How Many Calories Do Kids Need?

Obesity in kids has reached epidemic levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 18.5% of children and adolescents in the United States are obese. That's as many as 1 in 5 children. Research indicates that more than half of obese children will be obese in adolescence, and upwards of 80% of adolescents will continue to be obese as adults.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 41% of children are either overweight or obese and that the prevalence is higher among Black and Hispanic children. Lack of physical activity and poor nutrition have contributed to the rise in overweight and obese children, but many children are also genetically predisposed to weight gain. This, combined with getting more calories than their bodies need and not enough exercise, can lead to obesity.

Overview

Do you know how many calories your kids need each day? Although you usually don't have to count calories, it can be helpful to have an understanding of how many calories your child is getting from the things they are eating and drinking for a few days and then compare it to their actual caloric needs. It should be noted, however, that while the USDA provides estimates, the exact amount of calories a child needs can still vary based on the child—and no child should ever be put on a strict diet that requires calorie restriction.

If you have been told that your child is overweight or at risk for becoming obese, estimated calorie ranges can help you to create healthier eating habits and meal plans for the whole family. It's important that your child get most of their calories from nutrient-dense whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, healthy fats, and protein, and consumes sugary foods, fried foods, and fast food less often.

If you find that your child's intake of calories is much higher or lower than standard recommendations, it is very important to consult with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian to get some help in planning a more balanced eating plan so that your child is meeting their nutritional needs.

Modeling good eating habits is important for helping children consume a wide variety of foods. In addition, avoidance of labeling foods as "good" and "bad" will be important to enforce a healthy relationship with food.

How to Make Calorie Calculations for Kids

A young girl eating healthy vegetables

Kelly Sillaste / Getty Images

You may be concerned because your child is a picky eater and you think they may not be getting enough calories. Or, you may worry that your child eats more than their body needs. Understanding how many calories your child actually needs might help you worry a little less. It might also help you avoid overfeeding your child, as it's common for parents to overestimate how many calories their kids need and get.

Most of the time, however, if your child is eating enough wholesome foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, protein, and healthy fats, and getting enough physical activity, you don't need to count calories. Counting calories is usually a temporary strategy to help provide you with more information about your child's eating habits. Here's how you can figure out how many calories your kids need each day.

To calculate how many calories a child needs each day, you just need to know their:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Activity level

You can also use the following charts to calculate your child's daily calorie needs.

Moderately Active Boys

The estimated daily calorie needs for moderately active boys aged 2–18 include:

  • 2 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 3 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 4 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 5 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 6 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 7 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 8 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 9 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 10 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 11 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 12 years: 2,200 calories/day
  • 13 years: 2,200 calories/day
  • 14 years: 2,400 calories/day
  • 15 years: 2,600 calories/day
  • 16 years: 2,800 calories/day
  • 17 years: 2,800 calories/day
  • 18 years: 2,800 calories/day

What does it mean to be moderately active? Some good definitions include:

  • Being moderately active 60 minutes a day, at least five days a week, for six out of eight weeks
  • Having at least 12,000 daily activity steps on a pedometer

What counts as ​a moderate physical activity for toddlers and preschoolers? It includes structured and unstructured physical activity.

Moderately Active Girls

The estimated daily calorie needs for moderately active girls aged 2–18 include:

  • 2 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 3 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 4 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 5 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 6 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 7 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 8 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 9 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 10 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 11 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 12 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 13 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 14 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 15 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 16 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 17 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 18 years: 2,000 calories/day

Some good examples of girls who are moderately active include those who are:

  • Moderately active 60 minutes a day, at least five days a week, for six out of eight weeks
  • Have at least 10,000 daily activity steps on a pedometer

What counts as a moderate physical activity for toddlers and preschoolers? It includes structured and unstructured physical activity.​

Boys Who Are Not Active

The estimated daily calorie needs for boys aged 2–18 who are not active include:

  • 2 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 3 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 4 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 5 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 6 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 7 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 8 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 9 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 10 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 11 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 12 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 13 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 14 years: 2,000 calories/day
  • 15 years: 2,200 calories/day
  • 16 years: 2,400 calories/day
  • 17 years: 2,400 calories/day
  • 18 years: 2,400 calories/day

Boys who aren't active don't do any moderate or vigorous physical activity or any activity outside the activity of day-to-day living.

For example, walking from the car to the front door of the school and from class to class is just part of the physical activity of your child's average day. However, if they ride a bike to school, that would count toward being active.

Whether your child is overweight or at a healthy weight, encourage them to be active, as it is a good healthy habit for everyone.

Girls Who Are Not Active

The estimated daily calorie needs for girls aged 2–18 who are not active include:

  • 2 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 3 years: 1,000 calories/day
  • 4 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 5 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 6 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 7 years: 1,200 calories/day
  • 8 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 9 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 10 years: 1,400 calories/day
  • 11 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 12 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 13 years: 1,600 calories/day
  • 14 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 15 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 16 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 17 years: 1,800 calories/day
  • 18 years: 1,800 calories/day

Whether your child is overweight or at a healthy weight, encourage her to be active, as it is a good healthy habit for everyone.

A Word From Verywell

Your child's approximate daily calorie needs can be used as a guide, but that doesn't always mean you have to start counting calories. Healthy kids come in all shapes and sizes, and each individual's body burns energy (calories) at different rates.

While we have estimates or ranges of calorie needs we can refer to, these numbers will still vary based on the child. Remember that overall, your child's daily eating habits and level of activity are more important than what they consume at one meal. If your child eats more in one meal than another, this is usually considered normal and healthy.

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading