How can we improve the diets of our pre-schoolers?

A healthy, balanced diet is what any pre-school child needs. Pre-school children are at a stage in their lives where they are growing very quickly and because of this, they need lots of energy and nutrients to help fuel their body. During this period, children develop habits that can last a lifetime.

The Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA) recently presented the findings from the National Pre-school Nutrition Survey at an event that I attended. This survey, carried out from 2010 to 2011, provides us with an insight into the nutritional status of pre-school children in Ireland.

boy first day of schoolThe survey found that 1 in 4 pre-school children is overweight or obese. As well as this, it identified several nutritional issues in the diets of pre-schoolers, along with how to address them:

Saturated fat: Intake was high, with the average percentage of total energy intake being 14.9%. Currently there are no recommendations for the 1 – 4 years age group however from 5 years of age, it is recommended a child gets 10% of their energy intake from saturated fats which shows that pre-schoolers really need to cut down the amount these fats they’re eating.

How can we cut it down?

  • Choose low-fat products rather than full-fat e.g., low-fat milk but remember whole-fat milk is important for toddlers up to 2 years of age
  • Choose leaner cuts of meat
  • Cut down on biscuits and cakes

Omega 3 fatty acids: These are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds. Intakes were low for this age group. The average intake was 70mg per day with the recommended intake being 100 – 250mg per day.

How can we increase it?

  • Eat more fish, particularly oily fish like salmon and mackerel

Free sugars: These can include sugars added to food, honey, syrups and fruit juices. The average percentage of energy coming from free sugars for 2 – 4 year olds was 12.9% which is above the 2015 World Health organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommendations of 10% and 5%, respectively.

How can we cut them down?

  • Choose water and milk instead of sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Cut down on sweet "treats" like chocolates, cake, biscuits and sweets
  • Choose lower sugar varieties of foods like yoghurts and breakfast cereals

Fibre: Pre-schoolers, on average, ate lots of foods rich in dietary fibre with an intake of 2.4g/MJ. This is more than the recommended intake established by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which is 2g/MJ.

How can we increase it?

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Choose brown bread over white bread

Salt: Intake of salt for 1 – 3 year olds was 2.8g per day while for 4 year olds it was 3.6g per day. Both of these averages were higher than the FSAI target level which is 2g per day for 1 – 3 year olds and 3g per day for a 4 year old.

How can we cut it down?

  • Choose fresh meat over processed meat
  • Choose lower salt varieties of food products like breads, soups and sauces

Vitamins and minerals: Most vitamin and mineral intakes were adequate.

How can we increase them?

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Eat red meat more often
  • Drink milk more often

Vitamin D: Intake was very low with 97% of pre-school children not meeting the recent SACN recommendation of 10mcg.

How can we increase it?

  • Eat more oily fish
  • Choose foods with vitamin D added to them like milk and yoghurts
  • Consider taking a supplement

Iron: 10% of 1 – 2 year olds have iron levels below the EFSA estimated requirement of 5mg.

How can we increase it?

  • Eat plenty of dark-green, leafy vegetables
  • Eat red meat more often
  • Choose foods with iron added to them like milk and breakfast cereals

Lastly, the research teams have suggested that consuming more fruit and vegetables while limiting intake of biscuits, cakes and sweets will help pre-school children achieve a lower energy-dense diet and in turn, help prevent overweight and obesity later in life.


Posted: 28/09/2016 15:44:27 by Niamh Dowling
Filed under: IUNA, Pre-school Children, Survey

About Me

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Niamh Dowling
Hi, I’m a Human Nutrition student from Ulster University and I’m spending my placement year with safefood as a member of the Human Health and Nutrition Team. My interests include being outdoors, reading, being overly affectionate with animals, hiking, cooking and spending too much time watching reality TV shows.