How much food should you serve to your child? How do you know if you’re over- or under-serving food to your child? End the questions, confusion and doubt and learn about portion sizes for children of any age.
If you find yourself wondering how much to feed your child, you’re not alone. Worried that your child is eating too much? Not enough? Let’s set the record straight on kids portion sizes.
What We Know about Portion Sizes
There’s a lot of information about portion sizes. It’s been studied for years.
The USDA My Plate does a good job of summarizing the research into portion sizes for all Americans (except children aged 0-2 years).
If you’re curious about how much you should be eating, head over there to find out.
If you have a baby, check out my article on how much to feed your baby, where I review serving sizes for infants who are just beginning to eat solid food.
As it relates to food portions in general, and kids, let’s review what we know:
If Adults are Served Big Portions, They Eat a Lot
According to a review article published in 2009 by investigators from the Netherlands, among adults, the larger the portion of food served, the more they ate.
It didn’t matter whether they liked the taste of the food or not.
Furthermore, even after the meal, folks continued to eat larger portions and did not cut back on calorie intake later on to compensate for the amount they ate.
Big servings seem to have a lasting impact.
Kids Are Vulnerable to Big Servings, Too
We like to think that children are great at self-regulating their food consumption, but many kids just aren’t very good at it.
Large food portions may encourage your child to eat more, but there are a number of other influences to sway your child:
1. Caretaker Interference
Caretakers who urge a child to eat more, or less, ignore the child’s hunger or fullness signals, which can “turn off” his ability to know when to start or stop eating.
2. Peer and Social Influence
Kids want to eat what their friends are eating, which is a normal part of child development.
Also, parties and celebrations (anywhere and everywhere!) often center around food, making it very easy to eat larger portion sizes, or eat mindlessly, unaware of overall intake.
3. The Impact of Taste
If food tastes good, many kids will eat it.
Taste is a known driver of food choice and can reinforce more eating.
How many times have you had seconds, not because you’re hungry, but because food tastes good?
4. Eating in the Absence of Hunger
A behavior your child may learn in childhood (usually between ages 5-9), whereby eating happens despite not being hungry.
Instead, eating occurs out of habit, boredom, emotional and/or celebratory reasons.
Guide Kids’ Portions to Begin
Many parents welcome a portion size guide for serving food to their children, especially if they are plating food.
Even when serving meals “family-style,”a guide outlining portion sizes for children is helpful.
Once you’re aware of “normal” serving sizes by age, you may find you need to cut back, or even add to what you’ve been accustomed to serving.
What I don’t want you to do is think that portions are a way to embrace food restriction—they’re not.
Restrictive feeding practices are not good for your child.
Rather, think of food portions for children as a way to model healthy amounts of food to begin eating.
Appetite Fluctuation is Normal
Most children will have appetites that vary day-to-day and month-to-month—this is very normal.
When children are growing, like during the adolescent growth spurt, their appetites naturally spike.
You will see this demonstrated by more hunger and increased food intake.
Allowing seconds, or perhaps, thirds during these growth periods is perfectly fine.
Conversely, lags in growth (or slowed growth), similar to what you may see in toddlerhood, can reflect a reduced appetite and less eating.
Ultimately, children should eat an amount of food that leaves them satisfied, while ideally striking a balance of varied foods from the different food groups.
A Guide to Kids’ Portion Sizes
My portion size chart will help you start off with a reasonable amount of food for your child. It’s based on age and changes as your child grows.
Children need several servings of each food group to meet nutrient needs and energy requirements for normal growth and development.
This chart only gives you a serving size to start with. Again, this is not a prescribed amount to eat.
Most of us don’t carry measuring cups and spoons around with us, making a misjudgement on serving sizes easy.
Try not to get too stressed out about being exact!
Do your best to offer starter portion sizes that are right for your child’s age, including a variety of foods from each food group.
Serve them at meals and snacks at predictable times throughout the day. Doing so may make your child more likely to eat the amounts that are right for him.
Let me know how you’re doing with kids’ portion sizes in your home!
Need More Help with Feeding Your Child?
Visit my parent nutrition education website, The Nourished Child, where you can take workshops, classes and read supportive materials, all of which help you nourish and feed your child well, inside and out.
This article was originally published in August, 2012 | It was updated in November 2020.