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How Much Should Kids Eat During the Day, and Other Mealtime Questions

How Much to Feed

Does it feel like your children are eating you out of house and home? Now that the family is home all day, parents may be feeling the shock of the amount of food the household is going through in a week.  

With the absence of school and child care nutrition programs for meals and snacks, families may be feeling a strain in their resources. You may also be wondering how much is “normal” for your child to eat during the day.  

We have some help for that and other mealtime questions. 

Q: How much do kids typically eat in a day? 

Children, like adults, vary in their daily nutritional requirements depending on factors such as height, weight, age, activity levels, overall health, and more. Previous notions of calorie counting and nutrient formulas are becoming antiquated considering the current research on how our bodies optimally function. 

As a family, your focus should be on quality over quantity. Provide space and guidance for children to listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness that their body naturally sends them.  

Q: What does this look like in practice?  

Families should expose their children to a wide variety of age-appropriate foods and allow them to determine what and how much to eat.  

By limiting the open-door grazing between mealtimes, you will ensure that your child is hungry and ready to eat nutritious snacks and meals throughout the day. Don’t force them to eat everything on their plate. Simply ask, “Are you full? Are you finished eating? Would you like more?” And encourage them to take note of how their body feels in that moment.  

Q: Should we keep to a mealtime schedule? 

Having scheduled mealtimes can, of course, be beneficial for the daily rhythm of the household, but it doesn’t need to be a set specific time or amount of food consumed at each meal. Allow for some freedom to alter the mealtime schedule as your daily household dynamics naturally change and flow. 

In practice, this might cause you to feel uneasy. As adults, we crave time structures and concrete numbers like calorie counting. But forcing children to eat a certain amount or requiring them to eat when they’re not hungry can lead to overeating and overriding the body’s internal cues of hunger and fullness.  

Our bodies are intelligently designed to keep up with our energy needs from week to week (or our caloric demands). Notice, we didn’t say day to day. This makes sense if you think about your own body and why some days you don’t eat as much as other days.  

The body doesn’t keep track of daily calories. It ebbs and flows over the course of a week with some days having higher calorie needs than others. This system works beautifully when we’re eating the types of foods our bodies are designed to eat, namely foods found in nature like: 
  • Whole fruits and vegetables. 
  • Minimally processed whole grains. 
  • Grass-fed meats, eggs, and cold-water fish. 
  • Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut and olive oils, and ghee.  
This delicate system breaks down when we’re consuming ultra-processed, high-caloric, low-nutrient dense manufactured foods.  

For those that want more structure, here are some general guidelines for amounts of food based on age group that we use in our centers.  

Q: That all sounds nice, but aren’t those foods expensive?  

Some of our recommendations do cost more initially, while other items like dried beans, lentils, peas, and bulk whole grains are very cost-effective. Here are some shopping tips: 
  • Look at your food budget and buy the best quality you can afford.  
  • Buy in bulk for shelf-stable items like dried beans, legumes, and cold-water canned or frozen fish. This will save you time shopping and bring down the cost per serving. 
  • Look for fruits and vegetables grown locally and in season for the best price and highest nutrient value.  
  • If you eat meat, make it a side dish, not the main course. Meats cost more, and a little goes a long way for protein and amino acid needs. Think stir-fry loaded with vegetables and a small amount of animal protein mixed in.  
  • Consider replacing 2–3 meat-based dishes per week with more cost-effective plant-based proteins like beans and legumes. 
  • Drink water and eat fresh fruit and vegetables for snacks. Avoid spending limited dollars on processed snack foods or soda. 
  • Treats are fine on occasion and making them at home allows you to control the ingredients that go into them. They can also be a fun cooking experience with your child. 

Food is medicine. Small adjustments to improve your family’s diet now could dramatically reduce reliance on costly health care needs in the future. Prioritize health, and you’ll never regret it. 

Q: What if this is all hard for us to do right now? 

Many families need assistance to meet household food needs. Here is a list of places to check out. 
  1. Some local schools have meal pick-ups for school-age children in need. 
  2. Essential child care facilities are serving meals to enrolled children. 
  3. Try local food pantries or food banks. Many food banks have gardens and offer fresh produce boxes in addition to shelf-stable items. 
  4. Meals on Wheels supports feeding seniors in the household. 
  5. Some local churches have been helping their communities with prepared meals and food pantries. 
Right now, times are hard, and families might be in a pinch. Just do the best you can. Don’t feel like fresh fruits and veggies are your only options. Frozen and canned options can still help them make the connection between healthy eating and strong minds and bodies.