5532 Portion sizes
Our 5532 guide to portion sizes for 1-4 year olds is all about helping you provide young children with a healthy, balanced diet to provide them with all the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy.
First published in 2014, these new versions, available to download below, provide updated information about sugars in children’s diets about vegetarian and vegan diets and include an updated range of food examples.
Young children need a variety of foods from the main food groups:
- Starchy foods – about 5 portions a day
- Fruit and vegetables – 5 or more portions a day
- Dairy foods – about 3 portions a day
- Protein foods – about 2 portions a day (3 portions for vegetarian or vegan children)
Healthy eating habits developed in the early years can set a child up for good health in later life and a healthy diet is about getting the right balance of foods and drinks in the right amounts. The guide has portion size examples for a range of foods to give you an idea of what is appropriate to offer – children’s appetites can vary a lot so let them decide how much to eat.
For a quick reference guide – download the 5532 poster and there are more food examples and further information on issues like snacking, sugar, vegan diets and supplements in the 5532 booklet
Summary of issues and top tips:
- Knowing how much to feed young children of different ages
- Use the portion size ranges in the 5532 resource as a guide but remember that appetite can vary from day to day
- What to do when your child wants more food
- Allow children to eat to their appetite. Serve smaller portions to start with, use child-sized plates and encourage slower eating to help them realise when they are full
- What to do when your child refuses to eat all the food on their plate
- Avoid pressuring a child to finish their their food. Instead, try to offer the food at a later mealtime
- How to measure out sensible portion sizes
- Use the 5532 resource or other portion size resources that include simple practical measures like spoonfuls or just counting out foods. You could also use child-sized plates/bowls/cups
- How to find out what your child is eating at nursery, childminder or preschool
- There are guidelines although these are only compulsory in Scotland. You can ask to see their menus and policies and ask your child to tell you what they’ve eaten that day if they can
Toddlers come in all shapes and sizes and so do the foods they eat. We know from research that parents and carers are often unsure about how much food to feed their young children. Portion size of foods and drinks is an important part of a balanced diet and offering appropriate portions for young children can help to reduce the risk of over-eating and support children in regulating their appetite. This article highlights some of the things that parents and carers say they find difficult when it comes to choosing portion sizes for young children and provides tips on how you can overcome them.
How much food should I serve preschool children of different ages?
Young children need energy (from food) to grow and develop. As children get older, their body size increases and they will typically eat more food as a consequence. Generally it’s a good idea to offer larger portions to older children than younger children but you can be guided by the size of your child and their appetite that day. The BNF 5532 guide for 1-4 year olds provides portion size suggestions for a range of foods from each of the four main food groups. For many foods we give a range - taking pasta as an example, the suggested portion size is 2-5 tablespoons and it may be useful to think about the lower range (2 tablespoons) as being most suitable for a 1-year-old and the higher range for a 4-year-old (5 tablespoons).
What if my child wants more than the recommended portion size?
Young children’s appetites can vary hugely from meal to meal and from day to day. Appetite can depend on things like how active they are, mood, how much they like the food and time since their last meal. Young children are usually pretty good at regulating their own appetite (they know when they are hungry and when they are full). Therefore, if a child eats more than usual at breakfast, they may well make up for this by eating less than usual later in the day. If you are concerned that your child is always eating larger than the recommended portions, you could try:
- serving smaller portions to start with and allowing them to ask for more if they are still hungry;
- using child-sized plates or bowls (using adult-sized may encourage you to serve them too much); and
- encouraging them to eat more slowly if they are a quick eater, as this can give their body more time to realise it is full.
What if my child refuses to eat what’s on their plate?
It is important that young children eat a variety of foods from the main food groups. The 5532 guide suggests how many portions from each of the food groups should be eaten per day. Pressuring children to eat, completely banning less healthy foods and using treat foods as a reward could actually decrease children’s liking of the foods you want them to eat. However there are lots of positive things you can do to help your child eat well:
- eat a healthy meals yourself, and eat with your child when you can (children are more likely to eat foods that they see others eating and enjoying);
- make mealtimes fun and inclusive (allow children to touch and smell foods and involve them in food preparation where possible);
- provide plenty of opportunities for children to try new foods (it may take 10+ attempts until they accept a new food!).
If a child regularly leaves food on their plate from a particular food group (for example fruit or vegetables), maybe try offering this again as a snack later on (for example offer fruit for dessert or veggie sticks as a snack). This may also help to reduce waste! For more information about feeding young children see our article here
Is there a quick way to estimate portion sizes that are right for my child?
We know that weighing foods can be time consuming, but there are more straightforward ways to measure portion sizes. Resources like 5532 present portion sizes in household measures such as tablespoons and for fruit and vegetables the NHS suggests that a portion is about the amount that fits in the palm of their hand. Using child-sized plates, bowls and cups can be helpful too. Be careful if you’re choosing pre-portioned snacks – if they’re aimed at adults, portion sizes may be too big for children and also check the label to avoid those that are high in saturates, sugar or salt.
Do I need to worry about how much my child is fed at nursery and preschool?
In the UK, there are guidelines that nurseries, preschools and childminders should follow to make sure that portion sizes, as well as food quality and the way they feed children, are appropriate. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland these guidelines are voluntary and in Scotland they are compulsory. If your child goes to a nursery, childminder or preschool, it’s always a good idea to have a look at their menus and policies on food. It’s also a good idea to ask what your child has eaten during the day - knowing which foods they’ve already has will help you to decide what to feed them later, to ensure their diet is varied. You could encourage your child to talk about what they ate and what they enjoyed that day if they can.
The talk below gives more information about the right portion sizes for children, and is a useful accompaniment to our 5532 materials, also attached!
Dr Keri McCrickerd, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences
The 5532 leaflet, providing essential portion size information for young children.
The full 5532 booklet, containing portion size information for young children.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.