Smaller plates at meals may curb weight gain in kids

A major investigation into the school lunch industry is ongoing as companies that decide what food goes on your child's plate may be cheating schools and taxpayers out of millions. Sharyl Attkisson investigates charges of a corporate rip-off.

Parents are often told to make sure what's on their child's plate is healthy, but a new study suggests they should also make sure the plate itself is the right size.

Researchers have discovered that kids given large plates are more likely to serve themselves more food, potentially leading to weight gain down the line from extra calories.

"We know most parents don't sit down with their children with measuring cups in hand to determine portion size at meals," study author Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Fisher told MedPage Today. "We feel this is one straightforward way to help parents promote healthy portion sizes and perhaps keep children's appetites in check at meals."

For the small study, published April 8 in Pediatrics, researchers observed 42 first graders from two Philadelphia classrooms during each school lunch period for about two weeks. Children would alternate between child or adult-sized dishware and were asked to serve themselves both entrees and side dishes. Researchers would weigh the plates before and after each meal. Meals and sides included pasta, chicken nuggets, fruit and mixed vegetables.

The researchers found children served themselves more food when using the adult dishes, which amounted to on average extra 90 calories. Researchers determined, however, the children ate about 50 percent of the food they took for themselves. Therefore for every extra calorie taken, kids consumed an extra 0.43 calories.

Kids also took more fruit with the larger plates, but the same did not apply for vegetables.

Childhood weight and body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of obesity -- had no impact on the study results, meaning heavier children weren't any more likely to take more food.

Study co-author Katherine DiSantis, assistant professor of community and global public health at Arcadia University in Glenside, Penn., told HealthDay that plate size alone did not promote increased eating, but combining larger plates with allowing children to take their own food seemed to work together to cause this effect.

"Children look to their environment for some direction when put in the position of making decisions about how much food to serve themselves," she said.

She added that on a daily basis, this can lead to weight gain over time.

Health officials and researchers have been concerned over rising U.S. childhood obesity rates, which have tripled in the U.S. over the past three decades from 7 percent of kids ages 6-11 in 1980 to nearly 20 percent by 2008.

One expert said giving children smaller plates won't cure childhood obesity, but is a step in the right direction.

"Even if your child isn't overweight (to find out, check out this BMI calculator), using a smaller plate is a good idea," Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, wrote for the Boston Globe. "The habits learned in childhood can last a lifetime--and we want that lifetime to be a healthy one."

To find out more about what foods should be on a child's plate, visit