Portion Control Tips for Kids

Portion Control Tips for Kids

Larger-than-life portions have become the norm rather than the exception. Help your kids gain perspective by teaching them about portion control.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

With cookies as big as Frisbees and muffins the size of softballs, it's no wonder our kids' waistlines are expanding as rapidly as our own. The truth is large portions have become the norm. Even a "small" soda, ice cream or serving of pasta or fries is as big as a "large" would have been 20 years ago.

So how do you help your kids pare back? By helping them learn about portion control.

Serving size 101
Educating yourself and your children about serving sizes is a good first step. When looking at labels, note that the serving size does not tell you the amount you should be eating. It is simply a guide to help you see how many calories and nutrients - plus how much fat, sugar, and salt - are in a specific quantity of that food.

Sometimes, it's OK to eat more than the serving size listed. For instance, if a serving of frozen vegetables is one cup, it's no problem to serve or eat more. Most vegetables are low in calories yet rich in nutrients.

But when it comes to foods that are high in calories, sugar or fat, the serving size is a useful guide to alert you that you may be getting more than is healthy.

Let's say your son downs a 20-ounce bottle of lemonade. The label shows the serving size is 8 ounces. Not only did he have 2 1/2 servings, he also had 2 1/2 times the listed calories and 2 1/2 times the sugar.

Taking control
It's important to take responsibility for our own portions and to help kids learn to do the same. Along with paying attention to serving sizes, try some of the following tips.

Use smaller plates or bowls. Your kids are more likely to pour or serve larger portions when using bigger plates or bowls. Using smaller dishes helps control portions while giving the visual impression that there is more food. Like grown-ups, their eyes are usually bigger than their stomachs. This means that they often will take more than they need to fuel up.

Avoid the "endless bag" syndrome. Large bags of pretzels or chips have what seems like countless servings. Kids are prone to munch through several servings if given the chance. Either buy single serving (one-ounce) bags, or simply dole out one or two servings into a small bowl.

Keep extra food off the table. Keep the food out of sight. That will give them the chance to really see if they are still hungry after finishing their portion, rather than just automatically going for an extra helping because it's on the table.

Be mindful when dining out. Restaurants are known for larger-than-life portions. If your kids are young enough, try to select from the children's menu. You can also consider ordering an appetizer portion. Or two (or three) kids can share one entree. Also, don't be tempted to go for the giant value meal or the jumbo drink just because it's only a few cents more. The "deal" quickly loses its value when it triples your family's calories!

Avoid the "clean your plate" syndrome. Did your parents make you finish your entire meal before you could get up from the dinner table? Experts now agree this sends the wrong message. It's important to teach kids to follow their own hunger cues - and to stop when they feel full, not when their plate is empty.

Aim for three scheduled healthful meals and one or two healthy snacks throughout the day. Skipping a meal often leads to overeating at the next one.

Add more salads and fruit to your family's diet. This can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling calorie intake.

Limit distractions. Encourage your kids to sit at the table for all meals and snacks. It's easier to overeat (or eat too little) when distracted by a TV or video game. You also want to teach kids to slow down and actually enjoy (and taste) their food. Meals can be a nice way to gather for some quality time with one another.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to avoid portion size pitfalls to help you manage your weight. Accessed: 08/05/2010

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