Background Portion sizes of commercially available foods and beverages have increased since the 1980s, as have portion sizes consumed by children. Children’s consumption of larger portion sizes is associated with higher energy intakes and weight status. Parents and guardians act as critical role models for children in the development of eating habits and often decide the amounts (portion sizes) their children are served. How parents portion foods and beverages, and how they decide the amounts to serve is an understudied domain. Children’s portion sizes, thus presents a clear, modifiable determinant of excess energy consumption in children and risk of weight gain.
Methods The primary aim of this qualitative study, was to understand parents’ practices in portioning food and beverages for their children; their mechanisms for judging appropriate portion sizes and the factors influencing these judgements. A sample of 144 parents with at least one child aged 2–12 years who did not require a diet on medical grounds participated. Parents were recruited via purposive sampling of preschools and primary schools geographically located in either urban or rural areas of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and classified as either higher or lower levels of disadvantage.
Results Parents reported that they do not consciously think about the portion size (quantity) that they give to their children but place greater focus on the types of food served. Generally, parents feel that the portion sizes that they give to their children are appropriate. This was reflected in the three main themes comprising of multiple sub-themes that were identified from the analysis: 1) Parental portioning practices - parent serves and permitting child to self-serve; 2) Factors influencing parental portioning including parent motivations, knowledge, child-related factors, family influences, school influences, food retail and other settings, socio-cultural influences and portioning resources used; 3) Parental views on portion size guidance including receptivity to portion size guidance and usefulness of guidance.
Conclusion Understanding how parents portion food for their children, the drivers of these practices and the type of information parents are receptive to will help inform future interventions and information campaigns to help parents understand child portion sizes. From this research it is evident that parents main concern regarding the amount that they feed their children is that their child eats enough to be fed. This amount is something that parents learn through experience of feeding their children and is highly specific to the appetite of each individual child.
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