How Much Should Your Child Eat?

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 3:07pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

One of the core roles of parenting is to provide nourishment for your children. This role often causes anxiety as you strive to do what is right. When it comes to feeding your child, there are no hard and fast rules. However, following these general guidelines for each stage of your child's life can help you stay on the right track.

Nutritional guidelines for infants and toddlers

1.   What newborns should eat

Newborns get all of their nutrition from breast milk, infant formula, or a combination of the two. If your child is healthy and growing normally, there is no need for supplements, juice or cereals. Infants naturally regulate their caloric intake and will indicate to you when they are hungry or full. Learning to recognize your newborn's different crieskeeping in mind that they are not all hunger crieswill be your guide to knowing how often to feed him.

2.   Nutrition for infants: Four to six months old

At this stage, most infants are drinking 24-32 ounces of breast milk or formula per day. Now is the time to begin offering iron-fortified cereal. Start with rice cereal and later incorporate other varieties, such as oatmeal and barley. Initially, offer one tablespoon once per day and slowly increase to three to four tablespoons, two times per day. Mix the cereal with water, formula, or breast milk and feed it with an appropriately-sized spoon. Adding cereal to a bottle is not recommended as it does not promote the development of the muscles used for eating, nor has it been shown to help infants sleep through the night. Also, cereal adds a significant number of calories to a bottle without increasing the volume, often interfering with an infant's instinct of stopping when he is full.

3.   Nutrition for infants: Six to nine months old

Now that your child is drinking 24-32 ounces of breast milk or formula and eating at least four tablespoons of cereal, it is time to move on to vegetables and fruits. Start with mild tasting pureed and strained vegetables (homemade or commercial), such as squash, green beans, or carrots. Offer 1 tablespoon to start and gradually increase to 4-5 tablespoons, one to two times per day. After several weeks of introducing vegetables, begin with pureed and strained fruits and follow the same pattern. You may also offer 2-4 ounces of 100% fruit juice, mixing one part juice with two parts water.

4.   Nutrition for infants: Nine to twelve months old

During this phase you will begin to offer meats, soft table foods, and finger foods. Start with one to two tablespoons of ground or strained cooked meat and increase to three to four tablespoons per day. Due to its very different taste and texture, meat is often refused initially. Continue to offer meat varieties or mix meat with an already accepted vegetable. At this point, your child might be grabbing for food has you feed him. Offer dry cheerios, soft fruits and vegetables cut in bite-sized pieces, pastas, or crackers. As your child approaches his first birthday, his day should revolve around a normal eating schedule with meals and snacks. (See also the following articles from TheDietChannel "When to Introduce Solid Foods", "Properly Introducing Solids" and "Weaning from the Breast.....When and How?".)

4.  What toddlers should eat (one to three years old)

At one year, it is time to make the switch from breast milk or infant formula to cow's milk. Due to high fat requirements of young toddlers, whole milk should be used at least up to age two. Between the ages of two and three it is acceptable to offer reduced-fat milk. As the quantity of table foods and finger foods increases, the volume of milk should decrease to about 16 ounces daily. Your toddler should now be on an eating schedule similar to the rest of the family, with three meals and two nutritious snacks per day. Fruit juice consumption should be limited to 4-6 ounces per day and still be diluted with water.

5.   Diet for older children

As your child leaves toddler-hood and enters early childhood, the variety of foods consumed will expand significantly. By this point you should have established a very regular routine of three meals and two nutritious snacks, which is crucial to maintaining your child's proper nutrition. Foods offered for these meals and snackswhich include fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, lean meats and low fat dairy productsshould be moderate in fat and sugar and minimally processed. Meeting calcium needs with three servings of milk or other dairy products each day is important to help your child maintain a healthy weight, build bones and grow to his full potential.

It is important to remember that these guidelines are not rules. They are meant to move you in the direction of laying the groundwork of proper nutrition and healthy eating habits for your child. Keep the following points in mind as you feed your child.

  • Each child is different. Each child has a completely unique set of genes that determines his nutrition needs. There is no way of telling exactly how much a child should eat. Children inherently know better than their parents how much they need to eat. As a parent, you just need to provide healthy foods at appropriate times.
  • Your child's intake will vary from day to day. One day your child may eat ravenously, the next day he may hardly eat anything. This is normal for children and adults. Everybody's intake of calories varies drastically from day to day. It will all balance out in the end. This is important to keep in mind when following the above guidelines.

Modeling healthy behavior

Parents are the most important influence in a child's life. Children watch and imitate adults, looking to them to learn proper behavior. Actions speak louder than words, so it is unlikely that words will have much impact on your child's eating habits unless you practice what you preach. Model healthy behavior by limiting your consumption of unhealthy foods, not skipping meals, regularly trying new foods, and staying physically active.