By Elisa Zied
March 24, 2014
How to Help Kids Eat Less—and Better 37717

The tide seems to be turning when it comes to obesity prevalence, at least among young children. According to recent national survey data, the rate of obesity went down from 12 percent in 2009-2010 to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012 among 2 to 5-year-olds. Although reasons for the decline are unclear, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that improvements in nutrition and physical activity standards in child care centers, decreased sugary beverage intake and higher rates of breastfeeding in the United States may play a role.

Regardless of the apparent improvements in weight status among the littlest of kids, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the overall obesity rate among 2- to 19-year-olds remains high at 17 percent—about 1 in 6 kids. And although a multitude of dietary and lifestyle factors synergistically contribute to the development of unhealthy weight gain among children, oversized portions of everything from fast food to empty calorie, nutrient-poor foods like sugary sodas and snack foods no doubt play a role.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, one of the first things I recommend to parents who want to help their children grow into a healthy weight and prevent unhealthy weight gain is to pay attention to the portions offered both inside and outside the home. Here are some tips to show you how (and why) it's vital to make minding portions a priority to help kids eat less—and better.

1. They need less than us. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at 145 parents and their preschool children to see whether the portions parents served to their kids (and how much their kids consumed) were related to those they served themselves. The researchers found that there was a significant link between how much parents served themselves and their children. They also found that the amounts the parents served their children were strongly associated with the amounts their children ended up eating. The researchers also found that parents tended to serve more to their children when they served more to themselves. Because most kids (younger ones especially) need to eat a lot less than their grown parents, it's key for parents to learn what's appropriate in terms of portion sizes of foods from all the different food groups. My Plate is a great resource. Under each food group, click on "how much is needed" and "see the chart" to find recommended daily amounts for boys and girls of different ages and for parents as well.

2. Smaller plates means smaller portions. It's important to think small when it comes to dishware. According to a study published in Pediatrics, 42 school-aged children were observed on repeated occasions during school lunch. All children served themselves entrees and side dishes using either child- or adult-size plates and bowls. The researchers found that the children not only served themselves more when they used the adult-sized dishware, but they also consumed more energy. Every additional calorie served led to a 0.43-calorie increase in total energy intake at lunch. Another study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that offering more food to children and using larger spoon sizes with which children could serve themselves led children not only to serve themselves more but to eat more at that meal. The lesson? Make less food and use smaller dishware, especially if you routinely serve food family style.

3. Less can be more when it comes to nutrition. In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers served 3- to 5-year-old children different portions of an energy-dense entrée (macaroni and cheese) and fixed portions of green beans, unsweetened applesauce and whole-wheat rolls. Children who were given larger entrée portions had greater energy intakes and decreased  intakes of the other foods served with the meal. Overweight children especially ate more of the entrée when given more of it. The researchers concluded that serving smaller age-appropriate entrée portions may decrease intake of energy-dense foods and promote intake of nutrient-rich foods (eg. fruit, vegetables, whole grains) served with the entree. The lesson? A great rule of thumb is to make half the plate produce and the other half a combo of lean protein (eg fish, lean beef, skinless poultry), whole grains (eg brown rice, whole wheat pasta) or starchy carbs (eg potato). But if the entrée is something like creamy macaroni and cheese, lasagna or a fatty beef or chicken dish, keep the portion to no more than one quarter or up to half of the plate—preferably a small (rather than oversized) dinner plate.

4. Dinner and dessert go together. In a study published in Appetite, 2- to 5-year-old children ate less total energy when served dessert with a lunch meal than when served dessert after the meal, regardless of the portion of the main course. To make dessert less coveted, I often recommend serving it, in small amounts, with meals—or at least alongside a nutrient-rich food, like fresh fruit. I usually offer my own kids things like ice cream or snack crackers in small (3 to 5 ounce) paper cups, usually with lunch or dinner rather than in-between meals. I find this strategy can help minimize feelings of deprivation and still help kids feel satisfied.

How do you help your kids eat smaller portions?