Portion Control for Kids


There’s a lot of advice available to parents on what to feed kids, what is nutritious and what is not.

But little is said about how to feed them and how much.

“If you ask the parent of a preschooler to serve up a plate full of food for that child, most parents — even well-educated parents who probably know a fair amount about nutrition — will typically serve up portions that are several times larger than a child needs,” said Leann Birch, director of Penn State’s new Center for Childhood Obesity Research.

“The fast food industry, the restaurant industry in general, and the way things are packaged these days … the serving sizes that are offered are way too large for adults, let alone kids.

Who’s left to teach children about appropriate portion sizes?

The parents.

Birch is among the pioneers in the study of children’s eating behaviors, and has written poignantly about overeating and image problems in young girls.

But she says parents often don’t acknowl edge that being over weight is a problem for boys. “It may even be seen as a positive thing, in terms of sports,” she said.

“They also may think the child will outgrow it. There is very little evidence that that is true. Once kids get to be school age, being overweight tends to track pretty strongly into adoles cence and on into adult hood. It’s not something that tends to go away on its own.”

Beyond nutrition, she says, parents have to be aware of how much food they’re serving. “Take vegetables. Here’s one rule of thumb: a child needs one tablespoon of vegetables for each year of age. A 2-year-old needs two tablespoons of peas, not half a cup.”

A tablespoon per year of age is good for most solid foods that are easy to measure. A fourth to a third of the adult portion size is good for foods that are difficult to measure, such bread.

For children 4 to 6 years old, daily requirements may be roughly 2 servings of meat, 11/2 ounces each; 2 cups of milk; 4 servings of grain and 5 half-cup servings of vegetables and fruit.

For children 7 to 12 years old, most servings are the same, but meat serving sizes increase to 2 ounces.

Kids vary and so do their needs, but one constant seems to be that once parents put it on the plate, they expect the kids to eat it. So don’t pile too much on — and stick to the good stuff.

“What we need to do is to try from very early on to expose kids to things we’d like them to eat, rather than trying to prevent them from getting all those readily available and palatable snack foods,” Birch said.

But how do you get them to eat what you know is nutritious?

Cynthia Bartok, associate director of the center, emphasizes the idea of divided responsibility developed by nutrition writer Ellyn Satter.

“This is a very well accepted framework,” Bartok said. “Parents are responsible for putting healthy food on the table at meals and telling the kids when it’s time to eat. You say there are mealtimes and there are snacktimes, but you don’t eat all day. The kids are responsible for choosing from those foods what to eat, and whether they even eat at all.

“Children have an appetite, and they can pick based on what their bodies tell them they need. If from an early age they are given these choices, you will see that kids will chose healthy foods.”

Don’t cajole, Bartok said. Be neutral about the food, don’t try to sell it.

“The message needs to be simply, ‘It’s mealtime, this is what we’re serving.’ If the child says, ‘I don’t want to eat any of this,’ you say, ‘That’s fine. You’re welcome to choose to not eat the foods that we’re serving tonight. You can excuse yourself from the table and we’ll have snack time in two hours.’

“The first time this happens, five minutes after they leave the table the kids are going to start pandering for food. You say ‘No.’ No kids have ever starved in two hours.”

Here’s the tough part: Do not go to the kids because you’re worried that they’re hungry, and ask what they’re willing to eat. Do that, Bartok, said, and “Suddenly you’re into short-order cooking.”

And the kid is in charge.

Instead, wait the two hours. When it’s snack time, present more healthy food choices. “You never need to present unhealthy food to children to coerce them to eat,” she said.


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