The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has published dietary guideline recommendations for children aged between one and five years.
Until now, there have been no Irish guidelines available for children of this age.
According to FSAI chief executive, Dr Pamela Byrne, this can be a particularly challenging time because it is an extremely important developmental stage, but it is also a time when children increasingly want to make their own decisions about what they eat.
"We know that dietary habits which can last for a lifetime are formed during this critical phase. We live in an age where there are so many confusing messages and information about food and nutrition, and today's parents and guardians are facing more challenges than ever to ensure their children are getting the right diet to support their healthy development.
"Also, many children in this age group develop a preference for sweet, salty and energy-dense foods, which can be difficult for parents and guardians to manage," Dr Byrne noted.
The report makes a number of key recommendations, including:
-Milk is a key food. A daily intake of 550ml of cow's milk, or equivalent amounts of yoghurt or cheese, is recommended
-Water and milk are the only drinks recommended for this age group. Sugar-containing and acidic drinks should be limited and, if consumed at all, should be kept to mealtimes only
-Parents and guardians are warned against using some milk substitutes, such as almond ‘milk', coconut ‘milk' and rice ‘milk', as these are nutritionally inadequate. If a plant-based beverage is required to replace cow's milk, a soya ‘milk', can be used, provided it is fortified with nutrients, particularly calcium
-A portion of vegetables should always be included at the main meal, together with the number of small portions of salad, vegetables or fruit that match the age of the child. For example, two small portions for a two-year-old, four small portions for a four-year-old. The portion size given should fit into the child's hand, so that smaller children are given less and bigger children more
-Lean red meat (about 30g) is recommended three days a week for iron and other essential minerals, in addition to protein. On other days, red meat can be replaced with poultry, fish, eggs, beans or lentils, which also provide iron, as well protein and minerals. Smooth nut butters also provide protein
-A combination of both white and wholemeal breads, cereals, potatoes, pastas and rice will provide adequate fibre and are important sources of calories
-Foods high in fat, sugar or salt such as confectionery, cakes, crisps, biscuits and sugar-coated breakfast cereals are not recommended. There is very little room for such foods in the diets of one-to-five-year-olds, as they either overwhelm the child's capacity for nutritious foods or provide additional calories that lead to the development of overweight or obesity
-Fats, spreads and oils should be used minimally
-During the extended winter months, from Halloween to St Patrick's day, all children aged one to five should be given a low-dose (5 µg) vitamin D-only supplement to make up for a lack of skin synthesis of this vitamin from sunlight
-Young children aged one to three years who are naturally small (25th percentile or less on growth charts) need extra iron, which can be taken via an iron-fortified full-fat milk, or a low-dose iron supplement
-Encouraging acceptance of a wide range of flavours and textures is important at this young life stage. Fostering a tolerance to ‘try' an expanding variety of vegetables, salads, fruits, meat, fish and wholemeal cereals helps children develop a taste for nutritious foods. To assist this, small amounts of sugar can be used e.g. in stewed fruit, milk puddings, in jam on wholemeal bread or as a small portion of ice cream on fruit etc...
The guidelines also warn that if a food allergy is suspected, appropriate professional support should be sought, e.g. from a GP or registered dietitian, as excluding a food group from a child's diet without proper indication can lead to the growth and development of the child being compromised.
According to Ita Saul, chairperson of the FSAI Working Group, which prepared the guidelines report, early childhood is a "well-recognised critical period" that has an impact on our lifelong health.
"Dietary habits formed in the early years persist into later life, and scientific research increasingly demonstrates how early feeding practices are linked with many non-communicable diseases in adulthood, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other cardiovascular conditions.
"The early establishment and fostering of good nutritional habits in a nurturing, caring society, together with play-based physical activity, will provide an excellent foundation for the future health of our nation's children," she said.
The dietary guidelines can be viewed on the publications sections of the FSAI website here.
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