Many parents pay little attention to the food a child eats and the calories they consume. But with skyrocketing rates of child obesity, more and more attention is being paid to the calories kids are getting. The following information will help you better decipher a child’s calorie equation.

How many calories per day do children need?

The calorie needs for children vary, and depend a lot on the age of the child and the type of lifestyle they’re living, since active children need more calories than sedentary children. (The term ‘sedentary children’ is a phrase that shouldn’t even exist, but sadly does.) So it should be noted that a lot the guidelines we’re about to discuss are rough estimates only, meant to help parents decipher whether their kids are getting to many calories, which could be contributing to a child’s weight problems.

How many calories do toddlers need?

Dr. Alan Greene advises that “As a rule of thumb, calorie needs go up a bit from about 900 calories a day at the first birthday to about 1,000 calories a day at the second, but [kids this age] still don’t need very much. Just two cups of milk continues to provide all of the necessary protein and calcium, and half of the needed fat.” A child drinking 2 cups of milk per day would get 300 calories just from this, leaving 700 or so calories to be split between the day’s meals and snacks, or less than 200 calories per meal. (Greene, 2009, p. 220)

How many calories do preschoolers need?
Preschool-age children typically need a little more than a thousand calories a day, rising to around 1,200-1,400 total calories by the time they start kindergarten.

How many calories do grade-school-age children need?
From ages four through eight, girls need around 1,200 calories per day, and boys around 1,400. The Institute of Medicine puts the standard at an even 1,300 for moderately active children, regardless of gender. Among 7-10 year olds, boys generally need about 2,000 calories per day, and girls anywhere from 1,700 to 2,000.

How many calories do teens & adolescents need?
During the adolescent growth spurt, children are going to be hungrier more often and their calorie needs go up. Adolescent girls typically need around 2,200 calories per day between the ages of 11 and 18, though especially active girls might need more. Among boys, 11- to 14-year-olds typically need around 2,500 calories per day, and 15- to 18-year-olds around 3,000 calories.

Calorie needs among children aren’t always stable; they increase during growth spurts and then may wane again. So it’s natural for a child’s appetite to fluctuate from one period to the next.

Gender differences in calorie needs
Calorie needs vary slightly between males and females. “By the time kids reach ages four through eight, boys and girls have slightly different calorie and nutritional needs,” writes Dr. Alan Greene (2009, p. 249). The reason for this is that boys tend to have a slightly higher metabolism. They also have a higher percentage of muscle mass, and muscle requires more energy to maintain than other tissue. These differences are minor in preschool and early elementary school but grow as children get older.

Monitoring children’s calories
Though you don’t need to start calorie counting with children, parents should have a general awareness of how many calories their kids are getting, especially if they consume a lot of junk food or are putting on weight. Many parents don’t realize just how fast these numbers add up, particularly when kids are eating the wrong types of food. Knowing the average number of calories your kids are getting can help you head off a problem before it gets out of hand.

Many nutritional guidelines suggest that young kids get no more than 430 calories in a single meal. Some ‘kids meals’ at restaurants can contain nearly triple this amount. A single honey bun can be 800 calories; 80% of what a 3-year-old should be getting in a day. So offering this as a snack means kids will blow right past their daily allotment in no time at all. It’s also recommended that no more than 30% of daily calories come from fat. (One gram of fat has 9 calories.)

It’s fine for kids to splurge on occasion, or even stuff themselves with that honey bun from time to time. So don’t get too uptight about the calories your kids are consuming if they are a healthy weight. It’s a child’s overall patterns that matter, not the occasional junk food bender.

I also want to be clear that excess calories are not a matter of kids “eating too much,” but rather, the +type of food+ they’re eating. Kids can stuff their face until their heart’s content and not run afoul of any calorie guidelines, so long as they’re getting the right type of food. It’s when their habits shift away from wholesome foods toward unwholesome ones that parents encounter problems. A child living on fast food, chips and processed sweets can easily pack 3,000 calories a day into their tiny frame before they get their full, while a child eating a healthier diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can eat more food and even enjoy a dally treat while not exceeding 1,000 calories. If a child is putting on weight or consuming too many calories, you need to change the type of food they’re eating, not the amount, and kids shouldn’t be put on food-restrictive diets. (See our information on Diets for Children.)