How many calories should your kid eat?

Many of us are familiar with the caloric information on nutrition labels, stating that nutrition facts are based on an average daily budget of 2000 calories.

Have you ever wondered where this 2000 number comes from? Does this number refer to men? Women?

And how about kids?

“Kids should eat more because they’re growing,” some say. “Kids should eat less, small bodies need less fuel,” say others. So which one is it?

If this issue mystifies you you’re not alone.

As more kids struggle with overweight and obesity, this question becomes more relevant, especially since kids are eating many of their meals out of home. When a meal is plated for us, the serving implies, at least subconsciously, that this is a normal amount to eat. And now that calorie counts are popping up in fast food restaurants, and we can see the calorie count of a kids’ meal, parents need some context for this number -- is an 800 calorie kids’ meal reasonable?

A new study in Public Health Nutrition looked at what parents make of these numbers.

How much should my kid eat?

The researchers asked about 1200 parents of 5-12 year olds how many calories a kid should consume in a meal – that includes all courses and drinks.

Only one third of parents correctly estimated that a child should have 400-600 calories per meal, but even those considered their answer kind of a guess – most parents admitted that they were far from confident about their answer.

A third of the parents overestimated kids’ needs, while a third underestimated them.

(An average 5-year-old boy or girl needs about 1200 calories. An average 12-year-old boy needs 1800. Caloric needs vary greatly, and depend on activity level and individual metabolic rate, among many other variables, but if we take these averages into account, and assume that daily needs are divided to 3 meals, it brings us to 400-600 per meal.)

A good kids’ meal

Back to the original question, do kids need more calories because they are growing, or less, because they’re small? Both arguments are correct, and need to go into account when thinking about what a child should eat.

Since caloric need is a moving target, and changes by activity level, and in a child, also by his developmental stage and growth, the best way to eat is by self-regulation determined by satiety and hunger. Which is easier said than done nowadays. Given our stimulating food, endless choices, and the powerful marketing and sugar, fat and salt combinations that entice kids to eat even not hungry, many kids have lost that kind of control.

A good kids meal should have as few as possible of these distractions. A plate with real food, half of which is fruits and veggies, makes kids less likely to overeat. And when it comes to drinks, with a 400-600 calorie budget, one could hardy afford a sugary drink – even the smallest ones have more than 100 calories, and add nothing to health or good habits.

Fast food joints offer different options in kids’ meals. I’d argue that none are ideal, but if you look at the calorie postings, you can see that choosing the apple slices (30 calories) as opposed to the small bag of fries (260 calories) brings the meal down to a more reasonable total calorie count.

A rule mandating that all chain restaurants have to post calorie counts on their menus was supposed to go into effect this month, but it was given a last-minute one-year delay by the Food and Drug Administration. Many places are posting calorie counts voluntarily already, and I think this information could be very helpful and of interest to many people, but to make the best use of it we need to be able to put it into context.

My general advice to kids, including my own, is to eat real food, seated at a table, eat when hungry, only until they’re no longer hungry, and minimize the junk. Kids should learn about nutrition and about food, but counting calories should not be part of a kid's routine. Nevertheless, a casual glimpse of a calorie board leaves an impression — it shows us which foods are calorie-dense and which are lighter. Kids and teens notice these numbers, and over time a general picture emerges that helps a more informed decision.

Dr. Ayala

My general advice to kids, including my own, is to eat real food, seated at a table, eat when hungry, only until they’re no longer hungry, and minimize the junk