As if we don’t already have enough to worry about, figuring out what to feed our kids, then we get to the pesky topic of HOW MUCH — and figuring out portion sizes for toddlers can be very tricky.
Every mom wants to know how much their kids need. And portion sizes for toddlers can vary significantly from one child to the next! For me personally, I struggled with this when my oldest transitioned away from breastmilk and his diet became mainly real food.
When You Worry They Aren’t Getting Enough
When they are younger and the diet is mostly breastmilk or formula, it can be easier to quantify. You know how many ounces to put in their bottle, and how many bottles to feed a day. With breastfeeding, you fall into a routine, and can quantify how many nursing sessions and how many minutes they nurse for.
When my son turned one and we no longer had bottles in the game, I had so much worry that he wouldn’t get enough to eat. This fear always haunted me the most at dinner time.
At this age, he was spending most weekdays at our babysitter’s house, because I was in graduate school. I packed all of his food for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, but I still wasn’t there to see how much of it he ate every day. And at dinner time back at home, he usually did not have a big appetite. I was always worried he wasn’t eating enough at dinner time.
Looking back now, I think he likely ate a good amount during the day and his body didn’t need as much at dinner. But I had this huge fear that he wouldn’t get enough to eat and he would wake up at night hungry. Now I ask myself, “okay, and what if he did?” It doesn’t seem like the end of the world to me — now that the phase is behind me! But during that time, I had a lot of worry over how much he needed, and whether he was getting enough.
Appetites are Variable
It’s natural to be unsure about whether your little one is getting enough to eat. It’s also natural to wonder if they are eating too much! Babies and kids have variable appetites, and it may change day to day or week to week. And sometimes, like when they are in a growth spurt, you wonder where they are packing all that food away inside their little bellies!
Some kids naturally have larger appetites, and some naturally have smaller appetites. Also, you have to remember that your opinion about what is “not enough” or “too much” is subjective. It’s your opinion based on your best guess of how much they need. You could ask five moms to look at the same plate of food and will get all different answers on whether it’s enough or too much for their child. So keep in mind that while you do know your child better than I do, it’s still kind of impossible for you to know exactly how much they need at each meal.
Well, what are you supposed to do if you can’t KNOW how much they need?? How in the world can you figure out what is enough or too much?
Starter Portions – It’s Not About Control
This is a technique promoted by pediatric feeding expert, Jill Castle, RD. I believe this is the best approach because it guides you in how much to offer your child. But the key is that you ultimately leave it up to the child to tell you how much they need. You are not controlling how much they end up eating.
You offer these starter portion sizes for your toddler, and allow the child to eat freely from their plate. If they ask for more, you give them more. This is a good way for them to learn to communicate with you what they need, as well as listen to what their body is telling them about their current level of hunger or fullness.
Trust me, there have been times that my son has eaten an entire avocado, or 3 cheese sticks, or two whole sandwiches, and I have wondered if he’s eating too much and if I should really continue to allow him more food. It can be hard to give up that control to them.
Most of the time, it all balances out, and after a period of high appetite, comes a period of low appetite, and vice versa. It may even be that they have a HUGE breakfast and lunch, then don’t want a thing for dinner. Or maybe they barely eat all day and then want three helpings at dinner time. My best advice to you is to roll with it.
They may ask for more, and then not end up eating it. This is okay too! They are learning. You may feel frustrated that you just got up and made a second waffle and now they don’t even want it anymore. Try to be patient with them. And hey, now you have breakfast for yourself.
What you want to avoid is getting into restrictive feeding, where you are overly controlling how much your child gets, and you deny them more. Yes sometimes the food actually runs out, and there’s no more yogurt (or whatever it is) left. That happens. But in general, if you control their portions, and do not allow them more food when they ask for it, there can be consequences. It can lead to them overeating whenever they do have access to more food. They may eat when they are not hungry, and miss out on learning how to hear their body when it says it is full.
Watch here for the quick guide to portion sizes for toddlers
How Starter Portions Work
Portion sizes for baby:
You’re looking for their cues of hunger and fullness. You can start with around 1 tablespoon per food at the meal, but in general you will know how much they need based on the following signs.
Baby is likely still hungry if they:
- Eagerly grab the food or the spoon
- Open their mouth
- Move towards you/the food
- Seems excited about the food
Baby is likely full when they:
- Turn their head or bat the spoon away
- Slows their pace of eating significantly, seems uninterested
- Has stopped eating and is now just playing
- Spit out a bottle or close their mouth tight when you bring the bottle or food to them
Portion sizes for toddler/preschooler:
The simplest and most straightforward method at this age is the “rule of thumb” for starter portions. This works best for kids age 2 through 5. You serve a tablespoon per year of age for each food group served at the meal. Here’s an example. My son is 3 years old, so that would mean 3 tablespoons of meat sauce, 3 tablespoons worth of spaghetti, 3 tablespoons of roasted cauliflower, and 3 tablespoons of sliced apple. A tablespoon is roughly the size of your thumb, or an ice cube. And remember, they can have more than this if they finish and still want more!
There will be legitimate times where you can’t or don’t want to offer more of a certain food, and that’s okay. Avoid artificially restricting something, like saying there’s no more when there actually is more, when it’s just because you don’t love the nutrition of that food. Like they keep asking for more bread or pasta, and you feel like it’s too much. It’s better to allow them another serving, vs. risk them feeling restricted, and then crave it more and more. (Yes, this happens to toddlers too, the same way if we try to restrict food by dieting and then crave it even more.)
But if you know that too much of certain foods will cause a belly ache, like too many blueberries, or too much cheese, then you can restrict to 1-2 servings, and tell them why — “this gives you a belly ache when you eat more. We can have it again tomorrow.”
Or maybe you just don’t have enough of a certain food, like you only made 4 biscuits and there’s 4 people in the family. You don’t have to go make another batch, you offer them something else instead.
Want to know exactly how to handle it when they are asking for more and more food? Read this post! And if they only seem to want ONE food at the meal (cough- carbs)… you’ll find this post helpful.
Or maybe, all they want is snacks! SNACKSSSSSSS. Read this post.
Why we don’t need to control their portions
As babies, we are ALL born with the skill to know how much our body needs. Infants can even communicate to you when they are hungry and when they are full. It’s amazing. Toddlers can do this too! People of all ages can, but we often learn to override this skill when we learn about dieting. Diet culture is 100% responsible for you feeling like you don’t have enough willpower or control around food.
It’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we can’t trust our bodies, that we should ignore hunger, that we should eat less and be smaller. That completely messes with our body’s natural ability to eat when hungry and stop when full. It’s not even the food’s fault. Like, even foods that are extremely palatable – a bag of chips, a carton of ice cream… I swear there are people who easily eat just a serving or so and then put it away because they are satisfied. If you think that sounds too good to be true, check out my RD friend Colleen’s post here.
So even though it might be hard to fully trust your tiny human to be in charge of how much they need to eat at a meal, they do have the ability to do this. And it’s fabulous to nurture this ability so they can hopefully keep it throughout their life!
When I Don’t Follow Starter Portion Size Rules
I typically serve starter portions to my son at home. One time I don’t follow this rule? Packing his lunch for school. Since I’m not there to give him more, I always pack an amount that I know will be enough if it’s a big appetite kind of day. Most days he eats about 2/3 of his lunch. This is just what works for us!
Another time you may not want to offer starter portions? If you are serving a meal family style. It’s often a little more work, but serving family style is a great way for your toddler to start to take more ownership over the amount of food they want to eat. It can even encourage them to try new foods!
But they’ll need your guidance in the beginning, both to help with scooping/serving, and with a good amount to take on their plate. They may want to pile it so high, but this is a good time to teach manners. Help them understand that it’s respectful of the other family members to take one scoop now, and then get more after everyone else has had a turn, if they still want more.
Laura · March 5, 2018 at 9:03 am
Love this! As a dietitian I’ve always cringed a little at the words “portion control” because appetites are so so variable.
jillcastle · March 2, 2018 at 7:24 am
Great post Kacie! Thanks for including my starter portions guide!