Portions for Toddlers: How do I Know If They Are Eating Enough?

Maria Rivera, MD MPH & Annika Crossley, RDN, CD

How much food should I give my child? How much should I expect them to eat? It’s hard to know if they are eating too little or too much! The most frustrating part of portions for kids is that there is not one answer, and one size does not fit all. The most surprising thing for a lot of parents, is that official serving sizes are small and often less than you think! Read on to get an idea of the “how much” and some tips on knowing when they are full.

The most important thing to know, is that the right portion for each meal, is the amount your child needs to feel satisfied.

That’s easier said than done right? Earlier we introduced you to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR). With this method, you provide your child with the foods they have the option of eating and they decide if and how much they eat from it. This gives your child control over their portion. With your help they can then learn what the right amounts for their bodies are. This method also has you decide when you serve meals and snacks. We talk about how setting meal schedules is helpful here.  

Start with the how: How should I serve foods?

If you plate your child’s food- start with really small amounts. For example, if you are serving chicken, one small cube is enough to start. If they are still hungry, they can always ask for more. We recommend starting with small amounts because we know that as kids start getting older, especially approaching preschool age, if we serve large amounts of food from the get go they are more likely to overeat. That’s right- seeing large amounts of food on their plate can actually lead them to eat more than they otherwise would have. They also can get overwhelmed and may just reject a food if there’s too much of it. If your child likes to plate their own food or serve themselves, encourage them to start with small amounts also. If they plate large amounts, you can remind them if they are still hungry, they can eat more of it.

Teach your child to learn when they are full.

Children don’t always announce that they are full or done with their food. Signs that they might be done might be throwing food, playing with it instead of eating, signing (or screaming!) all done, or trying to leave the table. You can help by telling your kid that you stop eating when your tummy feels like it doesn’t have much space anymore. Bottom line here: resisting the urge to pressure them to eat more. They don’t need to clear their plates! This will also help them learn when they are full.

After you have decided on the menu, let them eat as much as they want from your options.

Yes! One really important thing you want your child to learn is hunger and full cues. Let the child eat the amounts of food they want to (as long as there is enough for everyone). If they only want to eat the chicken on the plate and ignore everything else, that’s ok! Why would you that? Well remember if you are following our recommendations and DOR, YOU decided what to feed your child, and THEY decide how much to eat. It’s a win-win. You can feel good about what they are eating since you picked the food. Your child gets to feel in control too.

Expect some nuances when toddlers are eating.

  • Toddlers often will eat just one food group at a meal. For example, for breakfast they may decide to eat just bread. For lunch it might be just fruit, and for dinner it might be just chicken. If you look at their meals over the entire week, they will probably be more balanced than you think. This is normal and it’s important not to worry about each specific day!
  • Some days your kid may ask for seconds or thirds. Some days they might take one bite and announce they are done. This is normal, learn to trust their cues.
  • Toddlers often test the limits with food, may scream or cry when you serve them the “wrong” things. Remain firm that you decide what they eat, try having a safe food on their plate, and don’t pressure them to eat it.

 

Ok ok, here are some guidelines for “official” toddler serving sizes.

Serving sizes for kids from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be found here.  Yup, we are also not using cups and tablespoons to measure out our kids foods. Instead, a “Rule of Thumb” (pun intended) for toddler portion sizes is easier to understand: give a portion about the size of your thumb of each food group, per year of your child’s age. For example, for your 2 year old’s dinner, start with serving two peach slices, two steamed carrot sticks, 1-2 fish sticks, two spoonfuls of brown rice, and a 4 ounce glass of milk. Then, if your toddler is still hungry, offer more – every child is different, trust their appetite!

 If you try this portioning trick as you build a schedule for them, a typical toddler eating 3 meals and two snacks a day will be getting 3-4 servings of fruit, 3-4 servings of veggies, 5-6 servings of grains, 2-3 servings of protein foods, and 4 servings of dairy. Your child should be getting all the nutrition they need this way!

Last but not least, if you are worried about whether they are getting enough

Check with your pediatrician and ask if they are happy with their growth. Also, make an appointment with one of our Foublie coaches if you want someone to take a look at your child’s intake and let you know if it’s “enough”!

 

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