Preschoolers and Portion Size

Date: 02/25/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

Preschoolers and Portion Size

How many of us were encouraged to be members of the "clean plate club" when we were growing up?  Or if your parents didn't use that terminology, perhaps they were more likely to negotiate over how many more bites needed to be taken to be considered finished with a meal. Or perhaps you were told to think about all the starving children in the world.  Even today, plenty of adults still fill their children's plates with food and adhere to these same strategies.  But new research has found that trying to entice youngsters to eat more only ends up suppressing a child's natural feelings of satiety, leading to a potential lifetime of overeating.

The study, which took place at the Child Development Laboratory of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that not only should preschool aged children not be pressured to eat greater amounts of food, but that they can develop a better sense of an appropriate portion for their hunger when they are permitted to serve the food to themselves.1  The subjects were preschoolers between the ages of two and five. All of them were enrolled at one of 118 child-care centers around the United States that participated in the research.  The scientists evaluated the techniques used to feed the children by the caregivers who answered questionnaires about feeding practices at their centers.

The researchers found evidence that the best feeding method was to create a family atmosphere for each meal, in which the caregivers and children all sit together at a table and eat.  It is this type of setting--offering bowls of food for everyone to share and encouraging each person to take as much as they want--that appears to help teach even the littlest of diners how much to eat.  They learn how much of a portion to put on their plates to satisfy their hunger at that time.  Kids are naturally uneven eaters and may eat a lot in one meal and very little at the next.  That's why when the food is placed on a plate and served to them, children start to eventually ignore the signals they are getting from their bodies in order to finish what has been provided to them.

In addition, when the adults are taking their own portions and eating with the children as well, it provides them with the opportunity to be role models for eating nutritious foods and not overindulging during a meal or snack.  It is also important that the caregivers avoid coaxing the kids to eat another bite or finish all of their food, because this kind of pressure can result in them becoming accustomed to overeating.  The language used when discussing food with children was noted to be influential as well.  By using the term "full" rather than "done," we can provide reminders that kids need to pay attention to what their bodies are telling them rather than what may remain on their plates.

Many of the suggestions the researchers included in their study findings were based on recommendations of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association.  Their guidelines were created to help ease the epidemic of obesity among children in the United States.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has more than doubled in children over the last three decades.2

The study was focused on child-care centers since there are currently approximately 12 million children in these facilities daily, and most of them eat at least one meal and several snacks while in attendance.  It would definitely be advantageous to encourage these young children to follow their bodies' cues and learn not to overeat in a setting in which they spend so much time.  However, it's equally essential to practice the same techniques at home so bad habits do not develop that will eventually carry over to all of their meals.  Parents need to become better models of healthy eating for their own sake as well as for their children, and maybe a turnaround in the ever-rising obesity rates of all Americans will finally be possible. Ultimately, parents need to take responsibility.

  • 1. Preidt, Robert. "Don't Pressure Preschoolers to Overeat: Experts." WebMD. 8 February 2014. Accessed 17 February 2014. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20140208/dont-pressure-preschoolers-to-overeat-experts-say
  • 2. "Childhood Obesity Facts." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 July 2013. Accessed 18 February 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm

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