portion control

Portion control

From the moment a baby is born parents worry if they are getting enough food. Are they drinking the right number of bottles? Are they at the breast long enough? And how on earth can you tell how much milk a breastfed baby took?

This doesn’t just stop once babies are on solids – if anything it gets worse. We look at what one child is eating and compare to what our child is leaving behind. We worry about vitamins, protein, fruit, vegetables and panic over giving them enough food to be healthy but not so much that they over shoot and you are getting a lecture about your overweight child. So how do you figure out portion control for your baby and toddler, how to give them a balanced diet and how do you do that if you have a fussy eater?

portion control

Let’s start with the basics. What does your child need? Your baby and child need a range of nutrients but they can be broken down into food groups, which makes it easier for you to see what your child is getting.

Children need:

1. Protein:

Babies and children need some protein at two meals every day – usually lunch and dinner but it is fine to add some at breakfast. Protein is found in lots of foods: all kinds of meat, fish, chicken, beans, lentils, nuts and eggs. Children don’t need huge portions – you are not raising a body-builder (yet…). About a quarter to a third of their meal at lunch and dinner is enough.

2. Fat:

Your child’s growing brain needs healthy fats. Low-fat foods are not suitable until your child is at least two years old and skimmed milk is only suitable after the age of five. However, this doesn’t mean you can give them all of the biscuits they want! Use healthy oils like olive oil or rapeseed oil in cooking and you can add milled seeds and nuts to cereals and salads for older children. Children over five should be able to handle nuts and these are all sources of healthy fats. Oil-rich fish is another source of brain-friendly fats. Try some salmon (fresh or tinned), mackerel, tuna or sardines.

3. Fruit and vegetables:

Adults are told to eat five-a-day. This can be a lot for a small child so aim to include some fruit, vegetables or salad at every meal, about one third of their plate and that will be enough.

4. Milk, cheese and yoghurt:

This group supplies calcium to growing bones and it is very difficult to get calcium if you don’t eat dairy. If your child is dairy-free for any reason they must be seen by a qualified dietitian to have their diet assessed. You can find a dietitian at www.indi.ie.

5. Carbohydrate:

This is the fuel that your child’s body really wants to run on. Wholegrain carbs are also rich in fibre and a good source of B vitamins. Include some at every meal –but keep portions to about one third of their plate – even pasta and rice. Balance up the rest of the meal with some protein and some vegetables or salad.
So when you have the nutrition sorted, what do you do for calories? So many parents are stuck on the question of ‘how much?’ and ‘how often’.

portion control

There is no one right answer for this as children all grow at different rates and all have different appetites, so how do you know if you are getting it right? Very simply, look at your child. Are they slim (no ‘muffin top’, no ‘belly’), are they healthy and full of energy? Are they in good form? If you can answer yes to all of these then chances are you are doing fine. Babies will have a little more fat on their bodies but by the age of four children should be quite slim. If you are not sure then you can contact your public health nurse who can check you child’s weight and plot it on a growth chart for you. A paediatric dietitian will also be able to do this and is useful if you think your child might be underweight.

Managing food for a day

As a general rule children need three meals a day and one to two snacks. Snacks are often the place where children pick up food that they don’t need. Don’t give your child a snack unless they are hungry. Are they always hungry or cranky at certain times? If you forget to give them a snack, do they notice? If they don’t then they probably don’t need it. Go with your child’s appetite and remember that days they do less exercise they will need less food.
When it comes to meals, remember to give your child child-sized portions. A child of five only needs 1400 calories per day – that means they need less than half the dinner of an adult. Use a smaller plate and never fill it. It is always better to add more if your child is hungry than to serve a bigger portion. And trust your child when they say they have had enough. The human body is great at letting you know when you have eaten enough and children are more tuned into this than adults. If they have eaten a little of everything, then let them leave some food behind.

More like this:

The weekly cost of a healthy family diet
Vitamin and mineral supplements
How to boost your immunity

Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.


Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.