Feeding children can be a roller-coaster ride. Some days, children cruise along, eating most of what you serve. Then without warning, they take a dive and consume very little. This lasts just as long as you can cope, then they rise through a growth spurt to empty the refrigerator daily, only to plateau before they prepare for another dip.
Through this bumpy ride, remember that the end goal is not to get as many healthy foods as possible into your child or to keep the sugary foods away from them at all costs. Nor is it to count the grams of protein or calcium they consume each day. Instead, the goal is to raise children who understand their own hunger cues and respond appropriately, know how to eat in moderation even when sweets are available, and trust their own instincts.
The best way to do this is to maintain the division of responsibility proposed by author, therapist and feeding expert Ellyn Satter. She believes parents are responsible for what food is put on the table, when meals and snacks are served, and where children eat. Children are responsible for how much they eat — and whether they eat at all.
Mealtimes should be positive and should not be a battle; your relationship with your child is more important than what she eats for dinner one night. This means that when she says she isn’t hungry, you should allow her to listen to her body. Conversely, if she wants more dinner because she feels markedly hungry, you should hand her the plate of chicken.
Even after embracing these principles, many parents still wonder how much a child should ideally eat at each age, and when a parent should worry. Here are some helpful, but not rigid, guidelines.
TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS
Toddlers are on the go a lot more than babies, yet, pound for pound, they actually need fewer calories. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department and Department of Health and Human Services, a day in the life of a toddler should look something like this:
- 2 servings of fruit
- 3 servings of vegetables
- 6 servings of whole grains
- 2 to 3 servings of dairy (if your child doesn’t eat dairy, substitute calcium-rich beans, legumes and greens)
- 2 servings/5 ounces of protein (eggs, beans, chicken, fish, meat)
Try not to focus on a young child’s daily diet, because they can be fickle in their food choices. As they learn to use a spoon and a cup without a lid, more food may hit the floor than make it into their mouths. They may test their control over you by not eating anything you serve. Find comfort in what your youngster consumes over the course of a week; is it varied and well-balanced between food groups? If so, there is no need to worry.
Kids this age often eat four or five times a day. Snack time is not a synonym for treat time; snacks should provide nutrients. School-age kids are often so busy they forget to drink water during the day, so send them everywhere with a water bottle. Also, these kids are more than capable of helping to prep dinner, so get them in the kitchen; learning to cook will help them eat well in the long run.
Children ages 7 to 12 should strive to eat the following in a day:
- 3 servings of fruit
- 4 servings of vegetables
- 9 servings of whole grains
- 2 to 3 servings of dairy or calcium-rich substitute
- 2 servings/6 ounces of protein
After infancy, adolescence is the most critical time for nutritious eating; a child’s body is growing and changing dramatically. Hormones surge, growth spurts activate and sleep patterns change so kids are less hungry in the mornings. Sports, extracurricular activities and academic schedules make it harder for kids to sit down for a scheduled dinner, and they spend more time eating away from home. Parents should limit sugar at home as teens are probably getting enough elsewhere, and keep healthful food accessible so kids can grab it as they go. Though it’s a challenge, this is an especially important time to prioritize family dinner, both for the nutrition and for the conversations.
Teen girls should follow the guidelines for school-age children while teen boys, especially active ones, should strive to eat the following in a day:
- 4 servings of fruit
- 5 servings of vegetables
- 11 servings of whole grains
- 2 to 3 servings of dairy or calcium-rich substitute
- 3 servings/7 ounces of protein
CHILDREN WHO DON'T SEEM TO EAT ENOUGH
If your child appears to eat almost nothing, do not give them milkshakes and french fries with the justification that any calorie is better than no calorie. Healthy growth is not about calories consumed but rather about obtaining the right nutrients. If you have an underweight child, begin by ensuring all calories are nutrient-rich. Include healthful, plant-based fats such as flaxseed oil, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. Cook pasta in chicken broth for added nutrition, and incorporate a bedtime snack into your child’s routine. Eat with your child often, as children tend to develop better eating patterns when they watch parents with healthy eating habits.
CHILDREN WHO SEEM TO EAT TOO MUCH
If you are worried your child may be eating too much, take a step back and evaluate the following:
•Is your child in a growth spurt? There is a direct correlation between growth and hunger. Because children spend much of their first 18 years growing, they will probably have many large appetites while under your roof. The greatest periods of growth are the first year and adolescence.
•Is he skipping meals and thus overly hungry when he sits down for dinner? Stick to a regular meal structure and offer nutrient-rich snacks.
•Is she exercising a lot? Children become hungry when they burn through their reserves. When blood sugar drops, the brain is signaled to eat. If your child has sports practices during her usual dinner hour, be sure to feed her before she plays. There is nothing wrong with a 4 p.m. dinner and a snack after the game.
•Is he drawn to junk food? This may be because he sees advertisements for processed food on TV or social media, or perhaps his friends make certain foods accessible. Avoid being overly restrictive with any foods so kids don’t feel deprived and then overeat because they do not trust that they will get these foods again.
•If you think your child is eating out of boredom, set meal and snack times.
•If you think your child is managing unhappy emotions with food, talk to them about their feelings.
I’ve never liked roller coasters. I prefer a more controlled environment, a flat ride without too many big bumps along the way. But because that isn’t parenting, and it definitely isn’t feeding kids, I have adapted. You can, too.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, July 26, 2018.