instead of focusing on numbers, Orla Walsh, a dietician with the Dublin Nutrition Centre, thinks it might be better to look at the nutritional value of food.

“By exchanging certain foods for lower energy density foods, this can result in a child eating the same volume of food but lower overall calories,” she says. “A simple way to do this is to add more fruit and vegetables to the diet.”

The way parents do this is important. “Telling children they have to eat fruit and vegetables suggests they shouldn’t want to eat them and definitely shouldn’t enjoy them,” says Walsh. “Fruit and vegetables should just be on everyone’s plates at every meal so that they become the norm.”

Introducing a wide variety of foods is also recommended. Even if children don’t like something the first time, don’t be afraid to introduce it again. Studies show it takes at least six introductions to a new food before children form a preference. “The little and often approach works, no matter what age you are,” says Walsh.

Watching portion size is another helpful tip. “Up to the age of 12, a child should eat approximately half an adult’s portion,” says Keogh, a member of the Irish Nutrition and Diabetic Institute.

She warns that this depends on the adult’s portion, which is often too big for their needs. “Half of that would still be too much for a child.”

Walsh recommends using the hand of the person eating the food as a serving measure. “A potato should be the size of their clenched fist and the protein should be the size of their palm,” she says.

Snacks are another pitfall for parents. “Most kids don’t need snacks between meals but if they are very active or whippet thin, then one or two is plenty,” says Keogh.

This applies even if the snacks are healthy. “Rice cakes are all well and good,” she adds. “But they still result in weight gain if they are eaten when they are not needed.”

Treats are a particular cause for concern. Some children get up to six treats a day.

“Parents must remember that foods that are high in sugar and low in nutritional value — like lollipops and chocolate — should only be consumed very rarely, not every day and certainly not multiple times a day.”

What kids drink is as important as what they eat. “Water is the drink for children,” says Keogh. “They can have milk with meals but not more than that as it will fill them up with calories they don’t need. Soft drinks should only be consumed once a week or even more infrequently.”

If your children stubbornly refuse to cooperate, our experts aren’t above bribery.

“Sometimes, it’s all that works,” says Keogh. “But don’t bribe children with food. It’s a bad idea to get children to clear their plates and then be rewarded with another 200 calories for dessert afterwards.”

A rewards chart can be used to get the whole family on board. “I like the idea of a rainbow chart where everyone in the family tracks the different colours of the vegetables and fruits they eat in a day,” says Walsh. “Family members that eat all the colours of the rainbow then get to buy a new toy or go on an outing or whatever the non-food reward is.”

Other steps parents can take to help their children develop a better relationship with food include drinking a glass of water before eating. “This is so they don’t confuse thirst with hunger,” says Walsh. “TV and other distractions should be banned at mealtimes so that children pay attention to what they are eating and parents should always encourage children to eat slowly, chew their food and enjoy every mouthful.”

Parents need to look to their own behaviour around food. “Often the entire family will have to modify their eating as a group in order to get the children eating a healthy diet,” says Keogh.

Cutting calories is one way of making changes to a child’s diet but according to the experts, it’s not the best way.

“Counting calories is no way to live,” says Walsh. “There are all sorts of other ways of encouraging children to enjoy healthy food. Growing food in the back garden, cooking together, taking turns to help with preparing meals, and eating together as much as possible — food is an experience and it’s a wonderful one at that.”


1. Start as you mean go to on. “You should always be asking yourself what you want them to be eating when they are 15 and they should be eating that now,” says dietitian Sarah Keogh. “By the time a child is a year old, they should be eating the same food as the rest of the family, just chopped up smaller.”

2. Serve children’s meals on child-sized plates. Using an adult-sized dinner plate makes it more likely that you will serve larger portions.

3. Half of the child’s plate should consist of salad or vegetables. A quarter should be protein and the other quarter should be some form of carbohydrate.

4. Children aren’t always hungry when they ask for food. Offer them a glass of water to make sure that they aren’t mistaking thirst for hunger.

5. Try Keogh’s apple test when children ask for food outside of mealtimes. “If they say they are hungry, offer them an apple,” she says. “If they don’t want it, it means they are not really hungry.”

6. If you do decide to serve some snacks make sure that they consist of lots of fruits and vegetables. “In my house, our go-to snacks are soup, salads and chopped fruit,” says Keogh.

7. Avoid energy-dense carbohydrates at snack time unless children are really hungry. “If they’re still complaining of hunger after eating their soup, then offer them a slice of bread,” says Keogh.

8. Diet is only part of the picture. Being active and spending time outdoors all contributes to a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight.


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