Kids and Portion Control

By Jo Ellen Shield, MED RD LD
Mary Mullen, MS, RD
Young Girl with Oversized Burger - Kids and Portion Control


When kids follow MyPlate recommendations for daily servings of foods, they are well on their way to healthy growth and development. Unfortunately, many kids today seem to be suffering from "portion distortion." When talking about what kids eat or drink, keep these definitions in mind.

What Is a "Serving Size"? What Is a "Portion Size"?

A serving is a specific amount of food or drink that is defined by common measurements, such as cups, ounces or tablespoons. Examples include recommended servings from MyPlate (the amount kids should eat) and the serving size on a Nutrition Facts Label, which is the basis for all the other nutrition information on the label. In many cases, the serving size listed on the Nutrition Facts Label is different from the MyPlate recommended serving size. In fact, many of the MyPlate serving sizes are smaller than those listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.

A portion is the amount of food that happens to end up on the plate. Think of portion size as the actual amount of food kids choose to eat at breakfast, lunch, dinner or as a snack. Portions may be larger or smaller than the recommended serving size.

Visualizing Appropriate Portion Sizes

One reason kids may not be eating appropriately sized portions based on the recommended MyPlate serving sizes is that they may not recognize what a reasonable portion looks like. What does one-half cup of pasta look like? What about three ounces of chicken or two tablespoons of peanut butter?

The good news is that kids don't need a measuring cup or scale to measure the portions they should eat — instead, they can visualize them by using familiar objects, such as a tennis ball or CD, that are similar in size to recommended serving sizes. Before they eat or drink, they can think of the relevant object and choose a portion that matches its size.

Here are some tips to help you and your kids visualize portion sizes:

Food   Portion Size   About the Size of...
Grains Group        
Bread   1 ounce or 1 regular slice   CD cover
Dry cereal   1 ounce or 1 cup   Baseball
Cooked cereal, rice or pasta   1 ounce or ½ cup   ½ baseball
Pancake or waffle   1 ounce or 1 small piece (6 inches)   CD
Bagel, hamburger bun   1 ounce or ½ piece    Hockey puck
Cornbread   1 piece   Bar of soap


Fruits Group        
Orange, apple, pear   1 small fruit (2½ inches in diameter)   Tennis ball
Raisins   ¼ cup   Golf ball


Vegetables Group        
Baked potato   1 medium   Computer mouse
Vegetables, chopped or salad   1 cup   Baseball


Dairy Group        
Fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt   1 cup   Baseball
Cheese   1½ ounces natural cheese or 2 ounces processed cheese   9-volt battery
Ice cream   ½ cup   ½ baseball


Protein Foods Group        
Lean beef or poultry   3 ounces   Deck of cards
Grilled or baked fish   3 ounces   Checkbook
Peanut butter   2 tablespoons   Ping-pong ball


Oils Group        
Margarine   1 teaspoon   Standard postage stamp
Oil or salad dressing   1 teaspoon   Standard cap on a 16-ounce water bottle

Helps Kids Listen to Their Bodies

One core strategy for healthy eating at all ages is listening to internal hunger and fullness cues. Discuss what it feels like to be hungry and what it feels like to be full with your child. A discussion about the difference between physical hunger and boredom, sadness or tiredness is appropriate for older children. When kids listen to their bodies, the chances of overeating are lessened. Help them understand it is OK to stop eating when they feel full, even if there is food left on the plate.


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