Have you ever had the experience of making a meal you know your toddler loves, or is always willing to try, and then after plating it for him, he only takes a few bites and is done? I’ve experienced this with my nephews and it’s so frustrating. It’s time to eat, it’s their favorite meal, and yet they’ll only eat a few nibbles. What’s going on???
I think something we forget when feeding little kids, is they have little tummies! And they’re just little people! When we feed them an adult sized plate, they don’t really need all that food, and they CAN’T eat all that food. So if they’re only eating a few bites off a large plate, often that’s enough for them to meet their needs. Think about it: a 3 year old needs 1 serving of meat & alternatives. Mom and Dad need 2-3 servings (not a whole lot much more, even though you’re so much bigger). While you can easily eat a large steak or a couple of eggs in one sitting (2 eggs = 1 serving) plus more food, your little tot most likely cannot.
In their book, Fearless Feeding, How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, Jill Castle & Maryann Jacobsen give a handy tip of offering at each meal 1 tablespoon of food serving for each year of age (so 4 Tbsp. of veg and fruit, meat, milk and grains for your four year old). If you use a measuring spoon, you’ll realize that’s really not a lot.
By dividing those servings throughout the day, your toddler can meet his needs even though each serving looks tiny compared to what you’re eating. So for example, to meet his meat & alternatives servings, you can give him ½ an egg at breakfast, ½ a tablespoon peanut butter at lunch, ¼ cup chickpeas at snack and ½ ounce of chicken at supper and you have successfully provided 1 serving of meat & alternatives over the course of one day in manageable bites. Combined at each meal with a choice of half a slice of bread, some pasta or whole grains; some veggies or fruit; and milk, cheese or yogurt, your little guy will be getting his nutrients and filling up!
I remember working as a day camp counsellor and a 2 year old camper brought a full bagel for her lunch. The next day she brought ½ of that same bagel. And on the third day she brought ¼ of the same original sandwich. Moral of that story: Kids don’t eat as much as adults and they don’t need to!
Though the Canada Food Guide’s serving sizes for kids is the same size as adults, (see here for Servings for 1-4 year olds and Servings for 5-11 year olds), in Fearless Feeding, Jill & Maryann use the great phrase of “starter portion sizes” for the very reason that kids get overwhelmed when they see too much food. Starting off with smaller portions provides your child with the minimum amount of needed nutrients in a very non-threatening and approachable serving. It also allows your child to recognize her own hunger and fullness cues, so she can ask for more if she is still hungry, or provide an easy out if she’s satisfied with what you’ve served (this can vary daily depending on activity and how much she’s eaten at previous meals and snacks).
It can be tough eyeballing appropriate kid-sized servings on adult dishes, so using smaller dishes is definitely helpful. Even better is to trust your child to eat enough, and not force her to clear her plate. We can’t judge anyone’s hunger besides our own. Your kiddy – even though young! knows exactly how much her body needs at a given time. Allow her to eat to her fullness level; it’s a skill she’ll use for life.