Article at a Glance

  • Remember that it is your job to provide healthy food and your child’s job to decide how much to eat.
  • Children’s appetites can vary widely from day to day and from child to child.
  • Setting predictable routines and consistently offering healthy choices will help make sure your child gets the nutrients they need.

Kids are finicky eaters. One day they will love a food and the next they won’t touch it. Sometimes they eat like their stomachs are bottomless pits and other days they seem to hardly touch their food. It seems impossible to tell if your child is getting enough to eat.

But the truth is that it is actually quite simple. It is your job to provide healthy foods and it is your child’s job to decide how much to eat. Children eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. If they are no longer hungry, they should be allowed to stop. Most healthy children will not starve themselves.

Don’t worry if your child doesn’t eat much at one meal; your child will likely make up for it at the next meal. Children’s appetites can vary widely from meal to meal. Growth spurts can also influence how much your children eat or how active they were during the day. How much food a child needs also varies widely from child to child.

Here are some tips to make sure your children are getting the nutrients they need.

Provide only healthy choices: It is often tempting to offer less healthy foods to entice your child into eating more. But this practice not only overrides your children’s natural ability to sense when they are full, it also teaches them that if they refuse healthy foods they will get something “better” later. And if the food isn’t healthy, your children are still not getting the nutrients they need even if they are eating more.

Adjust your portions: Children don’t eat as much as adults do. Only serve your child one-fourth to one-third the amount of food an adult would eat. A good rule of thumb is 1 tbsp. for each year of your child’s age. Be sure to serve less than what you think your child will eat. If they are still hungry, let them ask for more.

Provide all the food groups at every meal: Children should get plenty of grains, vegetables, fruit, protein, and dairy. If your child skips one of the groups for a few days, don’t worry. But if they are never eating a certain food group, you may need to think of ways to make it more appetizing to them. For example vegetables can be added to fruit smoothies or children who don’t like milk might like yogurt and cheese.

Remember that sometimes it can take several times before a child will try a food. Be patient. Don’t insist that they eat the food, but keep offering it. Sometimes the way you “sell” the food also helps. For younger children, try keeping a growth chart next to the dinner table. Children enjoy seeing how their healthy food choices are paying off as they track their growth on the chart.

Be a good example: Make mealtime a family affair and let your children see you making healthy choices. Avoid eating large portions and fill your plate with fruits and vegetables.

Drink water: Children who fill up on juice or soda probably won’t be hungry enough to eat the rest of their food.

Provide healthy snacks: Children can’t eat enough during meals to meet their energy and nutritional needs. It is a good idea to aim for three meals and two to three snacks a day. Be sure to offer healthy choices. Be consistent with what time during the day that snacks are served. Try to avoid grazing on things like crackers and chips throughout the day. Do not serve snacks right before mealtime—they should be served at least 2 hours before.

Set a routine: Have mealtimes at a set time each day. Let your children know 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time when it will be time to eat. This will help them settle down and shift gears from playtime to mealtime. Try to make mealtimes as routine as possible. Things like having their own chair, having them always set the table, or blessing the food can help children differentiate mealtime from playtime. Children like predictability and will better know what is expected of them at mealtime if it is consistent every time.

Make it family time: Mealtime should be about eating and being together as a family. The dinner table should be free from distractions like the TV, toys or books.

Mealtime should be pleasant: Try to make meals something that the family can look forward to. It should not be used as a time to talk about discipline problems or to fill a spouse in on some of the misbehavior that happened during the day. Avoid things that could cause an argument.

Using bribes, punishments, begging, and threats to get children to eat is also not a good idea. This can turn the dinner table into a battleground, and it is a battle that you are not likely to win. Children may also learn that refusing food is a good way to get attention.

Be realistic: We would all love to have a picture perfect meal with our family every night, but it is probably unrealistic. Children are still learning table manners and this is a time for practice not perfection.

Still Worried?
If you are worried about how much your child is eating, try keeping a food diary. It will give you a good look at whether or not your child is eating too much junk food and if he or she is getting all the needed nutrients. You can also talk to your pediatrician. Together you can evaluate the food diary, how your child is doing in terms of growth, and if there any other causes for the loss of appetite. And don’t be afraid to listen to your gut feelings. Parents are often the first to sense when something is wrong.

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