What Serving Sizes Are Right for Your Kids?

A registered dietitian and nutritionist (and mom of four!) weighs in on servings sizes with a MyPlate widget and some new dietary guidelines.

It’s a parent’s job to provide a balanced diet of healthy foods to nourish our kids and help them grow. Once we’ve figured out what foods are healthy and appealing to our kids’ palates, the next question to answer is how much? The term serving size means different things to different people, but we should think twice about using restaurant portions as our guide, says Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Jodi Nemeth.

“You’ll hear the term portion distortion because over the past 20 years, we have become easily persuaded that the bigger the serving size, the better,” says Nemeth, who is also the mom of four kids. This blend of portion size with value for money “has not been good for Americans’ waistlines,” she says.

Families can always start with food labels because they list portion sizes right at the top. “You don’t always have to eat that amount, but if you are eating double or triple the serving size, you have to double (or triple) the calories and everything else listed on the label,” Nemeth explains. “I think people are often surprised by what is considered an appropriate serving size.”

On some days our kids’ appetites are like bottomless pits, while on others, “I’m not hungry” is the mantra — and that’s not unusual, Nemeth says.

“It’s normal for a child’s appetite to vary greatly day to day. They’ll like a food one day and not the next, and sometimes it’s hard to get them to try new foods.”

But once you found a good variety of healthy foods, it’s up to your child to decide how much they’d like to eat from the serving you have provided.

“A child should be allowed to use their internal signals to decide what to eat and how much of the foods we provide them at a meal or a snack,” she says.

“To raise healthy eaters, parents and caregivers do have an important job. It’s our responsibility to provide nourishing food to fuel their growing bodies, serve balanced meals with appropriate serving sizes, provide a pleasant environment for mealtime and set the example for healthy eating and encourage a healthy relationship with food,” Nemeth says.

Here, Nemeth offers some guidelines for appropriate serving sizes.

Your child’s age can guide you

To calculate an individual’s nutritional needs, dietitians factor age, height, weight and activity levels. Start with the basics and offer foods from all of the food groups on a daily basis regardless of age, Nemeth suggests.

“This can be done by encouraging younger kids to eat three meals and at least two snacks each day. Older kids need to eat three meals and at least one snack,” she says. “When you skip meals, it makes it harder to fit all the food groups in.”

Here’s a good example. For 2- to 5-year-old kids, Milk Means More suggests offering grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy foods, protein and fats each day. Two to four servings of vegetables each day can come in the form of ¼ cup cooked carrots or ½ cup of raw greens per serving. For dairy foods, offer four servings for 2- and 3-year-olds and 5 or more servings for 4- and 5-year-olds. One serving might be ½ cup milk, ½ cup yogurt, or a one-inch cube of cheese.

Parents can factor healthy portion guidelines for each child in the family through the MyPlate Plan widget. For example, a 7-year-old boy who gets 30-60 minutes of moderate activity needs about 1,600 calories a day, which means 1 ½ cups of raw, frozen or cooked fruit, 2 cups of raw or cooked vegetables, 5 ounces of grains, 5 ounces of protein and 2 ½ cups of dairy foods.

“I find it helpful to print a MyPlate Plan for all of my patients over 12 months,” Nemeth says. “It’s a very useful guide to educate parents on their child’s recommended serving size of each food group to meet their nutritional needs.”

New guidelines

The MyPlate Plan is based on new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is one resource for nutrition guidelines that covers all life stages starting at birth.

“Birth to 6 months is breast milk or iron-fortified formula if breast milk is not available, but the guidelines starting at 6 months may be interesting to new parents,” Nemeth says. While common wisdom has long indicated that from 6 months, babies should receive complementary foods for new flavors and textures, the guidelines say something new.

“It is suggested to introduce potentially allergenic foods,” Nemeth says. “Cow’s milk is one of these foods, as well as soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Starting an infant on yogurt is a good introduction to cow’s milk and it’s a nutrient-dense complementary food with an appropriate texture.”

Where dairy foods shine

Because dairy foods are typically very nutrient dense, they are an ideal way to fill nutritional gaps, so Nemeth suggests offering milk with meals or a snack to help them get their three servings in each day.

“Milk contains 13 essential nutrients, and that is something that few other foods can offer,” she says. “Many people know about the bone-building benefits, which are so important during the bone-building years. Protein is another key nutrient that is important for a child to build strong muscles, and several of the other nutrients found in milk help support a healthy immune system.”

Keeping your eye on the bigger picture can help. Check in with myplate.gov often or speak with a registered dietitian if you have concerns about your child’s nutrition, Nemeth says.

“It’s important to encourage and help your child establish a healthy relationship with food,” Nemeth says. “Encourage children to listen to their body’s cues for hunger and fullness and provide opportunities to try new foods. Get their help with meal planning, food prep, and enjoy family meals together.”

Content brought to you by Milk Means More. Learn more about Michigan dairy farming, nutrition and local dairy products at milkmeansmore.org.

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