Understanding Portion Sizes


 Healthcare Professionals play an important part in helping parents of toddlers (1-3 years) establish  healthy and lifelong food and nutrition habits 


  1. Research suggests that toddlers can consume more food than they need when offered larger portions.
  2. Parents have specific concerns about toddler food habits, and are looking for informed advice in relation to portion sizes as part of general good eating behaviours.
  3. Eating aside, there are lots of other ways parents can foster positive food habits.


When it comes to food intake, the toddler years are extremely influential1-2. In toddlers, food intake is reported to occur primarily in response to hunger and satiety cues, with early evidence demonstrating an inborn ability of young children to self-regulate their energy intake3. However, some observational studies have shown that from as early as one year, toddlers eat greater amounts when presented with larger portions4-6.

Typical food portions and the range of food portions now available have increased over the last few years in parallel with the rise in obesity rates7-9. Although a direct causal link between food portion size and obesity remains to be established, the regular consumption of larger portion sizes, particularly of energy dense foods, are reported to favour obesity-promoting eating behaviours in children10.

96% of parents reported using their own judgement to determine an appropriate portion size for their babies/toddlers. That’s why giving them appropriate information on food portion size is an important aspect of general healthy eating advice.

A survey conducted by Ulster University researchers among over 900 parents of babies and toddlers aged six months to three years, found that 96% of parents reported using their own judgement to determine an appropriate portion size for their babies/toddlers. Only 21% of respondents reported seeking portion size advice from a healthcare professional11. Subsequent focus group research found that parents would welcome more specific advice from a healthcare professional on toddler appropriate food portion sizes12.


Safefood have developed a visual portion guide for pre-school children that can be used by both healthcare professionals and parents 13:

Safefood portion guide 13

Breads, potatoes, rice and cereal  


1 slice of sliced pan, ½ large pitta, 2 heaped dessertspoons mashed potato, 4 heaped dessertspoons cooked rice, 2 heaped large plastic cook’s serving spoons of cooked pasta, ¾ wheat biscuit


Fruits and vegetables  

½ apple, ½ banana, 9 grapes, 1 mandarin, 5 melon cubes, 1 plum, 100mls of juice/smoothie, 8 carrot sticks, 3 florets broccoli, 4 sticks cucumber


Milk, yogurt and cheese  

2 slices of cheese, 125g pot yogurt, 2 small (50g) pots yoghurt, 200mls milk, 4 dessertspoons custard


Meat, fish and eggs 8-10 pieces beef, 4½ dessertspoons cooked minced beef, 6-8 pieces of chicken breast, ⅔ pork or lamb chop, 46g salmon, 46g white fish, 1½ fish finger, 4½ heaped dessertspoons of scrambled egg



Toddlers tend to balance out their food intake over a few days; so if it varies from day-to-day, don’t worry!



Factors influencing portion size include differences in food intake day to day and between toddlers of the same age; a toddler’s own likes and dislikes; and a lack of control when the toddler is being cared for by someone else.

 Advice you can offer: 

  1. Intake varies. Assure parents that toddlers don’t always eat the same amount every day. On more active days, they may eat more. When they are tired, they may eat less.
  2. Growth rate varies. Assure parents that the amount of food eaten at each meal/snack time may differ between toddlers of the same age as they grow at different rates and growth affects how much food they need.
  3. Don’t compare. Encourage parents not to compare the amount their toddler eats to another.
  4. Get all the food providers on board. Encourage parents to discuss their wishes about their toddler’s dietary habits with secondary carers where relevant.
  5. Persistence helps. Advise parents to encourage food variety by offering a new food several times before confirming that the food is disliked.


Advice you can offer: 

  1. It’s not easy. Acknowledge the difficulties parents face in dealing with their toddler’s possible demands for snacks/treats between meals.
  2. Snacks aren’t the solution. Advise parents that if they have allowed their toddler to snack too frequently their appetite will be greatly reduced at mealtimes, resulting in meal refusal.
  3. Be aware of the absence of hunger. Parents should understand the risk with consistently coaxing the toddler to eat: they may learn to eat in the absence of hunger, a habit that can cause weight gain in later life.
  4. Know the daily requirements. Remind parents that toddlers only need two or three healthy snacks along with their three main meals.
  5. Monitor the situation. Suggest that parents with this concern should keep track of the number of snacks their toddler is eating over a few days. If they find that their toddler is snacking more than eating full meals, advise them to take the lead and start saying no to frequent snacking.



Asking for snacks can become nothing more than habit! Consistent distraction with a toy, an outing, or involving your toddler in meal preparation can break the habit.



Advice you can offer: 

  1. Refer to the guidelines. As long as their toddler’s growth rate is normal, parents should be advised to serve the amount of food within the ranges suggested by Safefood13.
  2. Be guided by appetite. Allow a toddler to eat to their appetite.


Advice you can offer: 

  1. Foods high in fat and sugar should be an occasional treat. Parents shouldn’t give them to their toddler every day.
  2. Encourage parents to sweeten foods naturally as an alternative.
  3. Explain that packaged crisps and sweets tend to come in portion sizes that are too large for toddlers. These foods should be limited in frequency and amount.



Natural yoghurt sweetened with ¼ grated apple or 1tsp of honey is a good dessert, and also fulfills one daily dairy and fruit requirement.



Recent research has shown that parents would welcome advice from a healthcare professional in relation to food portion size for their toddler12. Specific serving size ranges are outlined in the Safefood13 portion size guide, but it is also important that this is accompanied by general advice relating to portion size to facilitate good habits from an early age. However, eating isn’t just about food. There are lots of ways parents can foster healthy eating habits for their family. Encourage them to:

  • Use colourful toddler sized plates and bowls.
  • Let the toddler have some control over the portions they have by allowing them to serve themselves.
  • Avoid offering full packets of packaged foods such as crisps, crackers or sweets.
  • Eat together as a family, where possible.
  • Keep a toddler interested in food by involving them in shopping, preparation and cooking.
  • Talk to their toddler about food, and why certain foods are good for them.
  • Encourage toddlers to try new foods often to promote variety.
  • Encourage hunger at meals by having no more than two or three small healthy snacks per day.

Suitable articles for parents on this topic are available at www.toddlebox.ie/nutrition


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