All the Bigger to Eat Lunch With...

Lunch plate size for children affects how many calories they serve themselves and eat

April 7, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) Typically, couples pick out dishware for their wedding gifts and not for their upcoming baby. But perhaps they should shop for dishware for their kids too.

A recent study found that the size of plates and bowls made a difference in how much food children served themselves and ate.

Young children should be encouraged to serve themselves, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Food and Drug Administration. But apparently, size matters.

"Consider serving dinner with smaller plates."

The study, led by Katherine I. DiSantis, PhD, of the Department of Community and Global Public Health at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, looked at whether children who used smaller or larger plates served themselves different sized servings.

The researchers worked with two second grade classrooms, with a total of 42 students, at a mostly African-American elementary school. Children with medical conditions related to food or with allergies were not included.

The children all had the opportunity to serve themselves during lunch from a buffet line. The selections were small-sized units, such as chicken nuggets, or shapeless dishes, such as pasta with meat sauce.

The children served themselves from these dishes as well as from selections of fruits and vegetables. Each child was also given 1 percent flavored milk and a piece of bread at each meal.

One classroom of students was provided with plates 7.25 inches across and bowls that held 8 ounces. The students in the other class were given plates 10.25 inches in diameter and 16-ounce bowls.

The 10-inch plates had twice the surface area as the 7-inch plates, and the larger bowls could hold twice as much as the smaller bowls. The serving bowls and spoons were the same size for all the children.

The children were observed during eight different lunches, each on a single day of eight different weeks. Every child was given the larger adult-sized dishes on four days and the child-sized dishes on the other four days.

The researchers measured (by weight and calories) each child's plate of food and then measured in calories how much food each child actually ate on each day of the study.

The researchers found that most of the children (about 80 percent of them) served themselves an average 90 calories more when they used adult-sized dishes rather than child-sized dishes.

The type of food also made a difference in how much the children served themselves. The kids served themselves an average 239 calories more on the days when the lunch was a unit item (such as nuggets) rather than a shapeless meal (such as pasta).

The children also served themselves an average 104 calories more during meals that they said they liked.

Serving themselves more food also led the children to eat more food. For every additional calorie the children served themselves, they ate an additional 0.43 calories. Another way to look at this is that children ate 43 percent of the additional calories they served themselves.

"This [study] provides new evidence that children’s self-served portion sizes are influenced by size-related facets of their eating environments, which, in turn, may influence children’s energy intake," the authors wrote.

"Encouraging parents to use smaller dishware may be a relatively straightforward and acceptable strategy that can be used by clinicians to promote age-appropriate child portion sizes across diverse populations," they wrote.

According to Jennifer O. Fisher, PhD, the senior author of the study, kids are generally able to regulate their food intake fairly well, based on past research.

However, she told dailyRx, this does not mean children are not affected by their environments as adults can be.

"We know very little about what happens when kids are serving themselves, how clued kids are into their eating environment," she said. "The next step is to ask how this plays out in the home and in other environments where children are eating."

However, Deborah Gordon, MD, a dailyRx expert who specializes in nutrition, expressed skepticism that the study's findings can lead to meaningful change in weight gain for kids.

"Sufficient studies have passed over our desks, and sufficient obese people through our offices, to raise serious challenge to the notion that less calories can make people slimmer," Dr. Gordon said. "I would be quite interested to see a comparison between foods of significantly different quality (grass fed beef burger vs. pasta with meat sauce, for instance) to assess that differential in outcome measurements."

"That said, there is a certain appealing logic to the outcome of this study: it's comforting to have child-sized plates for children, their appetites and their food," Dr. Gordon added.

The study was published April 5 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the US Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.