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Packing a Lunch for Your Preschooler? Portion Size Matters

Are you a parent or caregiver that packs a lunch for your child to take to preschool? When your daughter comes home, are her carrot sticks still in the bag? Does your son eat his whole sandwich and tell you he was too full to eat his applesauce?

Before you pack another lunch, take a minute to make sure you’re packing the right portion sizes of food. Healthy eating is not only about eating healthy food but also eating the right amount. Also, packing the right portion size of the main dish for preschoolers may be a strategy to help them eat more fruits and vegetables at lunch time.

To find out how portion sizes affect what kids eat for lunch at preschool, Jennifer Savage from Pennsylvania State University and a team of researchers served lunch one day each week for 6 weeks to 17 kids ages 3 to 6 years old attending a full-day childcare. Each of the lunches had the same foods: a macaroni and cheese entrée, milk, and 3 sides (green beans, a whole-wheat roll, and unsweetened applesauce). The only difference in the lunches each week was the portion size of the macaroni and cheese. The smallest portion served was less than half a cup, and the largest portion was more than a cup and a half. 

The researchers found that the more macaroni and cheese kids were given, the less they ate of their healthy sides. For example, when kids were given the largest portion of macaroni and cheese, they ate more than half of it, and about one third or less of their sides. But, when kids were served the smallest portion of macaroni and cheese, they not only ate almost all of it but they also ate more than half of their healthy sides. In other words, when kids were served the smallest portion, they ate nearly twice as much applesauce, three times as many green beans, and twice as much of the whole-wheat roll compared to when they were given the largest portion.

This study tells us that kids who are given age-appropriate portions of the main dish may eat more of the healthy side dishes provided, including fruits and vegetables, compared to kids who are given larger portion sizes of the main dish.

While Let’s Move! Child Care promotes family-style* meals as the best way of serving food to children in early care and education programs, if you are responsible for providing your child’s meals, packing the right portion size of the main dish and including healthy sides such as fruits and vegetables is one simple change you can make to help make sure your preschooler is eating a well-balanced meal.

And when young children eat healthy early in life, they develop healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. These healthy eating habits, combined with regular physical activity, can help to prevent childhood obesity.

* Family-style meals are meals in which caregivers/teachers and children sit and eat the meal or snack together. The serving platters, bowls, and pitchers are on the table so that everyone at the table, including the children, can serve themselves (infants and very young children might need assistance from an adult). During the meals, the adult eats healthy foods to model appropriate eating behaviors and encourages social interaction and conversation. (Definition adapted from: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. 2010. Preventing Childhood Obesity in Early Care and Education: Selected Standards from Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs, 3rd Edition. Available online at: http://nrckids.org/CFOC3/PDFVersion/preventing_obesity.pdf)

Learn more:

  • Resources are available to help you figure out the right portion sizes for young children. For example, check out First Years in the First State: Improving Nutrition & Physical Activity Quality in Delaware Child Care. On pages 49 – 66 you will find photos of age-appropriate servings for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and tip sheets on healthy eating. This resource was developed by Nemours Health & Prevention Services (NHPS) for the Delaware Department of Education and funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Team Nutrition grant.
  • For more healthy eating tips, recipes, and answers to your nutrition questions visit the Nutrition & Fitness Center for parents on KidsHealth.org or the Let’s Move!Child Care Web site created and hosted by Nemours.
  • Let’s Move! Child Care is a nationwide call-to-action to empower early care and education providers to make positive health changes in children that could last a lifetime. Let’s Move! Child Care is for parents and caregivers too. As a parent or caregiver, you can use our free online tools and talk with your early care and education providers, so together you can give your kids the very best start.

References to non-federal organizations are provided solely as a service to the audience. These references do not constitute an endorsement of these organizations, their programs and policies, their research and materials by CDC or the Federal Government, and none should be inferred.