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Eating Less - Using Portion Control and Mind Control to Eat Less Food

Healthy Eating Habits


Updated August 17, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

As much as everyone likes to discuss who is to blame for the childhood obesity epidemic, everyone knows that the main causes are rooted in eating too much and not getting enough exercise.

While experts debate over the availability of fast food, junk food ads and why kids don't walk to school anymore, that isn't helping your kids stay at, or get to, a healthy weight.

Most kids have to eat less.

Eating Less

Eating less doesn't necessarily have to mean a strict diet with limited calories.

It isn't all about eating less, either. It is really about eating fewer calories, which means eating less of the energy-dense junk foods that kids often get used to eating and actually eating more healthy food, including fruits and vegetables.

It might also mean eating fewer high-calorie and high-fat foods and snacks, and eating more foods that are high in fiber, low in fat and have calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals that can help make up a healthy diet.

But eating less doesn't have to mean eating a lot less for most kids. Since a pound of fat is equal to about 3,500 calories, cutting just 150 calories a day, which is about the number of calories in a 12-ounce can of soda, might be equal to losing a pound of weight every 23 days or so. Of course, that means that the child didn't replace those calories with something else and stuck to the same level of physical activity.

Using Portion Control to Eat Less

Most of the portions we eat are too big. From super-sized meals at fast-food restaurants to oversized portions of snacks, many kids and adults simply eat too much. Getting your portion sizes under control is one of the keys to eating less.

In addition to buying smaller, single-serve sizes of cookies and chips so that your kids don't eat the whole box or bag at one sitting, other tips to help your children eat less can include:

  • Watch your portion sizes - kids shouldn't be eating adult size portions, but should instead be eating age-appropriate food portion sizes, which are about equal to 1/4 of an adult size portion for a toddler to a 1/3 of an adult size portion for a preschooler and younger school-aged child.

  • Don't get seconds - this mainly applies to the main course that you are serving. Kids can have extra vegetables, fruits and salad, etc., if they are really still hungry after meals.

  • Don't oversize portions - many parents and children overestimate what a typical portion should be, so be sure to use the serving size on food packages as a guide so that you don't oversize your child's portions from multiple servings.

  • Eat three meals a day - skipping a meal might seem like an easy way to eat less, but your kids are just likely eat bigger snacks or meals later. Kids should eat three regular meals a day and one or two small healthy snacks.

  • Avoid letting snacks turn into meals - getting too many calories at a snack is a common way that people overeat. Try to limit snacks to 100 or 150 calories and make sure they don't turn into an extra meal after school or at bedtime.

Using Mind Control to Eat Less

It might be silly to think that you can use mind control to eat less, but this isn't about hypnotizing your kids or tricking them in any way. Studies have shown that how much we eat is unconsciously influenced by cues in our environment; for example, eating until our plate is empty, no matter how much food we are given.

  • Smaller Plates - people tend to over-serve themselves and under-estimate portion sizes, whether it's breakfast cereal or ice cream, when using larger plates and bowls.

  • Bigger Utensils - one study found that adults who used bigger forks actually ate less at a meal than those who used smaller forks.

  • Smaller Cups - this can actually just mean cups that your kids think are smaller. Most kids actually think that tall, narrow cups hold more liquid than shorter cups, even if the shorter cup is wider and they hold an equal amount of liquid. So if you use a taller cup, they may pour less juice in the cup. On the other hand, if you want them to drink more milk or water, use a short cup that is very wide, because they might think that there is less in the cup than there really is. Also consider getting rid of cups that hold more than 8-ounce servings.

  • More Ice - although you sometimes see people order drinks without ice to get more soda in their cup, if you want your kids to actually have a smaller serving of a high-calorie drink that you can't substitute with something healthier, like low-fat milk or water, then fill the cup with ice first.

  • Eat without distractions - too many distractions while eating can make it hard to recognize the cues that tell you when you are full. The biggest distraction at meals for most kids is the TV. Turn the TV off during meals.

  • Chew More - a study found that if you chew your food 40 times, you will eat less, but that isn't very practical for kids and teens. You likely can get them to chew more if they aren't going out of their way to eat fast, though, so encourage your kids to have a sit-down meal and slow things down.

Can smaller plates, bowls and cups help your kids eat less? Consider that the size of plates has risen considerably over the years, as have our portion sizes and the amount we eat, which are significant factors with the rise of childhood obesity.


Van Ittersum, Koert and Brian Wansink (2007), "Do Children Really Prefer Large Portions? Visual Illusions Bias Their Estimates and Intake, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107:7 (July), 1107-1110.

Wansink, Brian and Collin R. Payne (2008), "Consequences of Belonging to the 'Clean Plate Club,'" Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine, 162:10 (October), forthcoming.

Shimizu M, When snacks become meals: How hunger and environmental cues bias food intake. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2010 Aug 25;7:63.

Wansink B, Cheney MM. Super Bowls: serving bowl size and food consumption. JAMA. 2005 Apr 13;293(14):1727-8. PubMed PMID: 15827310.

Wansink B. From mindless eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiol Behav. 2010 Jul 14;100(5):454-63. Epub 2010 May 12. Review.

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