When it comes to children’s nutritional needs, parents often have questions: How many calories should my child be consuming? Is he or she getting enough calcium and iron? Are they eating too much fat?
A child’s nutritional needs and caloric intake fluctuate depending on their age and their stage of development. Here are some general guidelines, but always talk with your pediatrician if you have questions or concerns.
Newborns and infants rely mainly on breastmilk or formula for the first six months of their lives until solids foods are introduced. Breastmilk or formula provides almost everything babies need nutritionally with the exception of vitamin D. It’s recommended that babies receive a daily vitamin D supplement.
Toddlers and preschoolers
The toddler and preschool years are an active time in a child’s life when changes are happening physically and developmentally. However, it’s important for parents to know that toddlers grow fairly slowly.
“The total number of calories your child requires per pound of bodyweight is significantly less than what they required as babies,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.
Encourage more calcium and fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables in your child’s diet and do not focus on restricting fats.
“Your child’s brain has millions of nerve cells and each one needs to be coated in healthy fat,” says Dr. Bradshaw. “So, if your child is eating a low-fat diet, it can adversely affect their brain development, especially when they’re under the age of 2.”
Toddlers and preschoolers grow in spurts and their appetites come and go in the same way. They may eat well one day and hardly anything the next. Be patient with your little one and avoid food battles.
“Just put food in front of them that’s healthy and let them decide what they’re going to eat,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “And know that a normal toddler eats a decent meal every couple of days and otherwise just grazes.”
Once your child reaches school-age, their bodies need carbs (sugars), fats and sodium, but they should be consumed in moderation. It’s common for children at this age to begin to question where their food comes from and suddenly decide to become vegetarian.
“That’s a big conversation and you do have to be thoughtful about it,” says pediatric nutritionist Patty Fahlstrom. “Before allowing your child to become vegetarian, talk with your pediatrician to make sure that you have a nutritional plan that still gives them adequate protein.”
To help build healthy eating habits in your kids, Patty encourages parents to involve children in planning and preparing family meals. They’re more likely to eat healthier if they have a hand in that process.
“Whether it’s grocery shopping, making a grocery list, making choices in the store based on cost or where the food comes from—there are so many opportunities to talk with your kids about food and eating well that will help instill good values in them,” she says.
Your children’s nutritional needs remain rather consistent from preschool until adolescence. Once they hit adolescence, however, the majority of your child’s bone mass develops—approximately 45 percent—so they will need more calcium. In addition, the number of nutrient-rich calories they need also grows. As they experience puberty, girls need more iron, while boys need slightly more protein.
“I tell all parents, ‘If you’re not sure what kind of nutrition your children are getting, give them vitamins,'” says Dr. Bradshaw. “A multivitamin with minerals and iron can really cover a bunch of gaps in their diet.”
Don’t forget about water
Water makes up more than half of children’s weight, so it’s important to make sure kids age one year and older are drinking water throughout the day, not just when they’re thirsty. Fruits and veggies are also good sources of water. Babies generally do not need water during their first year of life. And don’t forget: children need to drink more water when they are ill or outdoors in hot weather.
How many calories should my child be eating?
Your child’s body needs calories for energy. The recommended daily caloric intake for kids is based on their level of activity, as well as their age and gender.
Making time for family meals
As kids get older, families tend to get busier, but it’s important to make time for a sit-down family meal at least a couple of days a week.
“Self-esteem is an important reason to sit around the breakfast or dinner table and talk,” Patty says. “Multiple studies show that communication skills, self-esteem, as well as family bonding and connectivity are all significantly improved when families take the time to eat together.”