Calorie and Nutrition Needs for Kids

Is it necessary to know how many calories your child needs? Or are their nutrient needs more important?

Ever wonder how many calories your child really needs? Most dietitians and pediatricians tend to agree that as long as a child eats a balanced diet and keeps a healthy weight, counting calories is not really needed.

Calorie guidelines, though,canbe useful for parents whose children may be struggling with being overweight or underweight. In these cases, it can help to have a general sense of how many calories your child should be striving for.

Children's calorie needs
For very young children (up to 3 years old), how many calories a child needs is mainly determined by the child's age. Once your child hits preschool, though, calorie requirements vary by gender, with boys typically requiring more calories than girls. Other factors that affect calorie needs include a child's size, body composition, and level of activity. A taller, very active child will need many more calories than a smaller and/or less active child.

Though there are quite a few variations, here are the basic guidelines for children's average calorie needs.



Calorie Needs

Calorie Needs

Calorie Needs


Age (yrs)


Moderately Active




























Keep in mind that it is never a good idea to put a child on a strict diet or make a child count calories.

Making sure they get the nutrients they need
Focusing on a nutritious, well-balanced diet is key to keeping your kids healthy and helping them maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown that the nutrients of concern for most children and teens are calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E. Following the guidelines below will help ensure your child is making the most of his or her calories and getting in all the nutrients kids need.

Encourage whole grains.Whole-grain foods will offer more fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E than their refined counterparts. Choices here would include whole-wheat breads, cereals, English muffins, oatmeal, brown rice, and low-fat popcorn.

Vary your veggies.Vegetables are rich sources of fiber and potassium. Dark green leafy veggies also offer calcium. Try to work in all colors of the rainbow with choices like sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and spinach.

Focus on fruits.Fruits also offer fiber and potassium. Choose fresh, frozen, or dried fruit, without added sugar. Fruits can be added to meals and snacks. Go easy on the fruit juice. Whole fruits have more fiber and nutrients and less sugar.

Count on calcium.Your child's growing bones need plenty of calcium, so make an effort to serve low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt a couple times each day. Fortified milk will also contain vitamin D, which is essential for bone development. Dried beans and green leafy vegetables are also good sources of calcium.

Prioritize protein.Lean or low-fat meat, chicken, turkey, eggs, and fish are all well-known protein sources. Also, consider serving more dried beans and peas, which are also good sources of magnesium, fiber, and calcium. Consider adding the following to your family's diet:

  • Chickpeas, nuts, or seeds to a salad
  • Pinto beans to a burrito
  • Kidney beans to soup

Find the right fats.Encourage your kids to eat healthy fats from nuts and seeds, avocados, fatty fish (salmon, sardines), and olive and canola oils. These are good sources of vitamin E, heart-healthy omega-3, and monounsaturated fat.

Shy away from sugar.Added sugars contribute calories with few, if any, nutrients. Choose foods and beverages more often that do not have sugar and caloric sweeteners as one of the first ingredients. Ideally, you want your kids to fill up on wholesome foods and leave the sweets as an occasional treat.

Working closely with your child to establish healthy eating habits is always the best route. And as always, helping your child stay physically active is a must.

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