How Much Does My Kid Need to Eat?

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Use this age-by-age guide to find out the amount of food your child should be eating -- and how to create healthy habits for a lifetime.

By Sally Kuzemchak, R.D.

From Day 1, we worry about our kids getting enough to eat -- yet with the childhood obesity rate at 17 percent, we also fret that they'll get too much. What's the right amount? To cut through the confusion, nutrition experts help ed compile this guide of just how much kids need at each age, plus tips on how to stay on track. Follow their advice -- and your child's weight will be one concern you can cross off your list.

RELATED: Fighting Childhood Obesity

AGES 1-3: Feeling Finicky
Daily Calorie Needs 1,200 - 1,400

Remember that baby of yours who happily ate chicken, squash, and most anything else that landed on his high-chair tray? He's been replaced -- by someone a lot less agreeable at mealtime. After your baby's first year, growth slows down by about 30 percent, and so may appetite. Infants need to eat about 35 to 50 calories per pound, while toddlers require roughly 35 to 40 calories per pound, according to guidelines from the Institute of Medicine. How do you know if you're hitting that target?

1. Trust toddler instincts. It's natural for a 2-year-old's appetite to be erratic from day to day. Yet according to a study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, up to 85 percent of parents say they push their kids to eat more, giving them rewards and praise for having a couple more bites. Believe your child when she pushes her plate away or tells you she's full. Otherwise, she'll eventually start to eat when she's not hungry -- and that's a slippery slope. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania found that many overweight and obese 5- to 12-year-olds have lost touch with their own hunger cues. "Keeping a child aware of her hunger and fullness may go a long way to help prevent obesity," says study author Tanja Kral, Ph.D. are just too busy to eat -- after a few bites, they're hopping down from the table to play. It's okay to have healthy munchies (such as bite-size veggies, fruit, cheese, and whole-grain crackers) within arm's reach during playtime, but serve most meals and snacks at the table so eating there becomes a habit, says Dina Rose, Ph.D., a sociologist in Hoboken, New Jersey, who specializes in children's eating habits.

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2. Stick to a schedule. Serve meals and snacks about three hours apart. "This helps keep your child at a healthy weight by 'normalizing' hunger," says Jill Castle, R.D., author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School. A child who's always nibbling will never feel hungry. Plus, if your child skimps at one meal, you'll both know there's another opportunity to eat in a few hours.

3. Avoid food bribes. Yes, you'll get the short-term gain of a few bites of peas or chicken, but you're telling your child to eat more than she wants -- which can set her up for a pattern of overeating. You're also sending the wrong message about food. "If kids think that vegetables are just the yucky stuff you have to eat to get to the good stuff, they'll never learn to really like them," says Rose.

AGES 1-3: Sample Menu
Serve meals with 1/2 cup of low-fat milk; switch to water if your child is still thirsty. Have water or 100% fruit or vegetable juice at snacktime. Don't exceed 6 ounces of juice daily.

Oatmeal (1/2 cup mixed with 1 tsp. brown sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon)
1/2 banana sliced

Bean-and-cheese quesadilla (1 6" whole-wheat tortilla with 1 tbs. fat-free refried beans and sprinkled with 2 tbs. shredded cheese)
1/4 cup chunky salsa for dipping

1 oz. grilled chicken
1/2 cup roasted sweet potatoes 1/2 cup steamed broccoli (toss with 1/4 tsp. olive oil and 2 tsp. Parmesan cheese)

1/2 cup low-fat flavored yogurt with 1 whole-grain waffle cut into strips 1/2 apple, sliced, with a piece of string cheese

AGES 4-6: Branching Out
Daily Calorie Needs 1,500-1,750

While you were able to keep tabs on what your toddler ate, kids this age consume about 40 percent or more of their calories away from you, usually having snacks and lunch at school or on after-school playdates. "Keep snack portions on the small side, and boost the amount of food by about one third at the main meals," suggests Sarah Krieger, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in St. Petersburg, Florida. Other tips:

1. Make a lunch date. Some schools allow parents to drop by and have lunch with their child once in while, or at least volunteer in the lunchroom. "Most kids this age are slow eaters, and end up throwing out a lot of their lunch," says Liz Weiss, R.D., coauthor of No Whine With Dinner. "So don't count on your child getting all the calories in her lunch box. Adjust her lunch size accordingly, and plan for a bigger breakfast or dinner."

2. Watch out for emotional eating. If your child is constantly asking for snacks, he may be eating out of boredom or even anxiety. Use a "hunger scale" with your kids: 0 is totally empty, 10 is totally full, and 5 is neither hungry nor full. "If he's above a 5 and asking for food, he's probably eating for emotional reasons," says Susan M. Kosharek, R.D., author of If Your Child Is Overweight: A Guide for Parents. He's old enough to understand emotions, so help give words to his feelings by asking, "Are you angry? Are you worried?" Then help him problem-solve or distract him from the situation without using food.

3. Serve family style. Allow your child to serve herself -- without any prompting or pressuring from you -- and she'll likely take a portion that's just the right size. "Some parents unknowingly over-feed by giving adult-size portions, and kids get used to eating those larger amounts," says Castle. Go to to find out the serving sizes for kids at every age.

AGES 4-6: Sample Menu
Serve meals with 3/4 cup of low-fat milk; switch to water if your child is still thirsty. Have water or 100% juice at snacktime. Don't exceed 6 ounces of juice daily.

1 small whole-wheat bagel spread with 1 tbs. nut or seed butter
1/2 cup fruit salad

1/2 turkey-and-cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread
Yellow pepper strips with 2 tbs. low-fat ranch dressing
1/2 cup sliced strawberries

2 oz. fish (such as cod or tilapia)
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
4 asparagus spears roasted in olive oil

1/4 cup hummus and 10 baby carrots
1 small box raisins

Find healthy meal plans for older kids.

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