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How Much Should Your Kid Be Eating?

how much should kids eat

Most parents worry about whether their children are getting enough – or too much – to eat. And for good reason, because who really knows how much their kid should be eating? Just yesterday Lucy threw a 30-minute long tantrum and as I was trying to console her I realized she hadn’t eaten in over four hours. I quickly gave her a snack and she was back to normal two minutes later.

Though kids are pretty good about self-regulating their hunger, they do need our help with many aspects of eating. It’s our job as parents to offer healthy & appealing foods, limit snacking and encourage children to listen to their bodies. Since these tasks can be tricky, here are some basic guidelines for how much food your child needs at each age.

Ages 1-3

Keep in mind:

  • Growth slows down by about 30% after the first year, so don’t worry if your toddler’s appetite seems smaller or erratic.
  • Don’t push your child to eat more than she wants. She will not starve, and you want her to listen to her body signals!

Tips:

  1. Avoid food bribes. Promote a positive relationship with food by offering your child healthy foods and letting him choose what he eats.
  2. Stick to a meal/snack schedule. Toddlers usually like to eat frequently (every 3 hours or so) but avoid offering unlimited access to food.
  3. Don’t panic. Really, children will eat when they’re hungry.
Sample Menu – Ages 1-3
Breakfast ½ cup oatmeal with ½ cup fruit and ½ cup milk
Lunch Grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat with 1 oz cheese and ¼ cup diced tomatoes on the side
Dinner 1 oz chicken½ cup roasted asparagus½ small sweet potato
Snacks 1) 4 oz plain yogurt with ½ cup fruit or ¼ cup whole grain cereal2) ½ sliced apple with a piece of string cheese
Drinks Serve meals with water or ½ cup milk; limit juice to ½ cup/day

Ages 4-6

Keep in mind: 

  • Kids this age eat slowly, so they may not finish their school lunch simply because they didn’t have much time. Make sure to give them ample time to eat what they’re served at home.
  • Since you can’t control everything your child eats anymore, focus on providing a healthy food environment at home, and don’t freak out about what happens outside the home.

Tips:

  1. Watch out for emotional eating. If your child is always asking for snacks, help her determine whether she’s really hungry and if not, find something else to do.
  2. Allow your child to serve himself at meals, but don’t require that he finish everything on his plate.
Sample Menu – Ages 4-6
Breakfast 1 piece whole wheat toast with 1 Tbsp nut butter1 banana
Lunch ½ turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with cheese & veggies½ cup baby carrots with 2 Tbsp hummus½ cup chopped fruit
Dinner 2 oz meat or fish½ cup cooked grains½ cup roasted veggies or salad
Snacks 1) ¼ cup trail mix2) ½ cup yogurt with piece of fruit

Ages 7-9

Keep in mind:

  • Weight gain may slow down during these years, but calorie needs rise as kids become more active. Offer healthy after-school snacks, especially if your child plays sports.
  • Kids in this age group may become a little heavier in preparation for a growth spurt, but avoid caloric drinks and limit treats to prevent overweight.

Tips:

  1. Include foods you know your child likes in meals you prepare at home. Kids this age may not love what you serve for the entree, but if you have some side dishes they enjoy available, you won’t have to prepare separate meals for each member of the family.
Sample Menu – Ages 7-9
Breakfast 1 whole wheat English muffin with 1 scrambled egg1 piece of fruit
Lunch Pasta salad with veggies & cheese1 piece of fruit
Dinner 3 oz meat or fish½ cup roasted veggies or raw veggies with 2 Tbsp dip1 small cookie or popsicle for dessert
Snacks 1) ¼ cup trail mix2) 1 cup edamame with sea salt

For all ages…

Remember, your main nutritional jobs as a parent are to:

1) help your child build a healthy relationship with food

2) provide a healthy food environment

Healthy eating will ebb and flow but as long as these two things are your focus, odds are your child will develop good habits over time!

Sample meal plans adapted from Parents Magazine April 2013

3 Comments

  • Reply
    Aubrey
    October 18, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    As a health educator working on my MPH (which I see you have!), I love the approach you take with this article. I clicked the link to this particle honestly expecting another set of fat-shaming, fat-fearing guidelines, but the fact that you focus on building a healthy relationship with food is so encouraging to me. Thanks for the great site!

  • Reply
    Sharon
    November 19, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    I disagree with the trail mix and desert. My kids are only allowed to have healthy foods and they are doing fine.

    • Reply
      Amelia
      November 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

      If another type of system is working for your family, that’s great.

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