Q&A: What are the new healthy-eating guidelines for young children?

Treats only once a week and plates should be small, according to Government guidelines

The new children’s food pyramid. Illustration: Paul Scott/The Irish Times

The new children’s food pyramid. Illustration: Paul Scott/The Irish Times

 

On October 1st, the Department of Health and the Department of Children jointly launched the first healthy-eating guidelines specifically for children aged one to four.

What are the new healthy eating guidelines for young children?

The so-called Children’s Food Pyramid sets out the quantities of food recommended for children aged between one and four across the different food types. The different foods are arranged in shelves with carbohydrate foods (cereals, bread, potatoes, pasta and rice) on the bottom, followed by vegetables/salad/fruit, dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), meat/poultry/fish/eggs/beans/nuts and fats/oils and spreads at the top. The use of a pyramid with higher amounts at the bottom reaching a point at the top is a visual reminder that young children are recommended decreasing amounts of each food group as you move up to the top of the pyramid.

Why was it introduced?

Dieticians say that there has been a lot of confusion amongst parents on how to feed young children well. “The new Children’s Food Pyramid sets out clearly and easily how much of each food young children need so parents can follow it and do their best,” explains Sarah Keogh, registered dietician with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

How are young children’s nutritional needs different to the nutritional needs of older children and adults?

“Younger children have higher energy needs for their size than everyone else because they are growing rapidly,” explains Keogh. For this reason, the two bottom shelves of the Food Pyramid are reversed for younger children with carbohydrate foods on the bottom shelf whereas the adult food pyramid has fruit/vegetables and salads on the bottom shelf. The serving size recommended for 1-2 year olds and 3-4 year olds are specified for each food group.

What are the main take-home messages for parents of young children?

Young children should be given three regular meals a day and two/three healthy snacks (fruit, yogurt, fromage frais or a glass of milk and dried fruit once a week at most). It is now also recommended that children aged 1-4 are given a vitamin D supplement from Halloween to St Patrick’s Day to help build healthy bones over the winter months. Plant-based drinks such as almond, rice or coconut are not advised for this age group as an alternative to cow’s milk because they don’t have the necessary B vitamins, iodine and calcium. A soya-based milk fortified with calcium is a recommended alternative to cow’s milk. “Another new message is to ensure young children get enough iron in their diets and red meat, beans, lentils and eggs are good sources of iron,” explains Keogh.

How can I find simple ways to know the right amount of food to give to toddlers and preschool children?

Working out portion sizes can be difficult especially as some children have smaller appetites than others so the new guidelines give suggestions like two adult thumb sizes for the amount of cheese or a piece of fruit/vegetable that fits in the palm of your (adult) hand. “Two-year-old children should also be eating from a side plate using toddler-size cutlery, which slows down their eating and allows them to eat smaller mouthfuls,” explains Keogh.

The new guidelines encourage parents to limit treats to once a week and even then, just to give young children one square of chocolate, three crisps or three soft jelly sweets. Surely that’s a bit extreme?

“The fact that people have been horrified about the new guidelines on treats shows us that we needed to be re-educated on treats. Many young children are given a packet of chocolate buttons or a packet of crisps,” says Keogh whose children didn’t know crisps came in packets until they were four years old because they were only ever given a few at a time. Treat foods are not only high in salt, sugar and fat and therefore contribute to childhood obesity but they also displace healthier foods from the diet of young children who eat them – simply because they fill them up. “Their tummies are small and if they fill up on the wrong foods, they won’t eat healthy foods which help their growth,” says Keogh.

The new guidelines also say that parents should give young children only one slice of frozen pizza a week, limit ham and bacon to once a week and avoid giving takeaway and fried foods altogether.

How will these new healthy-eating guidelines for pre-school children affect how we feed older children?

It is hoped that these new guidelines will help parents of young children learn the correct amounts of each food group to feed their children in a nutritionally balanced way. And, if they follow the children’s food pyramid, they will find it easier to increase portion size of carbohydrate, dairy and protein-rich foods and fruit/vegetables appropriately as children get older. If you eat a variety of healthy foods and eat meals with your children, they are more likely to follow your example. The revised food pyramid for children over five, teenagers and adults contains a sixth shelf of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt (eg fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits, chocolates, sweets) which should be eaten in small amounts only once or twice a week.

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