Portion sizes for kids are out of control. That's the thought I had last week when over dinner at a restaurant, my friend's 4-year-old was served mac and cheese in a pasta bowl large enough for the Jolly Green Giant.
Look, we all know that most kids menus are junk food personified: fried, cheesy, salty foods designed to keep kids happy and not dent the family pocketbook.
But when that serving of so-called kid food comes in a bowl bigger than the kid's head, we've got a problem because we're training kids to expect portions that far exceed their needs or their hunger.
Here are Dr. Young's tips for teaching kids about healthy food portions.
Image: Melissa via Flickr
1. Ditch the Kids Menu
The first thing she said parents need to understand is that the restaurant industry is not in the public health business. They're in the business of selling food.
"A parent thinks, if I'm ordering off the kids menu then it's not just going to be food kids want to eat, it's going to be food kids should eat. That's mistake number one."
All it does is reinforce the bad nutritional notion that kid-friendly food is french fries, mac and cheese, fried chicken and other unhealthy dishes that should only be eaten in moderation.
Instead, choose healthy dishes off the adult menu and cut the portions in half.
In her book, Young uses simple visuals to make portion control more manageable for adults, and she suggests using the same technique for serving proper portions to kids.
For example, a protein serving the size of a deck of cards equals about three ounces, while a starch serving the size of a baseball equals about one cup.
So for a kid under ten, Young suggests their plate consist of a protein portion no larger than a deck of cards, a starch portion no larger than a baseball and the rest of their plate a mix of vegetables and fruits. And the plate should not be overflowing.
Based on those measurements that 4-year-old's mac and cheese serving was the size of a volleyball.
Young says a better choice than mac and cheese is pasta with red sauce and a mix of vegetables. Order the adult size and have the server wrap up half before it even gets to the table.
2. Order From the Appetizer Section
Look for healthy choices for kids on the appetizer menu. The portions will usually be smaller and the prices cheaper.
3. No Bread Basket
Quietly ask your server to hold the bread basket. Out of sight, out of mind.
4. Serve a Late Afternoon Snack
If you know you'll be eating out, serve a healthy, late afternoon snack and keep your kids hydrated with plenty of water. Snack suggestions:
- A 5-6 ounce yogurt with berries
- An apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter
- A 1 ounce cheese stick plus 1-2 cups of air popped popcorn
That way your kids aren't starving by the time you're seated and served.
5. Choose Color
Instead of telling kids that the goal is to eat more fiber or antioxidants, tell them their plates should be colorful, meaning full of vibrant vegetables and fruits as well a protein and a starch.
6. Be a Good Role Model
"You can't order the fried chicken off the adult menu and then tell the kids they can't have fried chicken," says Young. "You've got to set a good example in front of the kids so if you want to eat fried chicken, do it with your husband when you're out."
7. Make Choosing Menu Items Fun
Make finding healthy items on the menu into a game. Which child can find the most healthy items on the menu? Then let them choose between those healthy selections. A positive attitude is key because empowerment is more effective than punishment.
8. Teach Kids to Read Labels
When it comes to grocery shopping and pre-packaged foods at home, teach your kids to read nutrition labels.
"Kids need to understand a package is not a portion," says Young.
The importance of serving correct portions for kids is backed up by research on how much people eat and when.
"Research on portions has shown that up until age three, you self regulate, and you stop when you receive excessive food," says Young. "Once you're five, you're just like an adult, so when you see that big portion you're going to eat more."
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