Portion sizes for kids

by Dr Lucy Cooke. The impact of portion size on children’s eating behaviour – and the best plan of action to take as a parent or carer.

Boys with dessert, one with it on his face


Food and drink portion sizes have been increasing in recent years, both in supermarkets and in restaurants. There is also evidence that portion sizes at home have increased and this may have something to do with the rise in overweight and obesity that we are seeing in young children.

But how much food do young children need? There is very little guidance available and so parents and other carers have to rely on their own judgement.

Some parents say that their child just stops eating when they’ve had enough, but others find that their child will go on eating and eating until they are told to stop. All children are different and may need different amounts of food depending on how they feel and what they have been doing that day – e.g. a child who has been running around all day will need more food than one who isn’t feeling very well.

What is really important is to help children recognise when they are hungry and, more importantly, when they are full. There is some evidence that very young children (under 2 years) will eat what they need and no more (whatever size portion they are given), whereas older children may eat more than they need when given a larger portion. It seems as if the older children get, the less they are able to tell if they have had enough food or not. Making a child finish everything on their plate or allowing them to 'graze' on food all day seems to make matters worse.

However, there are a number of things that parents and carers can do to help children pay attention to their own feelings of fullness and hunger.

  • Encourage your child to eat slowly. It can take the brain a while to register what has been eaten so if serving more than one course, leave it a little while before offering pudding.
  • Have regular meals at set times and allow two or three snacks between meals rather than having food available all day.
  • Never make your child finish everything on their plate – it may make them uncomfortably full and put them off that food in future.
  • Some researchers have found that children will eat the right amount if they are allowed to serve themselves, although obviously this may need some supervision in younger children!
  • Finally, don’t forget that children’s stomachs are much smaller than adults’ stomachs (and older children’s stomachs are bigger than those of their younger siblings) so don’t expect everyone in the family to eat the same amount.

The best plan is for the parent or caregiver to decide the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ of food and children to decide the ‘how much’. With a choice of healthy foods on offer, most children will not over-eat.

How CBeebies can help

If you go to the Watch & Listen section of the CBeebies website, you can see how Greedy Gobo the goat (from Big Barn Farm) eats so much of a tasty picnic that he’s not hungry at feeding time.

Also in the Watch & Listen section, you can use the Harry and Toto clip to introduce the concept of ‘empty and full’ and discuss how that relates to knowing how much to eat.

How to make a magic moment

Have a tea party picnic with dolls or teddy bears. Lay out a blanket on the floor and put some food on plates. Sit the toys around and talk about whether the toys are hungry and what it feels like to be hungry.

When the tea party is over, talk about which toys have eaten too much, and which have had the right amount, and what these sensations feel like. You could pat your tummy (as well as the tummies of the dolls and teddies) when you are discussing this.

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Top tips

  • If
  • a child says they are full, don’t pressure them to eat more.Never
  • make your child finish everything on their plate if they don’t want to.Give
  • regular meals and two or three snacks a day.Allow
  • children to serve themselves if they can.There is no ‘ideal’
  • portion size for all children. Some need more than others, and needs may also
  • vary from meal to meal.

Expert opinion

Fundamental to the parents' role is trusting children to decide how much and whether to eat. If parents do their jobs with feeding, children will do their jobs with eating.

Ellyn Satter, Dietician, psychotherapist, author and lecturer

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