When you think about dieting and losing weight, portion control often comes to mind. To cut calories, you pay attention to—and cut down—on your portion sizes.
When it comes to teaching kids portion control however, it’s something we don’t usually pay attention to. Although allowing kids to eat foods that are high in calories, sugar and saturated fat like fast food and processed, packaged food is one of the reasons childhood obesity is still on the rise in the U.S., too large portion sizes also play a role.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), portion sizes have doubled, even tripled, over the past 20 years. Large restaurant meals, super-sized fast food and jumbo-sized snacks are available and they’re everywhere. If we eat large portions when we’re out, it’s not surprising that we often eat that way at home too.
I’ll admit it—my kids eat healthy but portion control is something I have been struggling with for years. When they ask for seconds or a large piece of fruit instead of a 1/2 cup serving, I allow them to have it. I don’t want food to be an issue but it’s something that’s always on my mind. The eating habits we teach our kids will set the stage for their relationship with food throughout their lives. Here, read on for some things that have helped me teach my kids portion control and may help you too.
Read Nutrition Facts Labels Together
When your kids can recognize numbers, they’re old enough to scan the nutrition facts labels with you. Show them the serving size and the “servings per container” so they know how many servings are available and how many they should be eating at one time.
Look at the nutrition facts labels on packaged snacks and you’ll be surprised that most contain double—even triple—the single serving your kids should really be eating. It can be deceiving but it’s also a way to teach kids that although it’s tasty enough to eat the entire package, they’ll need to save additional servings for another time.
Use Measuring Cups
When serving meals, use measuring cups or measuring bowls to show kids what an appropriate portion size is for each food. If you let them serve themselves, they’ll also feel empowered to make their own healthy choices.
Get a To-Go Container
When I was trying to lose weight and I went out to dinner, I’d ask the server to bring a to-go container with my meal. Then I divided the meal in half or in thirds and put the rest aside so I wouldn’t eat too much. This trick can work well for your kids too. Whether you order off the kids’ menu, which I don’t recommend, or the main menu, serving the appropriate amount and setting the extra aside will teach kids portion control.
Visualize Portion Sizes
The MyPlate serving sizes can help you figure out how many calories and how many servings of the different food groups your kids should eat each day. Yet sometimes it can be tough to know what the appropriate servings of meat or grains are, for example.
You can help your kids understand portion sizes by visualizing them with your hands or a common object. For example, 3-ounces of turkey is the size of a deck of cards, a serving of nuts is the size of your kid’s palm, while one serving of fruit like an apple is the size of a tennis ball.
Use Kid-Size Plates
Serving kids meals on large dinner plates can cause them to eat more. In fact, when kids were given adult-sized dishes, they served themselves more food and ate 50 percent of calories they dished out, a 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics found.
Instead of serving your kid’s meals on the same size plate you use, always serve their meals on a kid-sized plate or an appetizer plate. Or purchase the MyPlate Divided Kids Plate which makes portion sizes easy.
Plan and Pre-Pack
For trips to the park, play dates or school snacks, spend some time to pre-sort individual portions of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other healthy snacks. Keeping these on hand in your refrigerator or pantry will ensure your kids won’t overeat when they’re at home too.
Let Them Help
Encouraging your kids to watch or help you plate meals will teach them about portion control. They can scoop out portions of vegetables or slice cooked sweet potatoes, for example.
Teach Them Hunger and Fullness Cues
One of the reasons kids and adults are overweight is because in our rushed society, we often fail to eat mindfully. At school, kids don’t have a lot of time to eat and adults often eat in front of their computers, in the car or on the run.
When kids become attuned to how they feel when they’re a little hungry, very hungry, not hungry and full, they’ll be able to regulate how much they eat. Kids often want to eat when they’re bored, upset or tired but this is an unhealthy habit that can carry over into adulthood.
Have regular conversations with your kids about what it feels like to be hungry: “your stomach growls,” or what it feels like to be overly full: “your stomach feels uncomfortable.” As they get older, they’ll be able to listen to their hunger and fullness cues and pay attention to their portions.