Most children will significantly overeat when served large portions of calorie-dense popular foods.

The good news in those findings is that parents and caregivers can lower the calorie density (CD) of children’s meals by choosing tasty lower-CD, commercially available foods, such as unbreaded grilled chicken pieces and reduced-sugar applesauce. And kids seem to be just as satisfied.

“With acceptable and readily available products, strategies to reduce calories can be easily implemented in homes and childcare settings, and can be strategically combined with changes in portion size by serving larger portions of lower-CD foods with smaller portions of higher-CD foods,” says Barbara Rolls, professor and chair of nutritional sciences at Penn State.

school lunch tray

For the study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, researchers varied the portion size and CD, or number of calories per bite, for lunches served to children in their normal eating environment.

Few children were able to resist the larger portions of higher calorie food and when served a combination of larger portion and higher CD meals, the children’s intake increased by 175 calories, or 79 percent, in a single meal.

“We previously demonstrated that larger portions have a huge impact on children’s intake,” says Samantha Kling, coauthor and doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences. “In this study, we found that serving larger portions of food, along with higher-calorie-density options of those foods, led to the children consuming larger amounts of food and more calories overall.”

Lunch was served in three childcare centers once a week for six weeks to 120 children aged 3 to 5 years. Across the six meals, all items were served at three levels of portion size—100 percent, 150 percent, or 200 percent, and two levels of caloric density—100 percent or 142 percent.

The lunch menu had either lower-calorie or higher-calorie versions of chicken, macaroni and cheese, vegetables, applesauce, ketchup, and milk. Children’s ratings of the foods indicated that the lower-calorie and higher-calorie meals were similarly well liked.

“There is a belief that young kids can self-regulate their food intake,” Rolls says. “This study shows those signals are really easy to override.”


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Marjorie Miller-Penn State
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