TODDLERS and preschool children have very high nutritional requirements – but they can only take in so much food in the one sitting.
Because of this high-nutrition need, yet small capacity for food, Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in Public Health Nutrition with Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), advocates three meals and up to three or four ‘mini-meals’ daily.
Dr Flynn’s use of the term ‘mini-meal’ isn’t incidental. She prefers to avoid using the word ‘snack’ because parents assume a snack is what an adult would have – crackers, bread, crisps – whereas ‘mini-meals’ for these children would be the fruit or yogurt they weren’t able to take at dinner. There’s a focus on the quality of the food, rather than its quantity.
Dr Flynn was speaking after the publication of the FSAI’s first healthy eating recommendations for one to five-year-olds, the first time a national scientific report addresses the nutritional needs of this age group.
The one-to-five year period encompasses the time of transition from a predominantly milk-based diet at end of infancy. It’s an exciting time, but also challenging because developmentally at this stage children increasingly want to make their own decisions about what they eat.
Dr Flynn has met five-year-olds who’ve totally rejected all kinds of vegetables, salads, fruit and wholemeal bread.
“I’ve met children who only eat ice-cream, ham and white bread. And their parents are terrified that if they don’t give them these foods, they’ll eat nothing.”
And when researchers looked at snacks on the market targeted at one to three-year-olds, Dr Flynn says they found crisps, biscuits and “finger foods purporting to be fruit-based, but were closer to jellies and candies”.
At the one to five-year-old stage, she says, what you’re trying to do is build up a tolerance to the tastes, textures and flavours of a wide variety of foods. A child might try a food 20 times, make the strangest faces and reject it. A parent should never say ‘he doesn’t like that’. Instead, say ‘for the moment he doesn’t seem to like it, but we’ll come back to it’.
“A child will love high-sugar/high-fat/high-salt/processed foods, but they won’t try or become familiar with all the lovely natural foods, and so won’t meet their nutritional requirements,” warns Dr Flynn, adding that the only place for a tiny bit of sugar in a one to five-year-old’s diet is in helping them develop a taste for nutritious food, e.g. small amount of sugar in stewed fruit/milk puddings/jam on wholemeal bread/small portion of ice-cream on fruit.
- Milk is a key food: 550ml cow’s milk daily or yogurt/cheese.
- No almond/
coconut/ rice milk as milk substitutes.
- Always include portion of vegetables at main meal, plus small portions of salad/fruit that match age: two small portions for two-year-old, four, for four-year-old.
- Lean red meat (about 30g) three days weekly for iron. Other days, replace with poultry/ fish/ eggs/beans/ lentils.