In general, it is the parents’ job to monitor what their child eats, while the child is in the best position to decide how much to eat. Normally, healthy and active children’s bodies do a good job of “asking” for just the right amount of food, although their minds may lead them astray when choosing which foods to eat.

You can easily overestimate the amount of food your child actually needs, especially during the younger years of middle childhood. Youngsters of this age do not need adult-sized servings of food. However, if you are unaware of this, you might place almost as much food on your child’s plate as on your own. As a result, your child must choose between being criticized for leaving food on his plate, or for overeating and running the risk of obesity. Your child’s fist size is a good gauge of a serving size for any given food.

There is rarely a reason for you to count calories for your children, since most youngsters control their intake quite well. As the middle years progress, children’s total energy needs will increase and thus their food intake will rise, especially as they approach puberty. Most girls experience increases in their growth rate between the ages of 10 and 12 years, while boys will begin their greatest growth spurts about 2 years later.

At most ages boys require more calories than girls, primarily because of their larger body size. But appetites can vary, even from day to day, depending on factors like activity levels. A child who spends the afternoon doing homework, for example, may have fewer caloric needs than one who plays outdoors after school. Every child’s caloric needs are different.

Some parents worry that throughout the school age years, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to their children’s appetite. One day, they may eat everything in sight, while on other days, they might turn into such a finicky eater that you’d expect their stomachs to be growling throughout the day.

In most cases, these kinds of unpredictable eating patterns shouldn’t concern you. Weighing your children occasionally is one way for you to monitor your youngsters’ nutrition. During this time of life, children should be gaining about 4 to 7 pounds a year, and as long as we tell you that your child is growing normally and his weight gains are fine, don’t worry about the number on the scale. Instead, keep your focus on serving a variety of healthy foods. Expect the appetite to vary, sometimes considerably, from one day to the next.

At the same time, children in this age group eat for a lot of reasons besides hunger. Even when they complain that they’re starving, hunger may not be the reason why they want something to eat. They could be upset or tired and relying on food for comfort.

For some children, eating may merely be a habit—for example; they’re used to gobbling up snack foods anytime they’re watching TV or playing video games. When your youngster says that he’s hungry and it’s not a regular meal or snack time, try to determine what’s really going on and whether food might be serving some other purpose. Then problem solve. If your child seems to be bored, for example, help him find an activity that will keep him occupied doing something productive and steer him away from food. Distracting your child’s hunger with a fun, physical activity is one way of achieving goals.