Portions + How Much Should Kids Eat?

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

If you are wondering how much your kid should eat you have landed at the right place! It’s hard to know if your kid is eating too little or too much. The most frustrating part of portions 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 pretty small. It’s probably less than you think they should be. Read on to get an idea of the “how much” and some tips on knowing when they are full.

The right portion for each meal is the amount your child needs to feel satisfied.

That’s easier said than done right? But trust your kid. They will know when they are done. This theory we love is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which we call Be the Boss-ish. With this method, you provide your child with the foods they have the option of eating. Then, your kid will decide if and how much they eat from it. This gives your child control over their portion. With your help (by not pushing) your little one can then learn what the right amounts for their bodies. 

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 to your toddler, one small cube is enough to start. If they are still hungry, they can always ask for more. We recommend starting small 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 kids to eat more than they otherwise would have. Young kids, like toddlers 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 him/her to start with small amounts. If they plate large amounts, remind them if they are still hungry, they can have more.

Teach your child to learn when they are full.

This starts around toddler-age. Toddlers don’t always announce that they are full or done with their food. Signs that your kid might be done are:

  • throwing food
  • playing with it instead of eating
  • signing (or screaming!) all done
  • trying to leave the table

Tell your kid that you stop eating when your tummy feels like it doesn’t have much space anymore.

Bottom line here: resist the urge to pressure kids to eat more. Kids 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 your child eat as much as they want from your options.

Is it crazy that the answer to how much should a child should eat is as much as they want? Yes! One really important thing you want your child to learn is hunger and full cues. Let your child eat the amounts of food they want to (as long as there is enough for everyone). If they only eat the chicken and ignore everything else, that’s ok! Why? Remember if you are following our recommendations, YOU already decided what to feed your child, and THEY now decide how much to eat. It’s a win-win. You feel good about what they are eating since you picked the food. Your child feels good because he/she is in control too.

Expect some nuances when toddlers are eating.

Here’s some special notes if your reading this with a toddler in mind:

  • Toddlers often will eat just one food group at a meal. For example, for breakfast he/she may decide to eat just bread. For lunch it might be just fruit, and for dinner it might be just chicken. Try to 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” serving sizes.

Serving sizes for kids from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be found here.

Let’s talk toddlers

We think it’s hard to use cups and tablespoons to measure out our kids foods. So try our “Rule of Thumb” (pun intended) for toddler portion sizes that 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, 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

If you are asking how much should my child eat because you are scared they are not eating enough, talk to their doctor. Check with your pediatrician to ask if they are happy with their growth. Also, try a coaching call with one of our Fooblie coaches if you want someone to take a look at your child’s intake and let you know if it’s “enough”!