Link copied to clipboard

The Food Portion Trap and What To Do About It

Jill Castle

Family Cooking

Proper portion sizes for kids are smaller than those for adults. Yet, the portions around us are getting bigger and bigger. Research shows that larger portion sizes may be associated with childhood obesity because calorie intake also increases. Even research on plate size shows that children eat more when offered food on a large plate compared to a small, child-size plate.

Forty plus years ago, the size of the largest fast food burger, fries, and soda was the same size as the smallest meal available today.  These super-sized serving sizes and meals may be super-sizing our nation.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why:



The way we view food is influenced, in part, by savvy marketers. For example, some granola bars have a “health halo,” believed to be a healthy part of your child’s diet. But, if you read the ingredient label and look at the nutrients, you’ll see that some of them are short steps from a candy bar. Don’t believe everything you see and hear about food— the term “healthy” can be over-used and misleading. Eat at home as often as possible, and be sure to sift through nutrition information by using credible sources, such as a Registered Dietitian (RD).

The Satisfaction Factor

Studies have shown that despite an increase in calories, bigger portions don’t help kids feel full and don’t result in less eating later.  Also, foods that are low in nutrients (empty calories) don’t satisfy in the long run, and sometimes cause increased hunger later. Focus on providing nutrient-dense foods regularly, so that these become the staple of your child’s diet. Check out some of our recipes and snack ideas on Kate’s Kitchen with Kids and Kate’s Kitchen with Teens.

Proper Portions

The USDA provides consumers with a guideline for portions on the MyPlate website. Be sure to look at the child-specific guidelines, as they are different than the adult-based ones.  Also, beware of words that signal large servings and portion distortion: value meal, combo, ultimate, tub, supreme, biggie, deluxe, and super-size. It may be tempting to think more is better, but in the case of portions, more is more calories.

The Rationale around Rationing

Teaching your child to be aware of portions is important. Helping them visualize amountscan be positive, but measuring them can soon become negative, even perceived as restrictive. Family-style feeding allows your child to decide the amounts of food that is right for his appetite, and encourages self-regulated eating over time—one key to healthy eating and weight. These household items can help kids choose healthy portions:

  • a deck of cards for 3 ounces of meat or fish
  • 3 dice for 1 ½ ounces of cheese
  • a lightbulb for ½ cup of rice or pasta
  • a baseball for 1 cup of fruits/veggies, milk, and breakfast cereals
  • a poker chip for 1 teaspoons oils, salad dressings, and other fats
  • a hockey puck for biscuits and muffins
  • a CD for waffles and pancakes


Set Up the Right Plate

Serve meals on smaller dishes to create the perception of a full plate. Creative ideas like bento boxes andcondiment cupsin measured sizes can also be a fun and easy way to serve kids at school and home.  Take the guesswork out of meal portions by following this plateguideline: ½ of the plate should be fruits and vegetables, 1/4 of the plate lean protein, and the last 1/4 rounding out with whole grains.

Don’t wait to begin teaching your child about normal portion sizes and to promote awareness of restaurant/fast food portion traps.  Shoot for accurate awareness and portion reality when it comes to food servings!

share this
Follow Us

Jill Castle

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist with expertise in pediatric nutrition. She is the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, and creator of Just the Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. Follow Jill on Twitter @pediRD and Facebook.