How much do young children need to eat?

Most children do well with three small meals and two snacks daily. Each day, a young child should eat about the number of servings recommended below. Many 4- to 6-year-olds can eat these serving sizes. Offer 2-to 3-year-olds less, except for milk. All need a total of 2 to 2 servings from the milk group each day. Appetite varies with young children, so averaging across many days is the key.

Offer foods from all five groups

Try to offer a few healthy choices from each group each day so your child will "choose healthy". Within reason, your child can decide his/her own portion size.

Each day aim for:

Grain Group: 3-5 servings

One serving = 1 slice of bread, or cup of cooked rice or pasta

Vegetable Group: 2-4 servings

One serving = cup of chopped vegetables, or 1 cup leafy vegetables

Fruit Group: 2-3 servings

One serving = cup of juice, or cup of chopped fruit

Milk Group: 2-2 servings

One serving = 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 2 ounces of cheese

Meat/Bean/Nut Group: 2 servings

One serving = 2-3 ounces of lean meat, poultry, or fish
Note: cup of cooked dry beans, 1 eggs, or 2 tablespoons peanut butter counts as half a serving


Food Jags are normal

Food jags and food strikes are very common with 2-to 6-year-olds. Here are two tips that may help:

  • If a child always refuses a food, give it a rest and try it again in a few weeks.
  • When a child insists on the same food all the time, there is no harm in serving it as long as it is nourishing and healthy. Place a small helping of something new alongside the favorite; sooner or later your child will try it. Next week he/she will have a new favorite food.

He hardly eats anything

This is a common phrase uttered by the parents of many 2-to 6-year-olds. However, as long as checkups with your family's doctor show your child is growing regularly, there is no need to worry. During infancy, children grow rapidly. During the preschool years, growth slows down a bit and so does appetite. So, if a child hardly eats anything at a meal, don't make a big deal of it. Tomorrow he/she may eat a lot more.