Children Know How Much They Need to Eat

Ellyn Satter
January 22, 2010

All children know how much to eat: the large child and the small child, the big eater and the small eater. All grow in the often surprising way nature intended. Your child will get hungry, eat, get filled up, and stop eating (even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream). Whether your child needs a lot or a little, she instinctively eats as much as she needs. If you follow the division of responsibility with feeding she will automatically eat the right amount of food to grow and be as active as is right for her. Provided you don't try to control her, she can even make up for her mistakes in eating. To be competent with eating and therefore to do well with her lifetime of eating amounts that are right for her and weighing what is right for her body, she needs to be allowed to preserve her sensitivity to her internal sensations of hunger, appetite, and satiety.

Children who eat and grow at the extremes make their parents so nervous that they often interfere. It backfires. In our weight-obsessed culture, parents may try to restrict a robust child with a hearty appetite because they assume that enjoying food and eating a lot means she will get fat. It doesn't, and it doesn't work. Children who don't get enough to eat-or fear they won't-become preoccupied with food and tend to overeat when they get a chance. So do children who are deprived of high-calorie "forbidden" foods. At the other extreme, parents may try to push food on a small, thin child with a small appetite, assuming she is doing poorly and thinking they should fatten her up a bit. It doesn't, and it doesn't work. Children who have food pushed on them become turned off by it and tend undereat when they get the chance.

Don't try to control the amount your child eats. It's her job to decide how much to eat, not yours. Instead:

Copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter. Published at For more about raising children who eat as much as they need and get bodies that are right for them (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter's Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming, Kelcy Press, 2005. Also see to purchase books and to review other resources. 

For more information, visit Ellyn Satter's Facebook page.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Gloriann- I did notice the same thing with my son. He was in no way shape or form normal when he was born. He weighed in at 9 lbs and believe me he is in no way overweight. He is just... big! :) His father is 6' 4" and I am 5' 4" so for us he is normal size. According to the doctor, he is on the upper end of the normal scale. I was concerned with his eating because he sometimes does not want to eat at all and other times he consumes more than a day's worth of food in one sitting. We attribute that to his growing spurts now. When he stops eating in large quantities we know it's time to get larger clothes and shoes. He is now 17 months and I cringe when my husband mentions that one day he will be a teen... not looking forward to that grocery bill! LOL

    over a year ago

  • Gloriann Northcraft

    I love this because when my son has always been a husky boy. He was born an average weight of 7.12 lbs and then doubled his weight within 2 months. Our family doctor was concerned and told be to thin out his formula and wanted me to take him to a nutritionist. I immediatly felt that a baby will only eat as much as suffices his hunger and that taking 2 month old infant to a nutritionist was rediculous. To this day he is big for his age. He is almost 2.5 yrs old and weighs 42 lbs. but when you look at him you don't see him as being overweight - he is just solid and very strong. Some days he eats very little and other days he is hungrier. I always let HIM decide how much he wants to eat and just try to provide him with healthy choices.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    I see a lot of this at my learning center. Many of my kids don't have enough food while some have to much. I have even told my parents that it's better to pack to much food for your child and have them come home with leftovers then for them to come home hungry. (I can't legally feed them) Kids know how hungry they are.

    over a year ago

  • Laurie Bastian

    My son William worried my husband and I when he was younger. He seemed to eat his entire weight in a given meal. It's great to read that this is normal. I often wonder how celebrities are able to take care of their kids with their busy schedules. I just heard recently that Jessica Alba is going to be on Live! Regis & Kelly Feb 3rd talking about the joys of raising children. Maybe she'll bring Honor for us to see? :)

    over a year ago


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