Kid’s Portions: Key to Weight Control

Thursday, July 5, 2007 - 6:00pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

Have you ever tried to force a baby to finish a bottle? Good luck. When an infant has had enough to eat, he or she turns away, as if to say "No more. Not one more drop!" But by age 10, the same child may be scarfing down an entire bag of chips and a super-sized soda for an after-school snack. Kids learn to eat right past the feeling of "enough," and our childhood obesity epidemic is the result.

Recently, an Expert Committee1 of health professionals issued a list of recommendations to deal with childhood obesity. Portion control was mentioned several times in this report. But what are appropriate portion sizes for children?

Overeating is a learned behaviour

A recent study2 showed that infants and toddlers have a natural ability to regulate food intake. In a 24-hour day, healthy babies eat the right amount for their needs. But the study authors warned that children lose this ability to sense "enough" around age 3 or 4. Why? Large portions and the "clean plate syndrome." When a kid is taught to eat large portions, the stage is set for a lifetime of overeating. There are a number of simple steps parents can take to avoid this problem. Learning about appropriate portion sizes for kids is crucial.

How much should infants and toddlers eat?

It is frequently hard to tell how much food a toddler actually eats, because so much ends up in her hair or smeared on her face. If her growth rate remains steady, you should not worry. A good rule of thumb is 1 TB of each food for each year of age. This does not sound like much, but keep in mind your baby's stomach is small. A meal for a 9-month-old could include 1 tablespoon each of peas, applesauce, pureed rice, and pureed chicken.

Ages 2 to 6 years: how much should they eat?

A child in this age range is eating meals with parents or peers at day care or school. Less food ends up on his face, so you have a better idea of how much he is really eating. Remember, a child's stomach is about as small as his fist. Avoid serving adult-sized portions. If your 4-year-old only eats half a sandwich at lunch, do not serve a whole sandwich. Let him ask for more if he is hungry.

If you are eating out, pick the smallest-portion item. Do not let your 5-year-old order a double bacon cheeseburger. A right-sized lunch might be: ½ turkey sandwich, ½ banana, a cup of milk, and a small oatmeal cookie. Offer a healthy snack 3 hours later. Control your child's access to flavorful snack foods like chips or sweets. Dole out 10 chips in a bowl, or use 100-calorie snack packs. Even better, do not have these items in your house.

What should school age (6 to teen) eat?

In this age range, peer groups have increasing influence on food choices. You can still model portion control at family meals. It is difficult to stick to one-size-fits-all guidelines in this age range. Portions will increase gradually, but may increase dramatically during growth spurts. Continue to trust your child's ability to self-regulate food intake. Do not fight over food. If your child leaves food uneaten, serve less food at the next meal.

Do not allow your child to sit in front of the TV, eating out of a big bag of chips or cookies. Do not order super-sized meals and avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants. Be persistent. By the time your child is 15, she may be ordering a small cheeseburger and salad, while her friends are chowing down double cheeseburgers and supersized fries. Then you will know your efforts to control portion distortion have paid off.

It all starts with kids portion sizes

Portion distortion is a fact of life in our society and one of the culprits in the obesity epidemic. Children are not born to overeat. They learn it, and as any overweight adult knows, it is very difficult to unlearn this lesson. So banish the "clean plate" rule from your home. Support your child's ability to self-regulate food intake by offering age-appropriate portions of healthy foods.

The Department of Health and Human Services has an interactive quiz that allows you to look at portion sizes, calories in those portions, and the amount of exercises needed to burn those calories. For more information on portion sizes, visit the National Institute of Health website.

1. Expert Committee on the Assessment, Prevention and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity, includes representatives from 15 health professional organizations.

2. J.AmDieteticAssoc 2006:106:S77-S83.