Back to School Lunches for Toddlers

With all the back-to-school pictures, news segments, and blogs coming out right now, I would like to share a little information about appropriate portion sizes.

I often see parents / caregivers who are concerned that their children are not "eating enough" at mealtime, despite normal growth patterns. Often, when we discuss their concerns in more detail, I come to find out that the parents / caregivers have no idea how much their child should actually be eating.

Over the years due to many factors that I am not going to get into here, our ideas of adult portion sizes have become distorted. This unfortunately has trickled down to our children’s portion sizes.

To add to the portion confusion, bento boxes have become really popular on Instagram and Pinterest. Why do I mention this? Well, children’s portion sizes are different depending on the age of the child. A lot of the portion sizes that I have seen in these beautifully prepared lunches are appropriate for adults and some older kids, but not for the average 1 - 6-year-olds, and this information is typically not indicated on the post. I know parents often feel pressure to provide these types of beautiful lunches for their children and look to Pinterest and Instagram for ideas, which can lead to providing foods their children will not eat and large portions of it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended portion sizes are shown below in Table 1 and are usually pretty shocking when I show parents for the first time. Often times when this information is discussed with the parents, they often realize their child is eating enough.

Table 1

Table 1

In addition to the serving sizes, I often discuss the importance of a balanced meal and share the Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate that was created by the nutrition experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I typically inform parents to start with the normal portion sizes for the meals, but if their child wants more, give it to them as children are growing at different rates and all the time.

Finally, one last thing I would like to share is the best saying I have heard to explain toddler eating behaviors and comes from an article on NPR, “Expect her to eat one meal, play with one meal, and ignore one meal." Yup, it pretty much sums up toddlers!


Author: Colene Stoernell MS, RDN, LD