Portion Size for Kids

Looking at Portion Size for Kids

In today’s modern society, most of us have lost some or all of our original Wisdom of the Body that guides us naturally to eat in a healthful way. Even our kids, who are starting healthier habits, need some practical guidelines for relearning how, when, and where to eat. It might be interesting to ask your child to tell you how much he already knows. How much do you know?

Children Don’t Need to Count Calories

We’ve said this before but we’ll say it again, because it’s so important: We do not advocate calorie counting for children for a lot of reasons.

First, it’s too hard for most 6-12 year-olds to keep track of calorie consumption throughout the day. They won’t count calories themselves, and they probably also will not be able to keep an accurate record of what they eat so that you can count calories for them.

Second, I find that calorie counting can lead to unhealthy attitudes toward food. We want children to understand that it’s not always how much that matters, it’s what they eat that makes them fat or lean. If they are making wise food choices, they will seldom need to worry about how many calories to eat.

Look at Portion Size

Yet, having said all that, we also know that if you have a child who has forgotten how to stop eating when she’s full, you probably want calorie guidelines to help her learn appropriate portion sizing. We’ll provide those guidelines for you here, but you must be careful to use them only as a general guide to portion sizing. Don’t get too rigid about these amounts, or you’ll do your child more harm than good.

Most children from 6-12 years of age need from 1,500-2,000 calories a day (around 30 calories per pound of optimal body weight per day), divided into roughly 20% protein, 50% nutritious carbs and 30% healthy fats. Yet, there is a wide range of caloric requirements, depending on a child’s basic metabolism and activity level. Children naturally need more during heavy exercise (approximately 300 extra calories per hour of strenuous exercise). Assuming a sedentary child, the calorie requirements could break down for each meal as follows:

  • Breakfast – 500 calories
  • Snack – 200 calories
  • Lunch – 500 calories
  • Snack – 200 calories
  • Dinner – 500 calories
  • Snack – 100 calories

More active children need to eat more!

If you want to work with these guidelines in mind, we recommend that you get a calorie guide and consult it when planning your child’s meals. But don’t let your child see what you’re doing! And, as you learn the basic caloric values of different foods, put the book away. It won’t take you long to re-educate yourself about appropriate portion sizes, and the sooner you can depend on your common sense, the better.

Big and Small Eaters

What if you have two children, one who is a big eater and one who is a picky eater? How can you keep one from consuming more than is needed and the other from being undernourished?

By understanding the basic nutritional principles called caloric density (CD) – the number of calories in a certain weight or volume of a serving of food – and nutrient density (nutrients per calorie), you can use these principles to optimally feed children with both of these eating patterns.

For the child who seems to eat too much (alias “the big eater”), celebrate that he likes to eat. Don’t try to change how much he eats, but nutritionally monitor what he eats, which is the principle of lean eating anyway. To enjoy eating, this child needs to see big portions. His grandmother would say, “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” In this case, to satisfy both his eyes and his stomach, feed him foods with a low calorie density. These are foods with a high water and fiber content, which look like big portions but have fewer calories. These foods are mainly fruits and vegetables. Try the three S’s: salads, soups, and smoothies. Begin the meal with low-CD foods, such as soup and salad. Then, as the meal progresses, increase the calorie density of the food. Because this child is satisfied with the big portions at the beginning of the meal, he’s unlikely to overeat by the time the meal is over. I was a big eater as  a child. Perhaps that’s why my grandmother put a big grapefruit (only 80 calories) in my school lunch bag.

For the child who seems to eat too little, try the reverse strategy: Emphasize foods with a high calorie density. These are foods that pack a lot of nutrition in a smaller volume. This child would do better beginning the meal with an entree, such as a salmon fillet or a patty of lean beef, and saving the salad for after the meal.

Examples of low-CD foods are nearly all vegetables and most fruits. Examples of high-CD foods are meat, seafood, avocados, nuts, and nut butters. Serve the big eater a cupful of grapes (low CD) and the small eater a handful (1/4 cup) of raisins (high-CD). Both contain the same number of calories and similar nutrition, yet their different sizes appeal to different appetites.

Keep in mind that caloric density applies only to whole foods from nature, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, seafood, and meat. It does not apply to processed foods. Obviously, a glass of milk and a glass of cola could contain the same number of calories in the same volume, yet one is nutritious and one is not. This is why the concept of nutrient density (nutrients per calorie) is important in lean eating. Lean foods (such as milk and yogurt) tend to have high nutrient densities, yet processed foods (like sweetened beverages) tend to have low nutrient densities. Ideally, you want to feed your children nutrient-dense foods as much as possible, regardless of their weight.

Enjoy Free Foods

The best way to get over a dependence on calorie counting is to embrace the concept of free foods. What are free foods? These are foods that even if eaten in large amounts are unlikely to make your child overweight, for several reasons. First, these foods tend to be high in fiber and quickly filling, so the child is unlikely to overeat. Second, by a lean little biochemical quirk, the body uses almost as many calories to chew and digest vegetables as there are in the veggies in the first place. Third, many of these foods have a high water content (e.g., fruits and veggies), so your child can eat big portions without getting a big belly.

These three facts combine to describe foods that your child can enjoy while they naturally train her not to overeat, because they’re so filling. While the idea of a “free food” is that your child can eat as much as he likes, the quirk of free foods is that they are so filling and satisfying that they remind your child of what a sensible portion size is according to his “tummy feel” rather than a scale or calorie-counting book.

The free food list tends to be longer for children than it is for adults, because kids burn more calories per pound of body weight than adults do.

Free foods include:

  • All vegetables
  • All fruits
  • All lean meat and fish, especially salmon
  • Eggs
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
  • Whole grains
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