Portion Control for Kids

Childhood Obesity Basics

Serving Size and Calories on a food label.
Read food labels to see how many servings are in a single container. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

Kids who are overweight are usually either getting too many calories, aren't active enough, or both.

When calories are a problem, it can be that they are drinking too much whole milk, juice, or soda, or eating high-calorie foods, high-fat foods, and junk foods too often or in portions that are too large.

Portion Sizes

To keep your child from getting too many calories, understanding portion sizes can be a good place to start.

This starts with knowing what kind of a portion size your child needs. Simply putting as much food on your child's plate as he will eat is usually not a good idea, especially if you always make him clean his plate.

Instead, follow these general guidelines on portion sizes:

  • a toddler-portion size should equal about a quarter of an adult portion size
  • preschooler or younger school-age children (kids from the age of about four to eight years old) should have portions that are about a third of an adult portion size
  • portion sizes for older children and teens begin to approach that for adults

If your child doesn't fill up using those portion sizes, you could always give more, but that should usually be limited to vegetables and other side dishes, especially if your is overweight. Getting second helpings of the main course, which typically has the most calories, is usually not a good idea.

Portion Control for Kids

Another good way to help with portion control is to learn to think in terms of serving sizes and try to limit your child to single servings of foods.

For example, many sports drinks are now sold in 32 oz bottles, but a single serving is just 8 oz. If your child drinks the whole bottle, he will get 200 calories, not the 50 calories in a single serving. Other examples include that a 32 oz Big Gulp with Coca-Cola will get your child 420 calories and a 32 oz Chocolate Triple Thick Shake at McDonald's has 1,160 calories.

The point is that just because a food is in a single package or container, that doesn't mean that it is a single serving.

Understanding serving sizes is usually easier to do with prepackaged food, where the serving size is clearly printed on the food label. Just don't be fooled into thinking that there is only a single serving in a package that may have two, three, or even five servings.

Controlling Your Child's Portion Sizes

Other tips to help get your child's portion sizes under better control, both at home and when you eat out, include that you:

  • Choose child portions, small orders, or half orders when you eat out at restaurants, and never super-size anything.
  • Buy only single serving or bite-sized snacks.
  • Review the label and repackage foods into single serving sizes. If a bag of cookies says that a single serving is 3 cookies, then put 3 cookies in a Zip-lock plastic bag or on a plate when you give it to your kids.
  • Avoid letting your kids eat straight from a bag of snacks or carton of ice cream, since they will likely eat much more than one serving.
  • Limit younger children aged 1 to 6 years should have only 4 to 6 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day and older children to just 8 to 12 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day.
  • Switch your kids to reduced fat or low-fat milk once they are two years old and while you should encourage them to drink milk to get enough calcium in their diet, don't let them drink too much milk.

Healthy Snacks

Although one or two snacks a day can be a part of a healthy diet, like unhealthy meals, they can quickly get out of hand and can contribute to childhood obesity problems.

Some of the biggest mistakes that parents make when giving their kids snacks include routinely providing them with high-fat snacks and high-calorie snacks, offering too many snacks, so that their kids end up eating junk foods all day, and making snacks too big.

You can make your child's snacks healthier and help them fit into your overall portion control plan if you:

  • have a regular snack time for your kids -- usually late morning and early afternoon for toddlers and preschoolers and just after-school for older kids, keeping in mind that most kids shouldn't need a bedtime snack.
  • limit snacks to just 100 to 150 calorie servings so that they don't turn them into an extra meal.
  • have healthy snacks handy and ready for your kids to eat.
  • not allow snacks to be too close to lunch or dinner.

Are oversized portions contributing to your child's weight problems?

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