Parent’s frequently ask me how much their child needs to be eating. Parents get nervous that their child may not be getting the nutrition they need or enough calories to grow. As an OT, I follow some general guidelines, but am not an expert on nutrition. I was thrilled when today’s guest blogger and soon-to-be-dietitian Amelia Sherry, of feedingisla.com, agreed to help us out with a thorough and practical explanation of preschooler and toddler portion sizes. Amelia explains why—and how to support your kids’ natural know-how for perfecting portion sizes. Believe it or not, most toddlers know more about how much they should eat than any pediatrician or nutritionist.
4 Keys to Perfecting Portion Sizes!
Throughout my pregnancy, there was one thing I really wanted to ace as a mom: Breastfeeding. To be sure I got it right, I read every book recommended to me, quizzed every mom brave enough to answer my questions, and even enrolled in a three-hour class (including demonstrations!) on the topic. If you asked me about breastfeeding the day before my daughter Isla was born, I would have arrogantly rattled off a dissertation on the holding positions, timing, and feeding techniques recommended for success. If you asked me about it in the minutes following her birth, I would have timidly realized that I knew nothing. A hands-on, crash-course lesson was coming my way though- and it wasn’t a nurse, lactation, consultant, or pediatrician who taught it. It was Isla.
A cheat sheet to help translate those amounts into real food examples…
Another way experts recommend calculating pint-sized portions is to simply dole out ¼ to ½ of an adult serving size (as defined by the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines) of each food offered. This definitely makes for easy math; the problem, however, is that most of us are pretty off the mark when it comes to estimating appropriate portion sizes for ourselves, which means we’re probably not going to be too accurate if we use them as a measuring stick for our kids. A third (even more down and dirty!) way to estimate appropriate food amounts: Serve ‘em a tablespoon per year. That means, for instance, a three year old gets three tablespoons of fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains, for example, at each meal.
Again, these are just guidelines which is why it’s okay that they’re a little bit loosey goosey. Feeding experts know that being strict about amounts can have negative consequences for most kids when it comes to being a healthy eater, so they don’t recommend strict counting of calories or measuring of portion sizes (expect in cases where there’s an illness or disability at play.)
The bottom line: Despite feeling like a child eats ‘way too much’ or ‘hardly anything,’ if they haven’t shot over or dropped off their growth curve, then you can trust that they’re likely eating the perfect amount of food each day. (If in doubt, your pediatrician can help you understand the growth curve, which isn’t a measure of how large or small your child is but how consistently they are growing.) The key is consistently offering a balanced mix of healthy options from all the food groups—and then getting out of the way while they determine the amount they need to eat.
 Fisher JO, Rolls BJ, Birch LL. Children’s bite size and intake of an entree are greater with large portions than with age-appropriate or self-selected portions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:1164-1170.
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