What are you teaching your toddler about how much to eat?

I know that everything you’ve ever read says that infants and toddlers self-regulate. That they only eat what they need. That they don’t overeat.

And that’s all true.  Unless parents interfere with those internal mechanisms.  And we all do it.  All the time.

In one study of kindergarteners, 85% of the parents tried to get their kids to eat more.  In fact, encouraging consumption was such a common phenomenon that the researchers were compelled to conclude that the majority of parents of young children have one primary goal: to get their kids to eat more during meals.  Read Two More Bites.

I’ve written about the hazard of pushing your kids to eat more bites than they want—Read The Hunger Dilemma—but the problem of portion size is an equally important pitfall.  It’s one of the key ways in which parents inadvertently override their children’s internal self-regulation system.

According to recent research:

  • You are probably teaching your toddlers to eat too much.
  • Portion sizes are out of control—even for toddlers.
  • Most kids take in more calories than they need.

Portion size is not an insignificant issue.  Research shows that how much you serve determines how much your kids eat. 

Read Size Matters.

When we spend the first few years of our kids’ lives getting them to eat more, is it any wonder that they have to spend the rest of their lives trying to eat less?  Habits learned early in life tend to stick around.

I’m not blaming parents.  In fact, it’s almost impossible not to overfeed your kids in the current food environment.

Most foods are 2-5 times larger than they were years ago.  Read How Big is that Bag? Eating in the Age of Portion Distortion.

But it’s not just that.  Our cultural obsession with nutrition has created a culture of consumption.  Everything you ever hear about nutrition centers on how much people should eat.

It’s not surprising that most parents are left with an uneasy feeling that they need to get more into their kids.  More protein. More calcium. More fiber. More fruits. And, of course, more vegetables.

(One comment I read on someone’s blog said that the writer didn’t believe the government guidelines were adequate.  She tried to get as much protein into her child as possible.)

Parents aren’t alone in their obsession with consumption. Read my Huffington Post piece: Are Pediatricians Hurting Your Toddler’s Eating Habits.

Stop worrying about nutrition. Research shows that our kids are generally taking in the nutrients they need. 

Who knew?  Our kids are getting their vitamins and minerals!

True, there are pockets of deficiencies—some kids aren’t getting enough iron for instance—but studies show that U.S. infants, toddlers and preschoolers are more likely to meet or exceed nutritional guidelines.

I’m not saying that there isn’t room for improvement.

  • Dietary fiber intake is too low.
  • Saturated fat intake is too high.
  • And fruit and vegetable consumption should be improved (as much for the fiber these foods contain as for anything else).

Want your kids to eat better?  Shift what they eat. Then, abandon any effort to make your kids to eat more food whenever you serve up the good stuff.

Serve less food.  And let your child come back for more.

It’s the simplest way to teach the right habits. Especially if you aren’t really sure what the right serving size is.

Did you know that an appropriate portion of pasta for a 2 year old is 1/4 cup?  That’s 1/3 of a packet of Annie’s Real Aged Cheddar Microwavable Mac & Cheese.  When was the last time you cooked up the entire packet but then served only 1/3?

One strategy for figuring out the right serving size is to use the Tablespoon technique.

Give your child a tablespoon of food per year of age.  For a 2 year old this turns out to be…

  • Breads and Grains: ½ slice of bread, ¼ cup pasta or cereal.
  • Vegetables: 2 Tablespoons
  • Fruits: 2 Tablespoons
  • Dairy: ½ Cup
  • Meat and meat substitute: 2 Tablespoons.

(I know these aren’t all measured in Tablespoons. Don’t blame me. I didn’t invent the method.)

Children learn how to select an appropriate, child-sized serving from adults.

Every time you put a portion on the plate you are teaching your tots how much food they ought to eat.

So err on the side of serving smaller sizes and let your kids come back for more. It’s a habit that will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~



Butte, N. F., M. K. Fox, R. R. Briefel, A. M. Siega-Riz, J. T. Dwyer, D. M. Deming, and K. C. Reidy. 2010. “Nutrient Intakes of U.S. Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Meet Or Exceed Dietary Reference Intakes.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association Suppl 3, 110 (12): S27-S37. 

Ramsay, S. A., L. J. Branen, and S. L. Johnson. 2012. “How Much is Enough? Tablespoon Per Year of Age Approach Meets Nutrient Needs of Children.” Appetite 58: 163-67.