Food portion distortion

One of the big questions or threads that I have seen coming out of my last post is the question of how do I know as a parent if my child is eating enough and getting enough nutrition wise. There is lots of advice out there about what is nutritious and what is not, but very little on how much of this nutritious food to serve your kids.

I am not one to obsess over this stuff, though Lord knows I do enough obsessing over other things that I can completely understand where people are coming from. If my children are healthy and growing I don’t worry.

As I said in my previous post, I am NOT talking about children who have allergies or medical issues which require special feeding practices. I am not the expert on those sorts of things, nor am I the expert on your child. I do know that engaging in a battle of wills with your child on anything, but most especially food, is never a good thing.

I do have one child who is extremely skinny. The funny thing is that he is far and away the best eater out of my children. He doesn’t like sweets, refuses to eat fast food, and believes that blue and red food dye make him misbehave (which they very well might, who am I to argue with him) I am not concerned, but because he is also my ADHD child who takes medication that can supress a person’s appetetite I have to keep an eye on his food intake so that the psychiatrist doesn’t become overly concerned. Every night before bed he has a huge Carnation milkshake made with half and half and added protien powder. The thing must have 500+ calories. I swear I gain weight just looking at him prepare it.

The thing is that he looks like kids used to look back when I was growing up. Children are fatter now. (From 1980 to 2002, obesity has doubled in adults and overweight prevalence has tripled in children and adolescents.) It is hard not to think of your child as being underweight when you are comparing them to the majority who are overweight.

I am going to write something very controversial. Get rid of juice. It is not nutritious. It is filled with sugar, fructose IS sugar. It is bad for your children’s teeth to be bathed in sugar all day long. And it is filled with empty, yet filling calories. Unless you are fresh squeezing your own juice, don’t give it to your kids. Water is the best thing to keep your body hydrated. How many of us as adults talk about trying to drink enough water? Might as well make water drinking a habit that is ingrained in them.

I think that we, myself included, have a distorted view of the Food Pyramid and nutrition. When it talks about servings, that does not mean as much as you can eat in a meal. Serving sizes are actaully quite a bit smaller that you would realize.
is an excellent place to start. You can plug in your child’s age and get a pyramid of the number of servings (and more importantly the SIZE of those servings) that your child should get in a day.

I have heard that a good rule of thumb for young children, ages 6 and under I am going to say, is to think of their serving sizes as 1/4 to 1/2 of adult sized portions. So if an adult sized portion of meat is the size of a small deck of cards, picture in your mind how small 1/4 of that is. That is pretty small! The preschool sized portion of eggs… is 1/2 of one egg. You can see how easy it can be to have them reach 3 servings of meat when the portions are that small.

Vegetable serving… 1/4 of a cup. That is an incredibly small amount.

It has also been my experience that children are creatures of habit. Once they like something they will eat it and eat for months on end until one day they never want to see it again. EVER. My oldest son did this with Peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches. He ate two every single day for lunch for probably five years. Then one day he said he didn’t really like them anymore and he hasn’t had one since. So as you are making those chicken nuggets for yet another lunch, have hope that one day they will want something different. probably right after you found a great deal and stocked up on a year’s supply of them.

39 Responses to “Food portion distortion”

  1. Notes from the Trenches » Raspberries, good for what ails you Says:

    [...] (I have a new post up over at my other blog continuing the discussion of picky eaters and focusing on food portion distortion) [...]

  2. jeana Says:

    When my kids were babies and preschoolers, two of my friends and I noticed that between the ages of 1 1/2 and 5 or so, the kids would eat one good meal a day and the other two they would just pick a little bit; regardless of what they were served. Since we had 11 kids between the 3 of us, we decided that was enough for us to declare that it was normal behavior for that age. I wonder how many moms of kids that age are freaking out about the “other two” meals when their kids are eating normally for their age.

  3. Jen Says:

    Good advice Chris! The other empty calorie food people insist on feeding is sugar cereal. I’m all for a nice, bug, fruity bowl of Fruit Loops, but as a snack, once in a while, and never before I expect them to sit down for school. I don’t worry too much about how much they’re eating either, I have enough to obsess over just trying to make sure I offer healthy, fresh foods.

  4. Julie Says:

    I agree with the “don’t obsess” advice. My oldest is very skinny and (surprise, surprise) a picky eater to boot. He is the original Mrs. Piggle Wiggle “Slow eater tiny bite taker.” We used to have big battles and bribery sessions all the time. Then I realized that he just needs WAY longer to eat than most kids. Like at least an hour per meal. Once we figured that out, we made sure he had plenty of time to eat — and at least one food he likes — and things have improved dramatically. He still brings home sandwiches with one bite taken out of them from school (because his friends wolf down lunch in 5 minutes and are out to recess) but at home, he can nurse his plate of food FOREVER if he needs to.

    I’d like to try the 500 calorie (!) shake thing for him too. Where do you get the protein powder?

  5. Owlhaven Says:

    We serve juice at only ONE meal per day– and it is always calcium-fortified orange juice. i[ve read that grape and apple juice is no more healthy than koolaid. Speaking of koolaid, I make about 4 gallons of Koolaid a *year*, almost always for a birthday party. And my kids drink cola/pop about once a month. They just don’t need all that sugar. And in a little kid, that sugary water can really dull the hunger for good things.

    Regarding serving sizes, I have heard to aim for one tablespoonfull of an item per year of age. So a two year old would eat only 2 T. of something to make a serving. That helps me relax on the rare occasions I begin stressing about a child’s food. Usually I just leave it to the kid, and assume that if they are hungry they will eat.

    Seems to be working. All 8 of my kids are normal weight.

    Mary, mom to many

  6. Katie Says:

    An odd way I’ve heard to measure servings is by the size of your child’s fist. So 1/4 of a cup is about the size of a 3 year old’s fist.

    I just realized that the size of the dish matters when it comes to servings and waste. We recently received some new cereal bowls and for the last few days, I’ve noticed a lot of cereal going down the sink. It’s because the kids fill the bowls to the top and since that’s probably 4 servings, they can’t finish it (I’m in the “don’t have to clear your plate” camp). I’m pulling out the old smaller bowls again just because I can’t deal with the waste.

  7. Erin Says:

    I am totally with you on the juice thing. I’m not planning to give my daughter juice on a regular basis. I’m kind of planning that juice will be like soda for us - a sometimes treat. So far (she’s 14 months), she drinks milk and water. The other thing I am going to do is make milk an unlimited food. I know that some doctors are recommending milk be limited, but if she’s not having juice, I think I’m ok with it. Anyways… thanks for the advice on the eating stuff. It is helping me relax about what to feed my kid.

  8. Keri Says:

    At least you have SIX other kids to offer the chicken nuggets to! ;)

  9. SusanChristine Says:

    I was never a big juice drinker and consquently, my children didn’t get juice AT ALL. Now, all they want is water or iced tea (at dinner only), no juice, no soda. They drink milk at school for lunch. Well, that’s one area I can pat myself on the back on….there are many others that I have failed though! :) Thanks for the link to the food pyramid site….it’s great!

  10. T in HD Says:

    “I am going to write something very controversial. Get rid of juice. It is not nutritious.”

    Not controversial here. Juice is sugar. I’d rather my kids eat a piece of fruit than drink fruit juice. My only exception is a glass of orange juice in the morning. Otherwise, it’s water for thirst, milk for meals. I just wish I could get my husband to stick to this. He gives them juice and it drives me mad. The fact is, juice is simply not a nutritional requirement. Food portions is also something my husband and I butt heads on. He piles the food on the kids’ plates. Food gets wasted when they mutilate it but don’t eat it and we can little afford to waste food around here but I certainly don’t want my kids to eat food simply because it is on their plate.

    Anyway, all this to say, good points. Now, just tell my husband this. Maybe he’ll listen to you (he reads your blogs faithfully) because he doesn’t seem to take a blind bit of notice when I tell him all this! ;-)

  11. Christina Says:

    People are sometimes shocked (my mil is #1) that I don’t give my kids juice all the time. They get 1/2 water 1/2 apple juice maybe once a week, just as a change from just water, but basically we are water and milk drinkers. I have also found that most of the time there is one good meal a day and the other two may be picked at, unless they are going thru a growth spurt, then watch out! I always offer healthy, nutritious food for meals and snacks with a once or twice a week dessert, that way when they do eat well they are eating something good for them. I also cook just about everything from scratch as that automatically makes it better for you. I don’t have to read labels and decipher what is in everything.

  12. Kristen Says:

    My daughter drinks watered down juice, however, I give her V-8 fusion - no sugar and it has a serving of fruit AND veggies in it. I wish she would drink water. Just plain water. But that’s a darn hard sell. So I reallllllly water it down.

    And I swear by the mulitgrain pastas that have amino fatty acids in them making them high in protein - like 10 grams a serving.

    This way, if she’s not eating meat, she can just eat noodles and still get some nutrition.

  13. Mir Says:

    Amen. When I’m packing lunches I often give Monkey a snack-size baggie with, say, 3 green beans in it. A friend of mine laughed at me, but hey—that’s a serving of veggies for someone his size, and if I pack more than that I’ll be throwing them away, anyway!

  14. Brigitte Says:

    Hmmm . . . so I guess when my 20-lb. 23-month-old kid eats 5 peas, I can count it as a serving and quit feeling so guilty!

  15. jen Says:

    My son has never tasted juice, chocolate or cheerios (he is 14months). I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible. I figure that if he never tastes them he won’t know what he’s missing!

    The skinny thing is a hard one. It is drummed into us that ‘chubby’ babies are good - and I have had a hard time persuading people that I was not starving my son. He has been breastfed since birth, and therefore I have issues with people comparing him to their wholly bottle-fed kids (many of whom even now walking are unhealthily obese). My son is bang on 50% percentile for height, and eats like a horse, and hasn’t had a cold in over 6 months.

    In addition, my husband is a skinny dude, as are most my family (apart from me, sadly!), including all the male children (skinny as rakes!), so being fat is not going to be an issue for my son….. unless he eats chocolate, crisps, and knocks back juice every day.

    Mummy, however, is now trying to wean herself off apple juice, after a childhood of being fed ‘healthy’ juices.

  16. Briana Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement. My son (now 23 pounds at 15 months) was born at nearly 8 pounds, but at 6 months only weighed 12.5 pounds, so you can probably see why we worry about his intake. But it is good to hear reassuring words that he’ll eat what he needs. He is one of those texture kids, who seem to care more about texture of foods than taste. I still offer him different textures. He refuses to eat carrots and peas, for example, unless they are the gerber 2nd stages pureed carrots and peas. Go figure. I’ll take that as long as he’ll eat vegetables somehow. And I’m happy to learn that a serving is really less than I thought. According to that, he DOES get enough. :)
    Thanks for the post.

  17. liz Says:

    Excellent post! Thanks for the reminder!

  18. Danielle Says:

    Here, here!!! The twins are 22 months old and weigh about 24 pounds each. #1 son is 5 and weighs almost 38 pounds. They look skinny but only when you compare them to the “normal” children around them. They eat when they are hungry. They stop when they are full. #1 son is a very picky eater and the skinniest of all but he is also healthy and active. No juice here!!!

  19. Amah Says:

    We don’t do juice at ALL unless it is a treat. The kids each have a “water bottle” that is “their color” and it is rinsed and fiilled several times a day. We do grain cereals and actually get a “sugar (Trix type) cereal occasionally - to use for snacks. Most of the kids that come to visit us are big into juices, breads, pastas, McDonalds. You know - easy stuff - so it is a big trick to “outwait” them when they are not used to and do not “like” what is served at our table. It usually takes about 5 hrs for them to change thier “habits” and eat at least something that is on our table. I do try to serve a variety of things at each meal but we do have staples. And yes, they will get tired of everything eventually. And since they are small (only 0-4 comes to share our home) they learn quickly and can’t help themselves to anything that hasn’t been served to them.

    We have skinny kids, chubby kids, obese kids, and with proper nutrition they all become “regular kids”. Some are bigger, some thinner, some shorter, some huskier. There are all types of “regular”.

  20. Beth Says:

    My daughter (2 1/2 yrs) was bottle fed (I couldn’t produce milk due to surgery I had in my teens) and she is “bang on” 50% percentile for weight. She is also rarely sick. I think I can count on my hand the number of times she has ever been sick. Not all bottle fed kids are overweight sick all of the time.

    With my daughter, I try to find a happy medium. My parents raised me on nothing but homemade meals and fresh vegetables. We rarely went out to eat anywhere. And even though to this day I pride myself on the fact that I still love to eat and cook with a huge variety of fresh (never canned) vegetables, and am proud that my family enjoyed a meal together everynight, I can’t ignore the fact that once I was old enough to drive and get out on my own, I went nuts eating out and enjoying the things I felt deprived of as a kid.

    So I have tried to maintain a healthy balance with my daughter. She likes the occasional happy meal as a treat, so I let her have it a couple times a month. You can make healthy choices, like getting orange or apple slices instead of french fries to balance it out. She also has a cup or two of lite juice (the kids kind that is low sugar and fortified with vitamins) that is mixed with half water. She also gets plenty of water and milk throughout the day. And, I make sure she gets a green veggie with her lunches and dinners.

    I think most importantly you just need to listen and pay attention to your child’s “signals”. Their little bodies know what they need. I think too often people are raised ( I was too) to feel like they had to finish their plate. I think that is part of the reason why we, as a country, have portion control issues. I know I do. I sometimes find it difficult to let my daughter “be finished” if she has only picked at her food, but deep down I know I should let her stop when she wants. Her little body knows when it is satisfied!

  21. Nicola Says:

    We are no-juice people too. I used to, but my kids have really, really soft teeth, and while my dentist and I were trying to figure out where the sugar was coming from (no fruit-rollups, etc), we hit upon the juice. Even then I was watering it down because they went through it like crazy and I disliked the cost. So I happily tossed it.

    My kids get juice once a week - on Friday night during our Shabbat meal (we are Jewish). They act like it is kiddie crack and would suck back the whole bottle if we let them, which adds amusement value when we watch guests’ reactions to their deprivation.

    Since we cut it, I’ve been amazed at what a good marketing job juice makers have managed to do, because many people cannot believe we don’t have juice, like it is a staple.

    Of course, we are even more radical - I’ve never made my kids drink milk. When they want it, great, but two of them don’t like it and I don’t kill myself to get it down them, since I cannot be convinced that the breastmilk of another animal can possibly be that crucial to the human diet. I just make sure they get other sources of calcium.

    I have to admit, though, it is easy for me. I have three very skinny kids (like all my husband’s side of the family, and I try not to hate them too much) and they all eat constantly and are relatively not picky. I must attribute part of it to genetics, but I think I can attribute part of it to the only piece of advice my father ever gave me before the birth of my first child. He said, “When the kid is 3, if all she wants to eat for a week is hot dogs, don’t sweat it. She’ll get past it as long as you don’t turn it into a huge battle.” And as I watch friends turn dinner into huge power struggles with their kids, I’m still thankful for that advice. We never did worry about what they ate and they eat a lot better than most.

  22. Gwen Says:

    Excellent advice. My son is very picky and often eats only chicken nuggets or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’s underweight but I don’t sweat it. I supplement his diet with vitamins and Ovaltine. I figure eating something is better than nothing at all, and who really wants to spend all night at the dinner table coaxing “Just one more bite!?!”

    My daughter, however, eats like a horse (she’s only a year) and she’s only about 16 pounds, underweight as well. Not too worried there either. Their pediatrician told me that bone growth is a better indicator of nutrition anyway.

  23. Jennifer Says:

    Great information and you are so right about kids diets. As a mom to be, I want to make sure I do right by my kids, giving them proper portion sizes of healthy foods and lots of WATER!

  24. Julie Says:

    My son does react to Red 40 so your son may know himself very well. I agree wholeheartedly with getting rid of juice. I rememnber about 10 years ago moms were happily handing their kids fruit snacks (aka gummy bears by another name) because they used “real fruit juice.”! And I also noticed since becoming a mother 12 years ago, that moms give a lot of apple juice — I think there’s a connection with all the sugar and obesity and behavioral problems. Adkins/SouthBeach blame the carbs; Feingold says there’s a chemical in the apples. Thanks for your posts!

  25. Terri Says:

    Hi Chris
    I really enjoyed reading your blog. Although I still can’t imagine, how you really do do it.
    I am trying to get something similar going but with an Australian flavour and it’s a bit more irreverent than yours.
    I’m still in the early stages but would love to be where you are in a few years.
    My challenge is getting enough people to know about it, and then getting them to bother to comment.
    Most Mums tell me they are too busy!!!!
    If anyone would like to make a comment, please do!

  26. Kari Says:

    Thank you so much for this! I wrote a comment on your last post about having an underweight baby. I constantly stress out about her not eating anything. Well, after reading this, I am beginning to realize that she probably IS eating what amounts to a portion of each of the things I give her. She is almost 1, but I am thinking she should be eating a whole slice of bread when in actuality, it should be only about a quarter of the slice. Thanks for the peace of mind.

  27. carrien Says:

    Down with juice. MY kids are great water drinkers, and when they want a variation they get soy milk, or almond milk, unsweetened if I can find it. They look like kids used to look when I was little too; healthy, strong, and lean.

    I read some great articles about getting children to eat healthfully a while back. It has worked for us. If you don’t have poor food choices in your house, then your kids will learn to eat healthy foods. Grown-up treats can either stay outside, or be eaten when the kids are sleeping and hidden from them. ANyway, it works for us. IF we don’t buy it, they don’t expect to get it and they seem quite content with what they have.

  28. Holli Says:

    My mom always said to serve the child portions based on their age, i.e. two years old, two tablespoons, etc. Makes sense to me!

  29. Lisa S. Says:

    Ahh.. I thought I was the only “bad” mother who didn’t buy juice and made her kids drink water! They get milk at regular meals only. I’m just too darn cheap! I can’t afford to feed 6 children juice all day!
    I agree about the Fruit Loops. The closest to “junk” food they get for breakfast is Raisin Bran with sugared raisins (I figure the 7g of fiber offsets that) or yogurt in their oatmeal.
    I have a son we call “The Black Hole”. He seems to never stop eating, but you can count his ribs when he stretches.

  30. theotherbear Says:

    Oh dear I wish I’d never looked at the link you put to the food pyramid portion size thingy.

    Now I have been able to confirm that the reason why hubby and I are a bit chubbier than we should be is cos we eat too darn much!

  31. Susan Says:

    Great post. I am totally with you on the juice thing. Rarely gave it to my kids as toddlers, and we almost never have it on hand. The kids drink water or 1% milk. They LOVE the flavored Propel water, so I splurge in the hopes that they’ll drink plenty.

    I agree about portion sizes and overweight kids! I remember *one* overweight child from my classes in 1973-1980 (elementary school). ONE! Now, every other kid seems to be obese. I remember eating *half* a sandwich every day through 6th grade. I would get ONE cookie in my lunch, not two or three. I never became overweight until I moved out of the house (in my early 20’s) and I’m positive it’s because I suddenly went crazy with portion sizes — and stopped exercising.

    Because my husband & I are both prone to a weight problem, we really watch what our kids eat. My son’s 11, and for the first time ever, I bought those Pringles single packs for his birthday trip this past weekend. That will probably be the last time, LOL. We just don’t eat like that, as a rule. A few chips at lunchtime with a sandwich maybe, but we don’t hand over a huge bag of Doritos to the kids and say Have at it! You know?

    Anyway, thanks for a great post.

  32. marta Says:

    Great post and also agree with Carrien: if you (the adults) want treats and junk, eat it while they (the kids) sleep or away from them. We don’t have junk (chips, chocolate cookies, sugared cereals, packaged bread, juice) at home but everynow and then my husband and I indulge in some, away from the kids (very rare occasions we’re away from the kids…). Also, the rule for candy/chocolate is: have those at your friends birthday parties but none at home. This way they’ll eat candy about once a month.
    They’re percentile 75-95, lean, strong, agile. One is a black hole kind of eater, the other two are more on the picky side with a twist: my daughter will only eat salad with a olive oil-vinegar dressing and plenty of raw onions, for example, but no veggie soup; my toddler will eat tons of fish but no potatoes (baked, mashed, what have you). The “Black Hole” is the skinnier of the three, but on the 95 percentile in height (he’s 6 1/2 and measuring 1m30 - that’s your average 8 yo.

  33. hedra Says:

    You know the AAP agrees on juice, right? They allow a small amount (4 oz per day, I think), up to age 6. But one gets the clear picture that juice is not fondly viewed by the experts.

  34. Courtney Orrange Says:

    oooo, the fluffernutter! can’t say I blame him for wanting one a couple of times a day! people out here in good old colorado don’t seem to know what their missing with the fluffernutter!

  35. del4yo Says:

    OK, now I understand why my doctor was suprised when I said I never drink juice or soft drinks…And thanks to you I will stick to my diet!

    When I arrived in the USA from France I was astonished for the very little amount of “real” food in the grocery stores, and felt drowned in a sea of junk food. It must be very difficult to keep the right habits if you have known nothing but that kind of store.

    Then I also noticed that even the usual dishes I was used to in Europe were in astonishingly bigger portions, and done with far more grease ( oil or butter) and sugar than the European version. Maybe it’s something to think about too, cutting on grease and sugar?

  36. Nickel Says:


    THANKS! for this blogpost, has definitely put my mind at ease re. portions, and
    THANKS! for giving me hope that my child WILL one day eat something other than “sausages, cheese and tomatoe” for dinner!

    I’m really enjoying your posts.

  37. Connie Says:

    I am new to this whole thing so forgive me if I offend somebody.

    I have 4 amazing children (girls 13 & 10, and twin boys 8) The younger three are healthy as far as height and weight go. My younger daughter is the same size as the boys so either they are tall or she is petite, haven’t figured it out yet. My oldest who I was only able to breast feed for 6 weeks (my husband was injured and I had to go back to work, stress kills the breast) is overweight. She knows that she is overweight so she eats healthy, I make sure of that, she is in sports, her choice.

    I wonder if the fact that she was formula fed and genetics doesn’t play a role in that. My oldest sister has always had weight issues (she weighed 10,5 when she was born, my daughter was 8,14). My younger daughter I breast fed until she was 11 months, she decided she was done, never tasted formula. My boys I was able to breast feed until they were 2 1/2 mos. I couldn’t produce enough milk to satisfy them. My younger daughter doesnt’ have an ounce of fat on her, in fact she is still wearing size 6 & 7 clothes, the boys are muscular, no fat either. They are always playing outside. My 10 year old loves to dance so she is always creating a “program” for us. My oldest daughter rides her bike, walks and is essentially my helper at home, she is always doing something to help me out so I know it isn’t because she’s sitting on her butt.

    We don’t watch much t.v., too much to do with 4 kids, homework, full time jobs and each other.

    If any of you have ideas, how do I help this sweet 13 yr old lose the weight without putting her on a “diet”. Diets just make things worse because at some point you have to go back to eating normal. I’m open to suggestions, and can take criticism so hit me with whatever you have.

    Thank you in advance.

  38. T in HD Says:

    Connie, I have no good advice but it sounds like you are very sensitive to her feelings and needs and I’m wondering if she isn’t dealing with a genetic component to her weight. My sister has always had to fight tooth and nail to keep her weight down and I’ve rarely ever had to do anything. As to forumula vs. breastmilk, I know there are studies that show breastfed babies tend to have less weight issues later in life than formula fed but that is just a tendancy and I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on that factor. My sister and I were both exclusively ff and, as I said, one fights to keep the weight off, the other doesn’t. I ff and bf my first and exclusively bf my second and third and, so far, none of them seem to have weight issues.

    Has your daughter always had a weight problem or is it something that has developed over the last few years? I ask because I know many girls (myself included) tend to gain a bit around onset of puberty but slim back down again within a few years.

    It sounds to me like you both are aware of her weight issues and are tackling the situation with a good, common sense approach. I agree with you about diets. I do not believe in them. Sensible eating habits yes, weight loss diets, especiallly for children, no. My only suggestion would be to encourage her to step up her physical activity even more than she already has, perhaps finding a sport she really enjoys. Some people just seem to need more activity to keep the metabolism up than others. I hope your daugther will find she “outgrows” her weight issues and does not have to face a life time of struggling with them. Good luck to the both of you!

  39. free advice Says:

    free advice…