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 ask any parent to do is describe the portion sizes of what the child eats for each meal and also what they drink throughout the day. Over consuming beverages such as milk, juice and other sugar drinks 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. This really takes the stress out of feeding for parents! As long as you are providing healthy foods about 5-6 times a day (3 small meals and 2-3 healthy snacks) you are doing great! 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 high chair 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 meal time 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 to this is variety. Make sure to offer different types 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
Please don’t go crazy with trying to measure out all of your child’s foods but instead use this as a guide to how much your child should eat. 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 in one meal or in one day. Have fun with mealtimes! Chances are that your little one is eating enough of what they need. If you’re still not sure, though, call your pediatrician or nutritionist for a second opinion. It is always best to trust your instinct and pursue as much information as possible to help you make the right choices for your child.