If you have ever wondered about this, you are not alone! As a pediatric dietitian, I get this question often from concerned parents of toddlers and children who seem to have little to no appetite. The first thing I do is encourage parents to start by describing the portion sizes their children consume at each meal and to list all their daily hydration. Drinks with added sugars, such as milk, juice and other sugary beverages, should not be consumed in excess. Over-consuming beverages can lead to decreased appetite. If your child is drinking appropriate amounts of these beverages and there are no other medical conditions, then most of the time your little one is probably doing just fine. Little bellies just need little portions.
According to Ellen Satter, an internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, parents are responsible for what, when and where of feeding and children are responsible for how much they are eating. For parents, this drastically reduces the stress of feeding! You are doing well as long as you serve wholesome foods 5–6 times a day (three small meals and two–three wholesome snacks). I usually recommend having set daily meal and snack times since children really do well with schedules. I also recommend that parents provide the meals and snacks at the table, away from the TV and other distractions. One distraction we have in our house is our beloved Labrador retriever — who patiently waits at the side of my son’s highchair for bits and pieces of meals and snacks that he shares with her. Cute at first, but it is definitely distracting! Now, we let the dog outside or into another room during meal and snack times. My son eats much better without his mealtime partner in crime by his side in the highchair. Just paying attention to what might cause distractions during meal and snack times can make a huge difference in helping your little one to make it through a meal.
Another important part of this is variety. Make sure to offer different types of foods often and think of the rainbow as you select them. Fruits and vegetables of varying colors have different vitamins and nutrients, plus kids love colorful displays of foods! So, mix it up and have fun with colors.
Here are some examples of appropriate portion sizes during a meal or snack:
• ¼ to ½ slice of bread
• ¼ to ½ cup of dry cereal
• ¼ to ½ piece of fresh fruit
• 1 oz of meat (1oz = 1 egg, ½ oz nuts, ¼ cup cooked beans)
• ½ egg
• ¼ cup of yogurt
In one day, try to aim for:
• 3 oz of whole grains (1oz = 1 mini-bagel, 1 slice of bread, 1 small muffin, ¼ cup cooked pasta or rice, 1/3 cup cold cereal)
• 1 cup of fruit
• 1 cup of vegetables
• 2 cups milk or dairy
• 2 oz of meat or beans
Use this as a general guideline for how much food your child should eat rather than going crazy attempting to measure out all their foods. The idea is to keep the portions reasonable. Also, look at the big picture. If your little one has a bad day and isn’t eating much, don’t stress! It is more important to look at what he or she ate over the course of an entire week, not just at one meal or on one day. Have fun with mealtimes! Chances are that your little one is eating enough of what they need. Call your physician or nutritionist for a second opinion if you’re still unsure. Always trust your gut and gather as much information as you can to guide your decision-making for your child.