How many calories do kids need? How do you know if your child is eating enough? What to know about energy needs for kids.
Calories are units of energy. Specifically, a calorie is equivalent to the heat energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C. But… that definition doesn’t really help anyone trying to feed littles.
Your questions are likely more about how many calories your kids need and how to make sure they’re getting enough. So let’s chat about that.
How many calories do kids need?
We often hear about calorie needs for adults, for weight gain or weight loss, or to otherwise change muscle mass and body composition. But what about kids? When it comes to calories for kids, think about this more as fuel for their (sometimes constant!) activity. Kids need energy put in to grow, develop, and get their sillies out.
For a frame of reference, here are the average daily caloric needs for children by sex and age group:
- Boys, 2-3 years: 1000-1200
- Girls, 2-3 years: 1000
- Boys, 4-8 years: 1200-1400
- Girls, 4-8 years: 1200-1400
- Boys, 9-13 years: 1600-2000
- Girls, 9-13 years: 1400-1600
- Boys, 14-18 years: 2000-2400
- Girls, 14-18 years: 1800
Keep in mind that these are ranges, and there are many factors that go into how much energy a child needs, which could be a little more or less than these numbers.
Do I need to count calories for my kids?
Kids come in all different shapes, sizes, activity levels, and appetites. Calorie needs can vary.
At PBJs, we advise against counting calories for kids unless there is a specific medical reason to do so, in which case it will be temporarily. And even then, we don’t recommend involving your kids in the counting.
We also don’t encourage talking to your kids about counting calories. Assigning caloric value to foods, and associating calories with health and weight can have negative consequences on a child’s perception of both food and their body.
Instead, we want to focus on all the positive things food does for our bodies, and all the amazing things our bodies do for us! See our post on navigating weight and body image with your child for more on this.
We advocate for feeding children well – which means offering them a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Nutrition is a long game, and picky eating phases are real, but counting calories doesn’t offer any benefit to your child and may actually cause harm in the long run.
How do I know if my child is eating enough?
If you’re not counting calories, how do you know if your child is eating enough? Some of the possible indicators that your child is not getting enough can include:
- Noticeable weight loss or lack of steady weight gain on a growth chart
- Loose-fitting clothing that used to fit well, or not growing into new clothes
- Loss of appetite and consistently not eating as much as they used to
- Low energy levels
This is always something you can and should discuss with your pediatrician or registered dietitian. They will be able to help identify nutrition needs and help you create a plan to boost caloric intake to support continued growth and weight gain.
Examples of calories in foods
To give you an idea of the caloric value of foods we often serve our kids, here are some examples:
- Broccoli, 1/2 cup chopped: 15 calories
- Almond butter, 2 Tbsp: 200 calories
- Hummus, 2 Tbsp: 80 calories
- Whole wheat bread, 1 slice: 100 calories
- Lentils, 1/4 cup canned: 75 calories
- Banana, 1 medium: 115 calories
- Avocado, 1/2 fruit: 120 calories
- Olive oil, 1 Tbsp: 125 calories
- Green peas, 1/4 cup: 30 calories
- Soy milk, 1 cup: 120 calories
- Chickpeas, 1/4 cup: 70 calories
- Oatmeal, 1/2 cup cooked: 80 calories
Remember that these are just examples and not a prescription or meal plan for your child.
The best way to help your child get enough calories is to offer a wide variety of foods each day, and be sure to include higher-calorie items in meals and snacks. For instance, avocado, nut and seed butter, fortified nondairy milk, legumes, or olive oil.
Energy needs for kids as well as their intake can wax and wane, but generally, counting calories is not recommended for most children. Reference the list above to get an idea of how many calories kids need but rest assured that simply offering a wide variety of nutrient- and calorie-dense foods are the best approach most of the time.
Chime In: What else have you heard about counting calories with kids?
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