How much does your toddler need to eat? What are the appropriate toddler portion sizes and recommendations? This guide will answer all of that and much more!
Parent’s frequently ask me how much their child needs to be eating, especially toddlers. Parents get nervous that their child may not be getting the nutrition they need or enough calories to grow. So, what are the recommended toddler portion sizes for food during meals? 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, author of the blog Nourish Her, 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 kid’s 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 Toddler 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.
Like most new parents, in the moments following birth, I was nothing but thunderstruck by the sight of my infant daughter. When the nurse handed her to me, the last thing on my mind was getting her into the recommended feeding position, nevermind remembering exactly what that was. Fortunately, as I sat there gawking, this tiny little stranger turned her face towards me, attached her mouth to my nipple, and very casually began to suckle. I was amazed by her intelligence: Less than a half-hour old and Isla knew she needed to feed, to nourish herself, better than any scientist who’d been studying the subject for years, and most definitely better than me. Today, at two and half years old, I’d argue that in some respects, she still does.
Is Isla an eating genius? Yes, but in the same way that all healthy infants and toddlers are: She has an innate wisdom that allows her to rather unconsciously regulate her food intake based on her individual energy needs. That means that her hunger waxes and wanes in relation to how much activity she’s done, how much growth she’s experiencing, and how much she has (or hasn’t) recently had to eat or drink. Scientists who study children’s feeding patterns observe that this amazing ability is strongest in infancy and toddlerhood and then begins to diminish at about three to four years old. Coinciding, of course, with an increasing awareness of the social cues surrounding them
In other words, your toddler has a natural and fairly exacting ability to calculate the exact amount they should eat at any given meal or snack until outside influences (such as a subtle encouragement to clean a plate or an admonishment for overindulging) begin to sink in and suggest to them they don’t.
Since being in touch with true hunger is one of the most important skills a healthy eater can have and, heck, one most adults need to learn this themselves, then supporting a child’s natural ability to connect with their appetite is just as important as knowing appropriate portion sizes. So when parents ask me how much they should feed their toddler at each meal, I don’t just rattle off a list of serving sizes. Instead, I give them these three pieces of advice…
1. Start with the rule of thumb
Even though I don’t believe in sticking to a rigid measure-out-each-portion eating plan for kids, it’s still important to know what the recommended serving sizes for toddlers look like. They’re great starting points for putting together a well-balanced plate, the same plate you’re sure if they’re going to inhale or push away. Just remember, it’s best to think of the following numbers as a guideline, not a rule; healthy children are the best determinants of how much they need to eat (or not eat) to feel healthfully satisfied.
Keeping that in mind, here’s the skinny on sizes: Experts
estimate that your toddler ‘should’ eat about 1000 to 1200 calories per day, which should be spread out in three meals and two snacks (or a food offering every two to three hours) and contain a total of; three ounces of grains (at least half of which should be whole grains); two cups of dairy; two ounces of meat/protein; one cup of fruit; and, one cup of vegetables.
A cheat sheet to help translate those amounts into real food examples…
Recommended Toddler Portion Sizes (1 to 5 years old)
One ounce of grains (serve 3 daily)
= ½ cup oatmeal, rice, or pasta
= 1 slice of bread
= 5 whole grain crackers
= 1 cup dry cereal
One cup of dairy (serve 2 daily)
= 1 cup milk
= 1 cup yogurt (or an 8 oz container)
= 3 slices processed cheese
= 2 slices of hard cheese
= I cup of soymilk
One ounce of protein (serve 2 daily)
= 1 egg
= 1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter
= ¼ cooked beans
= 2 tablespoons of hummus
= Beef, pork, or poultry about the size of a pack of gum
One cup of fruit
= ½ large apple or 1 cup applesauce
= 1 large banana
= 32 grapes
= 8 large strawberries
= ½ cup dried fruit
One cup of vegetables (serve 1 daily)
= 1 cup of cooked or raw vegetables
= 2 cups of leafy greens
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.)
2. Divvy up the work
Yes, your toddler’s good at determining appropriate portion sizes, but they’re not yet good at deciding other important aspects of eating, such as choosing what’s on the menu. To help them stay in touch with their natural appetite, caregivers of toddlers should stay in charge of all other aspects of eating. This is based on an easy-to-follow feeding system called the Division of Responsibility (DOR).
Devised by Ellyn Satter, the DOR goes like this: At any given meal or snack, toddlers should be in charge of determining HOW MUCH and WHETHER or not they will eat and caregivers should be in charge of WHAT to eat, WHERE to eat, and WHEN to eat. So, it’s your responsibility to offer a balanced meal or snack of healthy options (the WHAT) at regular two to three hour intervals, (the WHEN) in a calm and safe environment, (the WHERE) and you can leave figuring out HOW MUCH to eat, including WHETHER they want to eat at all, up to your kid.
One aspect of this can be tricky: Trusting your kids to do their job. Even though I’m well aware of the DOR and believe it it’s value completely, I admit to slipping up sometimes. I can get distraught by the fact that Isla has eaten barely anything for three meals in a row (and equally uncomfortable, at other times, when it seems like she’s eaten twice as much as anyone else at the table) and have caught myself telling her she can’t do this or that until she eats more (as well as insisting that’s she’s already had enough). Still, I work hard to quell the urge to intervene on amounts whenever possible; the consequences of convincing her that hunger cues can’t be trusted are too great not to.
3. Hand over the serving spoon
Research shows that young children can regulate their food intake even better when they dole out their own portion right into their own dish
. After you fix your little one a balanced plate, including all the food groups you’re offering at that meal, try putting a bowl of extras within their reach. One tip: Give them the option of serving themselves only the healthiest (and sometimes least-favored) options of each meal, such as vegetables or plant-based proteins. This is especially helpful for kids who are picky eaters since combining a sense of control with a little bit of hunger can be a powerful tool in helping them feel braver about trying foods they may not usually eat.
4. Bite your own tongue
Harmless as it may seem, saying things like “have just one more bite” or try this because “it’s good for you” can have surprisingly negative consequences. Kids who feel pressured to eat end up with lower body mass and have a lower intake of fruits and vegetables than kids who don’t get the same prompting from parents, according to studies. Tame your own urge to talk your kid into eating more (or less) by focusing on your very important role of providing healthy food option and balanced meals instead.
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.
Amelia Sherry is a self-proclaimed ‘overly indulgent foodie,’ a graduate student of nutrition (en route to becoming a dietitian), and mom to a two year old girl, named Isla. She blogs about everything she’s learning while trying to fit all three things together. You can check out more about her over on her blog at nourishher.com.
 Rolls BJ, Engell D, Birch LL. Serving portion size influences 5-year-old but not 3-year-old children’s food intakes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2000;100:232-234.
 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
My son has never liked baby food. Wouldn’t touch it!! I had to start giving him table food early. He has always been good at eating( never gagged, choked). He’s almost 11 months old and he’s getting picker and picker everyday!! And he drinks like 3 bottles at night. I’m so drained. He doesn’t sleep good and isn’t eating. He is at a totally healthy weight. But he’s getting close to his birthday and I’m worried about this bottle feeding at night.. he has started to get teeth. I do brush his teeth every night, but I’m afraid he’s going to get rotten teeth from bottle feeding at night!!! I’m frustrated, I don’t know what to do. My other 2 babies were nothing like this! I’m kinda in the dark… any help would be so appreciated!!
That is a lot Carly, I totally get it! Are you able to fortify his foods with anything with more sustenance? Check out this post on: High Calorie Foods for babies and toddlers.
I’d also look at how to prevent toddlers from becoming picky. After looking at those, let me know if you have more questions, but I think they’ll give you a lot of help.
Hi there! I have followed the instructions on how to access the free printable, sadly it does not work.
Any possibility of the link being reset?
Super excited to read more from you!
We just checked and everything is working properly. You do need to check your promotions/spam folders after signing up as it does often get sent there as well. If you are still having trouble, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we’d be happy to help provide it for you!
I wish someone would do a paleo guide for toddlers since we as humans don’t need grains or dairy. For anyone interested, I do about 2 eggs or half a cup of meat per meal, half a cup to a full cup of cooked veggies or salad types. 1/4 fat source such as avocado or 7-10 olives and 1/4 cup fruit such as berries or grapes or a whole mandarin. And water. My 13 month old still breastfeeds at least 1time a night, once before bed and 1 nap and once after waking up for the day. So at least 4 times and up to 6. The heaviest time is before bed when she wants the most milk. She does also snack on some fruit or sweet potatoe between meals some days. Twice. And I do try to include some sweet potatoes or squashes in the veggie portion of her meals or if I do a salad I increase the fat and protein a tiny bit. Like 1/3 avocado or 1/2 cup of meat with a small handful on top. She is super tall so her intake is a bit more than average 1 year olds. Shes also super active, like running around the house and playing with everything. So adjust your meals to your kids. But for paleo/ whole30 moms this is a great start.
Thanks for sharing your story.
Do you have a recommended portion size for a 9month old? My son is eating very little solids and I’m concerned. although he loves to put everything in his mouth and loves brushing teeth, he holds food in his mouth (after few spoons) and doesn’t chew or swallow.
There really isn’t one, because milk is still the main source of nutrition. But, most babies at this age are eating a few tablespoons to a jar or two of baby food. However, I do think there’s something going on here and he may need some more help. I’d check out how to transition to table foods and my baby won’t eat solids. If you still have questions let us know!
Please tell me how I get back to the class I paid for.
Hey Erica I sent you an email, but you can always get to it by going to http://classes.yourkidstable.com and then click on the class you are in, you may need to look at the menu bar for the sign in button:)
Thank you so much for this information! I just came across your site today and love it! I am curious, my daughter is almost 13 months old, do these portion sizes apply to this age?
Well, roughly, yes. Always look at the size of her first, that’s about what she can eat. Also, this post talked about using the 1tbsp idea, that is good way to think about it, too. So, about 3-4tbsp of food 4-5 times a day.
Alisha, thanks so much for this article. I’ve just come across your site ( was a link from another blog I follow) and it is awesome! It’s truly an answer to my prayers as I’ve been trying everything possible to get my 5 year-old grandson to eat healthy. I’ll certainly be trying your great suggestions.
Oh my gosh Maria, thank you and welcome! So glad you found your way here. Make sure you get the free eating printable, the best tips are listed there, get it in the bar at top of the screen!
I wish someone would write an article for those parents that have children who LOVE to eat. Non stop requests for food and requests for 3rds is very hard to regulate. You don’t want to tell a 2 year old girl they shouldn’t eat but you also know when they are asking for attention/cause and effect or to gain praise from everyone in the room who constantly says “I wish my child was like that. You’re so lucky” and offers them more food than they themselves would eat. I would love to hand over the control to my 2 year old but they few times I’ve done it she’s ended up crying her belly hurts.
My son is the same. 99th centile for his weight and always wants more! There isn’t never advice on how to lower a 21 month olds weight or slow down weight gain.
What is the size of cup?
If you are referring to the milk, it would be 8oz.
Just wanted to say thank you. This was very helpful for me. I’ve read a lot on this and something about yours Just clicked! Will be trying this tomorrow!
This is great info, I have such a hard time not pushing him to eat more because he’s always seemed to eat so little. He’s just turning a year now so my question is how do I tell the difference between I don’t want to eat that because I don’t like it and I don’t want to eat that because I don’t need it. And how much should I get up and grab something else for him if he isn’t eating what’s in front of him when he’s too young to understand the concept of eat what’s on your plate?
Good question, this is a bit tricky. You wouldn’t want to jump to this too quickly. Always try to have something at the ready, and even plan to have something he likes at every meal. By the time he is 2, at the latest, you really shouldn’t need to do this at all anymore. If he refuses food from the ready, he may be refusing because he doesn’t want it. If he keeps eating preferred foods you know he is hungry. Try to intersperse these bites.
I have the same concern. My daughter is 19 months old now. What should we do if she eats the preferred foods and continues to ask for them without eating the other foods that are offered? Keeping giving her preferred food item until she says she’s done? How will that encourage her to eat the other foods as well if she knows that there will always be something that she likes on the menu?
I get it! Those are great questions, and I actually answer them totally in a different post, call The Best Picky Eating Strategy, part 2. Check it out my clicking in the article index in the menu bar or seeing the home page. Let me know if you have more questions after reading that!
My granddaughter is almost 12 months and as of yet no teeth. She eats blended textured foods well but we are nervous at giving toast,pieces of fruit etc. Any advice please.
Thanks for reaching out! Most 12 month olds don’t have any teeth yet. 12 months old is still a great time to start eating table foods. Your granddaughter can learn to safely chew with the back of her gums. Some of the best foods to start with are dissolvable solid foods (such as puffs, cheese curls, etc). We also have a post about teaching toddlers to chew that might give you some more ideas. I hope that helps!
Thank you so much for this informative post! I have a the year old who with every passing day seems to be getting pickier and pickier…I want to be sure he is resting a week balanced meal and would love to see him eat a better variety. I’m worried he isn’t getting enough vitamins and he does at times have issues with constipation. He will choose protein and carbs over fruits and veggies and I hope that’s ok. His growth curve is spot on so I know I shouldn’t be concerned but it’s so hard for me not to meddle in his reading! I’ve definitely done the”one more bite” and other no nos you listed, I hope I can reverse any damage I’ve already done. Feeding these little munchkins is definitely tough work!
I would love to see an example of your child’s daily meals. This is great though thank you!
Funny you should mention that, I have it on my short list to have a regular series where I share our menu. In the mean time, here is an example:
Breakfast: Plain oatmeal with a 1/2tbsp of flax seed and honey/fruit (one of the following: apple, melon, ripe banana, pear, strawberries etc.)
Lunch: Quesadilla on whole wheat tortilla with black beans, advocado, and cherry tomatoes
Snack: Pumpkin bread with a few cashews or peanuts (not recommended until 2 for choking hazard could use spread) and fruit
Dinner: Beef Stew and biscuits or Sauteed tilapia/cous cous/ veggies or Chicken pot pie or homemade quiche
Hope that gives you some inspiration. You can also look into the article index (menu bar) under recipes for more ideas.
I think these are ver y few amounts of fruits and vegetables.. My toodler use to eat about 3 portions of fruits and 2-3 portions of veggies a day. As every toodler, some days he eats nothing but milk.:-)
i agree with Jessica. One serving of vegetables? I try to give my kids at least 3.
Pretty sure that my healthy growing children eat twice as much food than what’s recommended here.
This isn’t a recommendation, its a reference point, if your kids are eating more that’s great. BUT many kids that have feeding issues or severe picky eating can get overwhelmed by portion sizes and many kids only need to eat what is listed here.
Recommendation or reference point, the fruit and vegetable portions should be a larger part of the overall serving. Very misleading the way it’s laid out here.
I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, this was written by a nutritionist and dietitian. I do agree that vegetables are very important and should be offered at every meal throughout the day, but many toddlers and preschoolers aren’t eating any or very little. In my line of work I see parents very stressed when their child isn’t eating 3 cups of veggies in a day. This article is provided to give support.
Thank you so much for your post. I constantly struggle with adapting to my 18 month olds eating habits (or lack there of). This post helped a lot! And gave some great meal ideas when I start to lose sight on what she will actually eat!
I love this, it all makes a lot of sense, but I’m wondering what you do if you let them leave the table having not eaten very much only to hear that they want a snack 10 minutes later. How do you maintain designated meal and snack times, while respecting their ability to regulate their food intake? Thanks 🙂
Great question! You still need to establish some routines and boundaries or their feeding will be totally awry. Once they are 2.5 they are capable of understanding that if they don’t finish this meal they will get nothing until the next. See the tab at the top that says basics to eating for more of this. Both of these principles can work together well.
this post has helped me so much thank you!
I’m so glad nessa!
How to make the transition after 1 year, when solids become the main source of nutrition? How often to breastfeed? What if baby prefers milk over solids after 1 year? Thank you
Thanks for reaching out! Making the transition to solids being the main source of nutrition should happen slowly. The transition can be a challenge for some babies. You might want to check out our sample eating routine for 12 month olds. That might give you some ideas of where to start and what that looks like!