Children’s Calorie Needs: Dietary Guidelines for Kids

Raising a child entails a lot of responsibilities. Among the most important ones is making sure that your kid eats enough nutrient-rich foods every day. Doing this is often harder than it seems, and you may sometimes find yourself worrying whether your child is eating too little or too much. To resolve your anxiety, the best place to start is to know your children’s calorie needs and how much he or she is actually getting on a daily basis.

At a Glance

  • To calculate how many calories your kid should consume every day, you need to consider the following factors:
    • Your child’s age,
    • Whether your child is a boy or a girl, and
    • How physically active your child is
  • On average, boys between ages 11 and 13 years need 1,800 to 2,600 calories a day, and teenage boys who are 14 to 18 years of age need 2,200 to 3,200 calories a day.
  • Girls who are 11 to 13 years old need 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day while teenage girls between ages 14 and 18 need 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day.
  • Child athletes may need to consume more or less 3,500 calories on a daily basis.
  • Primary food components such as carbohydrates and protein both contain 113 calories per ounce. Fat contains 255 calories per ounce. Once you know how many ounces of every primary food component is in a particular food, you can calculate the total calories it contains, allowing you to monitor the caloric intake of your child. 

What Is the Recommended Calorie Intake for Kids?

There is no specific number of calories that kids are required to eat. How many calories children must consume to function well depends on their size and how fast they can burn off energy. Their caloric intake also depends on whether they must lose, maintain, or gain weight. At best, experts can only recommend a range that fits the average school-age child, which is 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day [Source: KidsHealth].

As kids grow up, their calorie needs increase as well, especially once they hit puberty. At this point, the recommended caloric intake differs between boys and girls. They will also have to eat more if they have a very active lifestyle. On average, boys between ages 11 and 13 years need 1,800 to 2,600 calories a day, and teenage boys who are 14 to 18 years of age need 2,200 to 3,200 calories a day. Girls, on the other hand, don’t have to eat as much. Girls who are 11 to 13 years old need 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day while teenage girls between ages 14 and 18 need 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day [Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Eat Right].

girl looks curiously at fruit salad

How to Calculate the Appropriate Calorie Intake for Kids

To calculate how many calories your kid should consume every day, you need to consider the following factors:

  • Your child’s age,
  • Whether your child is a boy or a girl, and
  • How physically active your child is
[Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Eat Right].

Once you know these details, you may then refer to a reliable calorie intake chart to help you determine the appropriate calorie intake for your child.

Children’s Calorie Needs Chart by Age & by Activity Level

The tables below show the recommended caloric intake for boys and girls, aged 2 to 18 years old. The data provided are adapted from the Estimated Energy Requirements (EER) featured in the dietary reference intakes report on macronutrients by the Institute of Medicine, published in 2002. The calorie needs are calculated according to gender, age, and levels of activity.

Boys

AgeCalorie Intake

Sedentary


Moderately Active


Active
21,0001,0001,000
31,0001,4001,400
41,2001,4001,600
51,2001,4001,600
61,4001,6001,800
71,4001,6001,800
81,4001,6002,000
91,6001,8002,000
101,6001,8002,200
111,8002,0002,200
121,8002,2002,400
132,0002,2002,600
142,0002,4002,800
152,2002,6003,000
162,4002,8003,200
172,4002,8003,200
182,4002,8003,200

Girls

AGECalorie Intake

Sedentary


Moderately Active


Active
21,0001,0001,000
31,0001,2001,400
41,2001,4001,400
51,2001,4001,600
61,2001,4001,600
71,2001,6001,800
81,4001,6001,800
91,4001,6001,800
101,4001,8002,000
111,6001,8002,000
121,6002,0002,200
131,6002,0002,200
141,8002,0002,400
151,8002,0002,400
161,8002,0002,400
171,8002,0002,400
181,8002,0002,400
As defined by the Institute of Medicine in their report:

[a] Sedentary is a type of lifestyle that includes only the physical activity of independent living.

[b] Moderately Active is a type of lifestyle that includes activities of independent living and some additional physical activity. This is comparable to walking about 1.5 to 3 miles per day at a speed of 3 to 4 miles per hour.

[c] Active is a type of lifestyle that includes, aside from the activities of independent living, physical activity comparable to walking more than 3 miles per day at a speed of 3 to 4 miles per hour.

 

[Source: Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press; 2002.]

Are there good and bad calories?

A lot of people today associate calories with something unhealthy or bad for them. But the truth is, there is no such thing as good or bad calories. In the field of nutrition, we define a calorie as a unit of energy. People need a lot of energy to survive, and they get them by eating food regularly. It’s consuming more calories than you can burn off that’s actually bad for you. This is why consistent overeating often leads to unhealthy weight gain.

What you and your child eat and drink usually contain calories. Some foods contain more calories than others. The key to determining how many calories are in a particular food is its basic components. You have to know how many grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat your child’s food contains. You can usually figure this out by checking the nutrition facts label of the food item you’re purchasing.

As a guide, here’s how many calories are in one (1) ounce of the following primary components of food:

  • Carbohydrates: 113 calories per ounce
  • Protein: 113 calories per ounce
  • Fat: 255 calories per ounce

Once you know how many ounces of every component is in a particular food, you can calculate the total calories it contains. To do this, multiply the number of ounces of a food component to its equivalent number of calories per ounce. For example, if the food you’re serving your kid has 0.5 ounces of fat, then 56.5 of the calories he gets from that are from fat.

If you know the recommended calorie intake for your child, then you can make sure he only gets the right number of calories from the right sources.

Daily Dietary Recommendations for Kids

It is not enough to just meet the calorie needs of your child. Whether your family follows a vegetarian diet or an omnivorous one, you have to make sure that your kid eats the adequate amount of nutrient-rich foods from each food group.

The tables below show the daily amount of food that your child should be eating from each food group as recommended by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Boys

AgeProteinFruitsVegetablesGrainsDairy
2 - 32 - 4 ounces1 - 1.5 cups1 - 1.5 cups3 - 5 ounces2 cups
4 - 83 - 5.5 ounces1 - 2 cups1.5 - 2.5 cups4 - 6 ounces2.5 cups
9 - 135 - 6.5 ounces1.5 - 2 cups2 - 3.5 cups5 - 9 ounces3 cups
14 - 185.5 - 7 ounces2 - 2.5 cups2.5 - 4 cups6 - 10 ounces3 cups
[Source: Mayo Clinic]

Girls

AgeProteinFruitsVegetablesGrainsDairy
2 - 32 - 4 ounces1 - 1.5 cups1 - 1.5 cups3 - 5 ounces2 cups
4 - 83 - 5 ounces1 - 1.5 cups1.5 - 2.5 cups4 - 6 ounces2.5 cups
9 - 134 - 6 ounces1.5 - 2 cups1.5 - 3 cups5 - 7 ounces3 cups
14 - 185 - 6.5 ounces1.5 - 2 cups2.5 - 3 cups6 - 8 ounces3 cups
[Source: Mayo Clinic]

How Do I Increase the Calorie Intake of My Child?

Most kids have enough calories to burn off in a day because they tend to eat whenever the body sends their brain a signal for hunger. Of course, there are also many cases when kids are underweight and their body mass index (BMI) are way below the average that they need to up their caloric intake. However, before you start feeding your underweight child more food than usual, it’s best to consult first with a physician.

Every child is different, but on average, an extra intake of 250 calories per day could result in a weight gain of a half a pound a week. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t be in a hurry for your kid to gain some weight. A slow and steady weight gain while eating a healthy and balanced diet is the best way to go about increasing a child’s calorie intake. This means you should be serving your kid a healthy mix of foods from all the food groups. This way, he is not being deprived of all the necessary nutrients.

Tips to Encourage Your Child to Eat More

If your child is habitually not eating as much as he should, here are a few tips to encourage your kid to eat more:

  • Make your child two to three snacks a day.
  • Eat with your child and his siblings at the dining table for all meals and snacks.
  • Limit distractions (e.g., loud television) during meal times.
  • Monitor your child’s beverage consumption. If possible, don’t give him anything to eat or drink two hours before a scheduled snack or meal.
  • Boost your kid’s calorie intake by adding skim milk, yogurt or pudding to his drink.
  • Include your kid in the food-making process by shopping and preparing meals together.

Children’s Calorie Needs for Overweight Kids

If a child consumes more calories than what his body can burn, the unused calories are converted to fat. That is why kids who are overweight are recommended to cut down on their calorie intake [Source: KidsHealth]. However, as a parent, you shouldn’t put your child on a strict diet plan without the advice and approval of a doctor.

Tips on Helping Overweight Kids to Lose Weight Safely

  • Avoid feeding your kid high-calorie foods like candies, sodas, and fast food. Serve fruits and vegetables instead.
  • Never resort to weight loss drugs or food supplements unless prescribed by your child’s doctor
  • Encourage your kid to exercise and play with other kids
  • Don’t single out your kid about losing weight. Instead, encourage the entire family to adapt to a healthier lifestyle.

What Is the Recommended Calorie Intake for Child Athletes?

As previously mentioned, the child’s level of activity has a large impact on the number of calories he needs to consume. For kids who are regularly engaging in strenuous physical activity (e.g. basketball, football, soccer, etc.) such as in the case of child athletes, these children may need to consume more or less 3,500 calories on a daily basis [Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Eat Right].

Most Common Myths About Child Nutrition

There are a lot of misconceptions about calories and they often get an unwarranted bad rep for being the reason why people get fat or can’t lose weight. To help you further in taking care of your child’s health, here are some of the common myths about child nutrition, and the truth behind them.

  • Myth #1: Eating sugar makes kids hyperactive.

So far, there has yet to be any study confirming that sugar consumption is a cause of hyperactivity in children [Source: Yale Scientific]. Incidentally, sugar-rich food products like soda and chocolate bars also contain caffeine. Therefore, it’s also likely that excessive caffeine intake could be the culprit behind the heightened activeness of these children.

  • Myth #2: Reducing fat intake prevents obesity. 

Kids are at a period of rapid growth and development, especially the brain and the rest of the nervous system. To ensure optimal brain development, 20 to 35 percent of children’s calorie intake per day should be from fat components [Source: USDA]. Hence, it is not wise to cut down on fat unnecessarily out of fear that your child might gain weight.

  • Myth #3: Carbohydrates make you fat. 

While some people may follow a low-carb diet because it helps them lose weight, it is not advisable for kids. You should never deprive your child’s body its main source of energy, nutrients, and fiber. However, eating too much sugary and refined carbohydrate-rich foods might give rise to health issues like heart disease and diabetes. Instead, you should stick with eating healthy carbohydrates like whole grains [Source: Reader’s Digest].

 

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