Food portions for kids are smaller than they are for adults. No brainer, right? If you think about the size of a child compared to an adult, it makes sense that children would need smaller food portions. Yet, studies show that some parents serve their children amounts of food more in line with a full-grown adult.
To complicate the matter, forty years ago, the size of the largest fast food burger, fries, and soda is the same size as the smallest meal available today. Bottom line: food portions have increased over the years.
Obviously, large portion sizes mean more calories…and you can guess where that path may lead a child. Excess calories–more than needed to grow well– can cause extra body weight that is unhealthy (which is different than being naturally bigger).
Food Portions are Challenging Today
You are up against several challenging aspects when it comes to today’s food portions…and it can make it harder for you to feed your child.
1. Deceptive Marketing
The way our children (and parents) view food is influenced, in part, by savvy marketers. Studies indicate that children believe what they see and hear in the media, which is partly due to the way they think and their developmental stage. How a child views food also reflects on his history with food and eating, how he is fed, current trends in nutrition, cravings, and peer influences.
Teach your child to be a “doubting Thomas” when it comes to food commercials and advertisements — they really can be too good to be true. For example, the term “healthy” can be over-used and misleading. And the term “superfoods” is more marketing jargon than proven science.
2. They Fail to Fill
Studies have shown that, despite an increase in calories, bigger portions don’t help kids feel full and don’t result in less eating later. Also, foods that are low in nutrients (empty calories), such as chips, cracker snacks and desserts, may not satisfy your child’s appetite in the long run, and may even cause increased hunger later. Focus on providing nutrient-dense foods regularly, so that these become the staple of your child’s diet.
3. Proper Portions
The USDA provides consumers with a guideline for portion sizes. Yes, even children have guidelines for proper food portions so you can target them based on your child’s age. While harder to find, there are starter food portions for baby, too. Be sure to look at the child-specific guidelines—they are different than the adult-based ones.
Also, stay attentive to words that warn of portion distortion– value meal, combo, ultimate, tub, supreme, biggie, deluxe, and super-size—it may be tempting to think more is better, but in this case, more is more calories.
4. To ration food, or not?
Teaching your child to be aware of portion sizes is important. In fact, I go against the grain when it comes to food portions for kids. I like to teach a normal food portion to begin with (what I call a “starter portion”) and allow your child’s appetite to guide how much is eaten. Helping children learn a reference point for a reasonable portion of food allows them to visualize food amounts, which can help them manage their eating. Portion awareness can be positive, but measuring, restricting, and controlling food portions can soon become negative.
Positive Ways to Encourage Proper Food Portions
1. Serve Meals “Family-Style”
Family-style feeding is a service style that allows kids to serve themselves from the menu you have chosen for the meal. In my experience, children learn to take the amount of food that is appropriate for their appetite and body, and over time, this may be be more conducive to normalized portions and eating patterns, than pre-plating your child’s meal.
To learn more about this way of serving meals, listen to the episode of The Nourished Child podcast.
2. Use Household Items to Help Kids Choose Proper Food Portions
Common household items can help your child “eyeball” kid-sized food portions, such as:
- a deck of cards for meat or fish
- 3 dice for cheese
- a lightbulb for rice and pasta
- a baseball for fruits/veggies, milk, and breakfast cereals
- a poker chip for oils, salad dressings, and other fats
- a hockey puck for biscuits and muffins
- a CD for waffles and pancakes
3. Child-Size the Plate
When my kids were younger, I used the salad plates from our dinnerware for them. This alone helped their plates look “full” and downsized the portion sizes to more age-appropriate amounts. Creative ideas like bento boxes and condiment cups in measured sizes can also be a fun and easy way to serve kids at school and home.
Take the guesswork out of meal portions by following a “My Plate” guideline. Divide your plate like this: ½ fruits and vegetables, 1/4 lean protein, and 1/4 whole grains.
Food portions for kids can be tricky, but they don’t have to be. Normalizing portion sizes in your home will help your child learn about food balance, regulate her appetite, and grow into the body she was meant to have.
Want to see if you’re on track with raising a nourished, healthy child? Snag my checklist!
Want to learn more about balancing all foods in your child’s diet? Check out my signature program, The Nourished Child Project!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: February 28, 2018
Updated on: September 21, 2019