Kid Articles

Realistic Toddler Serving Sizes

By Sue Gilbert, MS, Nutritionist


Most parents say the same things about their one to three year olds, "My Toddler Doesn't Eat Enough!" However, kids often do receive enough nutrition.  It's just that serving super-sizing has distorted our impression of what really does make a serving. Couple that with the number of servings the food pyramid tells us our kids should be eating... there's simply NO WAY they could eat all that.


What's a parent to do?
  • Little children grow more slowly and don't need as much food, pound for pound, as they did as babies.
  • In a New York University study, researchers compared recommended portions to customary portions. Customary serving sizes were much larger: cookies up to seven times as large, muffins up to three times normal weight, and the bagel diameters twice as big with twice as many calories. Serving sizes on the Food Pyramid and Nutrition Facts serving size labels greatly differ: the Food Pyramid is based on nutritional needs, while Nutrition Facts label serving sizes come from public survey that reflect the amount of food customarily eaten at one time. The two seldom agree. The Pyramid is designed to help you meet daily nutrient recommendations while the Nutrition Facts label helps you compare similar foods. Following the serving sizes on the Food Pyramid, not the nutrition facts panels is the best way to get your nutritional needs without going over your caloric needs.
  • The food pyramid recommend small adult serving sizes and a toddler needs only 1/4 to 1/2 of that smaller adult serving size. That turns out to not be much food at all.


Below are the recommended number of servings and serving sizes, and representations of some of those sizes:


Grain Group: Six Servings
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Bread 1/4 to 1/2 slice 1/2 slice
Muffin 1/4 to 1/3 muffin 1/3 to 1/2 muffin
Crackers 2 saltine size 2 to 4
Hot Cereal 2 tbsp to 1/4 cup 1/4 to 1/2 cup
Cold Cereal (Dry) 1/4 cup 1/3 cup
Cooked Pasta or Grains 2 tbsp to 1/4 cup 1/4 to 1/2 cup


Vegetable Group: Three Servings
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Cooked 1 to 3 tbsp 1/4 to 1/2 cup
Raw Chopped 1 to 3 tbsp 1/4 to 1/2 cup
Leafy Greens 1/4 to 1/2 cup 1/4 to 1/2 cup


Fruit Group: Two Servings
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Canned or Pureed 1 to 3 tbsp 1/2 cup total
Fresh 1/4 cup total 1/4 cup to 1 whole
Dried 1 tbsp 1/4 cup total
Juice (Full Strength) 1/4 cup (2 oz) 1/2 cup (4oz)


Dairy Group: Two Servings
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Milk or Milk Substitute 1/2 cup (4 oz) 3/4 cup (6 oz)
Cheese 1 ounce up to 2 ounces
Yogurt 1/2 cup 3/4 cup
Cottage Cheese 1/4 to 1/2 cup 1/2 cup


Meat, Fish, Poultry, Dry Beans, Eggs & Nut Group: Two Servings
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Cooled, Lean Meat, Fish or Poultry 1 ounce 1 to 1 1/2 ounces
Peanut Butter 2 tbsp 2 to 3 tbsp
Egg 2 saltine size 2 to 4
Hot Cereal 1 egg 1 egg
Nut, Seeds, Soy Beans 1/2 ounce 3/4 ounce
Cottage Cheese 1 ounce 1 to 1 1/2 ounces
Dry Beans 1/4 cup 1/3 cup


Fats and Sweets
One Serving: 1 to 3-year-old: 3 to 6-year-old:
Butter of Margarine up to 1 tsp 1 tsp
Salad Dressing 2 to 3 tsps 1 tbsp
Sugar, Honey, Jam, etc. use sparingly use sparingly


Serving Comparisons

Sometimes the best way to understand what they really mean by a serving size is to actually see it. But actual size pictures are unrealistic for here, so try these relative comparisons to get the idea.

  • A standard muffin is the size of a tennis ball
  • One ounce of cheese is a pair of dice
  • One ounce of meat is your ring and little finger
  • Two tablespoons of peanut butter is a ping-pong ball
  • One quarter cup fruit, vegetables, yogurt, etc is the size of a medium egg


Use Standard Servings

Use standard serving sizes no matter where you eat. A study by The American Institute for Cancer Research showed that 67% of Americans eat what is on their plates, regardless of the serving size. Once you start ordering super size meals and deals, you'll eat it, even if you don't need it. And while young kids tend to eat according to hunger, after the age of five they become much more responsive to serving size. The more you serve them, the more they will eat. So, "toddler-hood" and preschool age is the most sensitive time to help kids stay in touch with inner cues of hunger and satiety. Encouraging them to eat more than they want, or serving unnecessarily large portion size will distort their intuitive understanding of how much they really need. Bring your understanding of portion size back to reality to help your child grow up eating appropriate amounts of food. It's a sure way to help prevent obesity and develop healthy habits.