Believe it or not, it’s impossible for parents to know how much food their kids need to eat.

Sure there are guidelines (See USDA recommendations by age) but since you never really know how much energy your children are burning up, or how fast they’re growing, you can’t ever be sure how much food they need.

It’s hard to let go — whether you worry your kids are going to be hungry or stuffed. But you really have no choice if you want your kids to have healthy eating habits.

And if you push your kids to eat more because you want them to eat differently (i.e. you want to get more veggies into them), then you’re sacrificing one goal (knowing how much to eat) for another.  In the long run, it’s not a good trade-off.  See 10 Habits More Important Than Vegetable Eating.

What makes feeding even trickier is that most kids don’t know when they’re hungry or full.

It goes against everything you’ve ever heard about kids, but even though infants start and stop eating perfectly in sync with their bodies’ needs, toddlers and older kids are another story.

Research shows that a lot of kids are eating on auto-pilot. When it comes to hunger and satiation, the link between body and brain can be disrupted by age 3 and is frequently gone by age 5.

See The Two-More Bites Tango, Size Matters and How Big is That Bag?

The only way to be sure that your kids are eating the right amount is to teach them to be their own eating experts.

Use the pictures below to talk to your children about how they feel when they’re hungry and full.  Encourage them to use their own words to describe their feelings.  Maybe even have them draw their own scale.  Then, have your kids rate their hunger/satiation before, during and after meals. The goal is to stay between 3 and 5.

Scale adapted from Take the Fight Out of Food by Donna Fish.

Don’t be surprised if your kids lie about how hungry or full they are – at least at first.

Unless your kids know with absolute certainty that they can stop or continue eating no matter what they tell you, they’ll say whatever it takes to get the result they desire.

  • Let your children have the amount of food they desire so they can be confident the food is not going away.
  • Give your kids permission not to eat.  Click for more on this.
  • If you suspect your children are full but don’t know it, tell them to wait 5 or 10 minutes and then rate their feelings again.  If they still want to eat more, let them.  When they’re done, have them assess their fullness feelings one more time.

Get your kids in the habit of listening to their own internal signals and they’ll end up eating the right amount. The added bonus? It’s one less thing you have to think about.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

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Sources: Fish, D., 2005. Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child’s Eating Problems. New York: Atria Books.

Tribole, E. and E. Resch, 2003. Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Program That Works., Vol. 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press.