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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Portion control essential for toddlers (1/20/12)

January 20, 2012

My two toddlers are overweight. We have begun watching what we eat more closely, but I find that I’m not sure how much my children should be eating. Can you help?

Try this for a general rule for portion sizes for toddlers: one tablespoon per year of age. For example, give two tablespoons per meal of each food group (vegetable, whole grain, fruit, protein) to your 2-year-old; offer three tablespoons to your 3-year-old.

Another guideline, this one from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says a toddler’s serving size should be one-quarter to one-half of an adult portion. But that’s based on a proper adult portion, not the oversized servings we’ve become accustomed to. For example, an adult serving of meat or poultry is about the size of a deck of cards; a serving of pasta or rice is a half-cup. That’s vitally important to remember as you eye the food on your toddlers’ plates.

Fortunately, you’re already on the right track by paying more attention to your family’s diet. For toddlers, it’s especially important to minimize consumption of snacks, sweet beverages and desserts, which take up a lot of room in their tiny stomachs that instead need to be filled with healthy food. 

A recent study from Penn State published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests focusing on the size of entrees being served. The researchers fed children ages 3 to 6 a lunch consisting of an entree of macaroni and cheese (anywhere from 3.5 ounces -- a bit less than a half-cup -- up to a whopping 14 ounces) and fixed amounts of green beans, unsweetened apple sauce and a whole-wheat roll. Not surprisingly, when children received a smaller portion of macaroni and cheese, their intake of the fruit, vegetable and whole grain on their plate increased. In fact, the children ate 90 percent more of the lower-calorie foods when given the smallest amount of macaroni and cheese compared with when they got the largest amount.

And don’t worry -- even when given the smallest entree, the children didn’t walk away hungry: Even then, they left about 5 percent of the macaroni and cheese on their plate (as well as most of the green beans, about half of the apple sauce and almost half of the roll).

Finally, always remember that young children need high-quality nutritious foods just like older kids and adults, but they require much smaller quantities. For more information on healthy eating tips for toddlers and preschoolers, see the Choose My Plate website at

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Alma Simmons, an Ohio State University dietetic intern in the Department of Human Nutrition, College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Alma Simmons