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But What About Food Waste?

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Last night, I gave my son a hard time at dinner. But no, it wasn’t about what he was eating. It wasn’t about whether he tried everything at the table. It wasn’t about how much he ate. It wasn’t about whether he had eaten broccoli. It also wasn’t about whether he had cleaned his plate.

I have a zero pressure policy at my table.

That means, no one has to eat anything. They do have to sit at the table with us, but they don’t have to eat. Of course, 99.99% of the time, they choose to eat. But they always have the option not to eat.

So what was I getting on his case for?

How much he was serving himself. I really do not like throwing away food!

Right now we’re learning about how to prevent wasting food and throwing away food that is left on the plate. If a ton of food is on his plate and he gets full, then we will be throwing away that food.

Portion Sizes

Portion sizes for children are quite small, especially compared to the portions we see in restaurants, carry outs, and grocery stores. The average portion-size has grown a lot in the past 40 years. Even bagels are now usually 2-3 times larger than they were 30 years ago.

That makes us think that our kids should be eating a large amount of food. Which leads to throwing away food that we shouldn’t have served in the first place. The “official” serving sizes are actually quite small for toddlers. Think 1-4 Tablespoons of food per serving (depending on the food).

Plus, what they actually eat at a meal, has nothing to do with portion size.

I’ve seen my toddler pack down an adult-sized portion of spaghetti. I’ve also seen my toddler eat exactly 1 bite of food for his whole meal. Same age.

It’s okay that they eat amounts that vary. They do not need to eat the official portion sizes every day.

Our challenge is to minimize food waste and avoid throwing away food.


Wasting can come in a few different forms.

First, it can come in the form of throwing away food into the garbage can. Someone didn’t finish the food on their plate. Someone didn’t like the food. The food accidentally went bad in the refrigerator. You may throw away those foods in garbage (unless you compost :-).

Next, wasting food can come in the form of eating food when you don’t need it. There are cases, when we eat food that we don’t need in order to survive. Food fuels us and satisfies our hunger. For some people, eating past fullness is how they live day to day. There isn’t enough food in the house all month long or all year long. Whenever there is food, all of it needs to be eaten. There is scarcity and hunger, so when there is food, it will all be eating. That’s not wasting.

For other people, they have a consistent source of food. Food is available all of the time. In that case, it’s wasting food to eat it just to keep it out of the garbage can. Because food is meant to fuel us. If we’re eating more than we need, we’re just eating it to store it. We teach the same thing to our kids if we make them finish their plates when they are full. I think of this as “wasting food in our bodies.”

Preventing Waste

In the end, we want to respect our farmers and our food fully. We want to enjoy our food and eat the right amount for our bodies. We don’t want to waste it inside our bodies or outside our bodies by throwing the food away.

It’s important to me, to teach my kids how to prevent food waste. They can learn over time to be good judges of how hungry they are and how much food they need. They can learn to save the leftovers for another meal. They can eventually learn to cook as much food as they need, and to share food when they won’t eat it. They can learn to stop eating when they are full. It’s all a learning process.

There are a few strategies that we use to prevent throwing away food.

No pressure policy

I help my kids learn not to waste food inside their body, by not making them clean their plate. This is a standard message for them because we have been practicing it with them since they started eating food. So they are used to leaving bits of food on their plate and it doesn’t bother them.

Serving Sizes

We often do family-style serving at the table. This can very easily lead to food waste, because little ones love to get into serving themselves. It can help kids eat more vegetables, and it can also lead to enormous serving sizes.

We monitor our kids serving themselves and remind them that we don’t want to waste food. So, we stop them from overserving themselves or we take some of the food they put on their plate if they over served themselves.

This is also important for us moms too. We love to over-serve kids!

Instead, think small portions for small kids. Smaller and smaller. It’s okay for kids to ask for more. Most kids will ask for more food if they are still hungry. We do unlimited refills if everyone has had their share and there is more available.

Here are some “official” serving sizes for 1-3-year-olds. You can watch your toddler at all meals and see what they actually eat. Then modify how much you serve based on what is good for them. After carefully watching kids for a while, you will notice that you can much better estimate how much they need.


  • 1 Tablespoon per year of life


  • ¼ cup cooked or canned
  • ½ small piece fresh
  • 2-4 oz juice (juice is not recommended before age 2, however)


  • Milk 4 oz
  • Cheese ½ oz (1-inch cube/ ½ a cheese stick)
  • Yogurt 1/3 cup


  • ¼ – ½ slice bread
  • ¼ cup cooked cereal, rice, pasta, or dry cereal
  • 1-2 crackers


  • 1 oz – two 1-inch cubes of solid meat or 2 Tbs of ground meat
  • ½ egg


  • 2 Tbs cooked
  • 1 Tbs peanut butter (thinly spread on toast or cracker)
a plate with a heaping pile of raspberries, and one tiny piece of other foods showing serving sizes for foods your child doesn't typically eat to prevent from throwing away food at meal times.

Serving Utensils

Trade out your large utensils for small utensils. Kids love to use serving utensils, but they also come with large portions. If you can find smaller utensils, they can still serve themselves 8 times, but get a reasonable portion.

Instead of big salad tongs, use small, kid-sized tongs. Use a Tablespoon instead of a large serving spoon. You get the idea. Basically, make it harder for you and them to put a really big portion on their plate.

Don’t Use Leftovers as a Punishment

Sometimes leftover plate food can be used to “punish” kids later. Maybe there is a rule like “you have to eat whatever you take.” So, the kid has to eat more than they are hungry for. That’s a form of punishment for taking too much food. It’s also a form of wasting food in their bodies.

The rule could also be “if you don’t finish it now, you can’t eat anything else until you do finish it.” So the food is served at every meal and snack after that. That is usually a very strong form of pressure. Pressuring kids doesn’t often have good long-term effects for health outcomes, so I don’t recommend it.

Get Creative with Leftovers

Here are some things we do with leftovers:

  • We have meals made up of leftovers. I always make sure there is at least one food that the kids like – that may mean adding something new to the meal.
  • Parents eat the packed leftovers for another meal.
  • Sometimes, I will underserve myself and eat their leftover food at the meal (being careful not to waste their food inside my body!)
  • Use the leftovers to make a new meal
  • Put leftovers in the freezer to be used as a quick lunch for a working parent
  • If it is a food that the kids like, but they actually weren’t hungry at the meal, we may serve it as a snack. This is done carefully to make sure it’s not done in a pressuring or punitive way.

Menu Planning

I usually leave at least one meal open in my menu plan to make sure there is a night to use up leftovers and make sure we’re not wasting food.

Before I go shopping each week, I check to see if there is anything in the refrigerator or freezer that needs to be used up and I plan meals around it using my shopping list and menu template. I try not to buy anything that will go bad before I use up what I already have. This helps me prevent throwing away food!

Sheet pan meals are one of my favorite easy ways to prevent food waste.

I also have a flexible mindset about the menu that I planned. I make meals that have a lot of perishable food early in the week. Then if we go out to eat or have dinner with someone else, I can still push off a few meals without worrying that all the food will go bad. Want the recipes that I cook for my family every week? Nutritious meals that are done in 30 minutes for the whole family can be found in the Real Easy Weekdays Meal System here!

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Alice

    Love your website!!

  2. Hayley Banks

    This is actually quite a problem for our household, so many leftover food, and nobody really likes to eat the same thing again the day after. Thank you for these tips, I’ll start by serving smaller food portions and having a list of leftover recipe ideas for the main dish, just in case.

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