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Parents' portions, kids' portions
Back in 2012 I shared with you a study that showed that when preschoolers are presented with larger servings, they tend to eat more. On that occasion I pointed out that parents who were trying to get their children to eat more vegetables could make that work for them by serving larger portions of vegetables at mealtimes.

Serve more, eat more: more ways to get kids to eat more vegetables and fruits
Back in January I reported on a study that found that when small children are served a smaller portion of their entree, they tend to eat more of the vegetables and fruit served alongside the entree. When the children were served larger portions of the entree, they ate more of the entree and correspondingly less of the vegetables and fruits. 

More Fruit, Less Junk
There's a lot of concern about childhood obesity, and justifiably so: over 1 in 3 children (including adolescents) are at least overweight, if not obese. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that as of 2008, 20% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese, while 18% of kids 12-19 are obese. 


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Kids need snack guidance

It probably won't surprise you that kids between 3 and 16 tend to prefer sweet and fatty foods, and parents know that smaller children often prefer familiar foods that they like and are resistant to new foods. That said, left to their own devices children usually will eat about the number of calories they require.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to choose portion sizes based on how satisfying they believe the food will be. Because they're more familiar with so many more foods, predicting how satisfying a food amount will be (calories aside) can be pretty accurate for most adults. Researchers in the United Kingdom wondered how well children could predict how satisfying a food would be when it was a familiar food versus a more unfamiliar food (Am J Clin Nutr 2011;94(5):1196-1201).

The 70 participants in their study were 11 and 12 year old children enrolled in local schools who were willing to participate and whose parents consented to their participation.

The children were taken individually to a computer lab, where they were shown two pictures of foods displayed simultaneously on a computer screen. One picture was of a dish of pasta with sauce. This picture could be changed, using up and down arrow keys on the computer, to show larger or smaller amounts of the pasta and sauce. The second picture was one of six foods: a chocolate bar, string cheese, chicken nuggets, cheese dip with corn and potato snacks for dipping, a jelly doughnut, and a slice of lemon pound cake (remember that this is in the UK.).

The children were instructed to "change the size of the [pasta] until you think both foods will be equally filling." Each child did this once for each of the six foods. This way the researchers could calculate a score for each food by dividing the number of calories in the amount of pasta the child felt was equally filling by the number of calories in the comparison food. The researchers then compared these scores with how familiar the children were with the test foods.

They found that the more familiar the children were with the test food, the more likely they were to be able to fairly accurately choose a pasta amount that contained about the same number of calories as the test food. On the other hand, when the food was unfamiliar to the children, they tended to choose much smaller pasta amounts as being equally satisfying - indicating that they believed that the unfamiliar test food would not be very satisfying.

What this means for you

This suggests that children will behave much as adults when choosing their own portion sizes: they'll choose larger amounts of foods that are perceived to be less satisfying, and especially so if the food is unfamiliar. Help your kids be smart snackers by helping them choose appropriate portion sizes, and introduce new foods in appropriately portion-sized amounts. You'll be helping to guide them towards managing their own portion sizes more easily as adults.

First posted: November 2, 2011