How Many Calories Should My Child Be Eating?


Do you know how much your teen should be eating? (Photo credit: USDAgov)

In today’s world, it can be difficult for parents to know what healthy eating looks like in teenagers. 

On one hand, conventional wisdom says that growing teenagers will eat you out of house and home.

On the other hand, the news is packed with stories about the obesity epidemic and how so many of our teens are overweight and facing life-long health problems.

With conflicting messages coming from the media, many parents are looking for guidance or a frame of reference of what a healthy teenage diet looks like and when it may be time to seek the help of a professional.

As with most things, the real answer is that the amount of calories your teen needs each day really depends on your teen.

  • Student-athletes likely need more calories than their more sedentary peers.
  • Boys generally need more than girls.
  • Teens in the midst of a growth spurt may need more calories than those who are not.

However, there are some basic guidelines that can give parents an idea of how much is too much, how much is not enough, and what really makes up a healthy balanced diet for today’s teen.

3 Things to Consider

There are three factors that you need to take into account when determining how many calories your child needs each day.

  1. The first is whether or not they are male or female.  The guidelines recommended by the National Institutes of Health indicate that the number of calories needed by males and females is different beginning around age 9.
  2. The second factor is age.  Specific guidelines for each age range are provided below.
  3. The third factor is activity level. Of the three, this is the only factor that is subjective.

Determining Activity Levels

The NIH guidelines use three different activity level classifications:

  • Not Active – Teens who fit in this box don’t play sports and are not very active.  They participate in the kind of light activity that comes from living their lives like walking to class or doing chores around the house.
  • Somewhat Active – Teens who are considered somewhat active expend more energy than the first group,  participating in 30-40 minutes of physical activity over the course of a day like participating in gym class or playing basketball with friends after school.
  • Very Active –  Teens that should be classified as very active get more than 40 minutes of physical activity each day and participate in activities like organized sports teams with daily practices and dance training.

Recommended Calorie Ranges for Kid

Once you have determined your teen’s activity level, you can use the NIH’s recommended calorie range below to estimate how many calories your teenager needs to eat each day to be healthy.

  • Boys age 9-13
    • 1,600-2,000 calories if they are not active
    • 1,800-2,200 calories if they are somewhat active
    • 2,000-2,600 calories if they are very active
  • Girls age 9-13
    • 1,400-1,600 calories if they are not active
    • 1,600-2,000 calories if they are somewhat active
    • 1,800-2,200 calories if they are very active
  • Boys age 14-18
    • 2,000-2,400 calories if they are not active
    • 2,400-2,800 calories if they are somewhat active
    • 2,800-3,200 calories if they are very active
  • Girls age 14-18
    • 1,800 calories if they are not active
    • 2,000 calories if they are somewhat active
    • 2,400 calories if they are very active

Unless parents are concerned that their teen’s health is being impacted by how they are eating, it isn’t necessary or advisable for parents to track daily calorie intake or strictly monitor everything a teenager eats.  Modeling healthy eating habits and providing healthy balanced meals are the best things parents can do to help teens eat healthily in general.  However, if you are concerned about your child’s weight or how much/little they are eating, schedule an appointment with a medical practitioner, licensed nutritionist, or dietitian.

5 Tips for Teens on Dieting

There is a lot of pressure on today’s teens to go on a diet.  Some feel this pressure because they are overweight or struggling to maintain a healthy weight.  Others are at a healthy weight but feel pressure to be thinner or to look a certain way.   These pressures encourage teens to “go on a diet” and to try the latest “thing” for losing weight.  According to the National Institute of Health, half of teenage girls and a quarter of teenage boys have used dieting in an attempt to change their body.  Teens of all sizes believe that dieting will help them get the body they believe will make them beautiful, popular, and happy.

Unfortunately, this is simply untrue.  In fact, research has shown that teens who diet have lower self esteem, feel less connected to their families and friends, and don’t feel like they have control of their lives.  In some cases, dieting, especially when it is done over and over, can actually lead to weight gain and weight problems later in life.  No matter how popular a diet is or what kind of claims are made about how successful it is, the simple fact is that dieting doesn’t work almost all the time.

Here is the thing.  Dieting, as we think of it in our culture, is something temporary.  It may mean eating healthier foods, restricting calories, following strict rules, skipping certain meals, or only eating or not eating specific foods, but it is always a temporary change.  This is the most important reason that dieting doesn’t work.  Even if the changes being made lead to a healthier diet, the temporary nature of dieting means that once you achieve your goal, you will go back to your regular, potentially less healthy, eating habits.  For many people, a return to their regular eating habits often means a return to their previous weight.  This is how the rollercoaster of dieting begins.

The temporary nature of dieting is the foundation of this rollercoaster.  Cutting calories drastically, skipping anything with carbs, and other dieting tactics can have unexpected effects.  Dieting can decrease a person’s metabolism which can actually lead to gaining more weight than they lost once they stop following the diet.  Restricting calories, cutting out certain types of foods, and being hungry can also make people moodier and make it harder to concentrate.  In fact dieting, in the long-run, can actually result in an increase in overall body weight.  This can mean lifelong issues with weight – even for those teens that were not overweight to start with!

So, what is the answer?  Stop dieting.  Maintaining a healthy weight should be a lifelong goal which means you need a long term solution.  Rather than turning to dieting, try these healthy eating tips instead.

  • Eat small meals such as 1/2 sandwich, some fruit, or some vegetables 4 or 5 times a day.
  • Drink enough water.  Teens need 64-80 ounces of water each day.  Staying hydrated helps stabilize appetite and eliminate cravings.
  • Eat a variety of foods and participate in fun physical activity on a regular basis.
  • When eating out, assess how much you may want to eat ahead of time and then stop when you are full.
  • If you find that you are eating when you are emotional, choose something besides food to help you cope.

If you have any questions about how your adolescent or teen can maintain a healthy body weight, a certified nutritionist at Doorways can help. Please give us a call and we would love to talk more with you.


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Helping Teens Establish Healthy Eating Habits

There are so many things that parents of teenagers have to worry about that the list can feel endless and overwhelming.  Peer pressure and bullying.  Drugs and alcohol.  Sexual activity, STDs, and teen pregnancy.  Grades.  Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicide.    Most of these have been on parent’s radars in one form or another for decades.  But today’s parents also have to worry about things that their parents and grandparents never did, such as obesity, diabetes, and lack of physical activity.

The obesity rate amongst American adolescents has tripled since today’s parents were children and teens.  More than 15% of 6-19 year olds are overweight according to the American Diabetes Association.  Being overweight in adolescence comes with a host of problems.  While teenagers in past generations would likely cite social issues as the biggest problem overweight teens faced, today’s teens have to deal with that and more.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that there was a correlation between body mass index (BMI) and bullying activity.  Those teens with higher than average BMI were more likely than their peers with a normal BMI to be bullied or be the victim of aggressive behavior.  In addition to the social consequences, which can be significant and impact the rest of the teen’s life, there are also serious health consequences.  According to an article published in the New York Times, nearly one in four adolescents in this country are diabetic or on the verge of developing type II diabetes.   This is a staggering statistic considering that a mere ten years ago that figure was one in ten.

However, there is good news for parents.  When it comes to weight, you can make a real difference and there are new tools from the USDA that can help.  In recent years, the federal guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet have changed.  The new program, Choose My Plate, provides guidelines for how to use the five food groups to ensure a healthy and balanced diet.  Because the program provides these guidelines in a friendly, easy to understand format, it is easy for teenagers to learn and use these skills in their daily lives.

The first thing parents can do is to set a good example.  If your teenager is having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, take a step back and look at the relationship you and the rest of the family have to food.  Showing your teen how to eat healthy provides them with a model to follow.  You also want to look at the kind of food that is available to your teen.  If your kitchen cupboards are full of sweet snacks and soda, and family dinner often involves a fast food menu, you will need to make adjustments so that your teen has the ability to follow a healthy diet.  If they don’t have access to the food they need or are surrounded by food sure to sabotage their best efforts, they may be giving their best effort to eat healthy but lack the support to do so.

You can also work together to use some of the new tools available from the USDA that have been designed to help people follow the My Plate guidelines.   The SuperTracker, which helps you plan and analyze your eating habits, is one of these tools which are both free and easy to use.  They can be found on the USDA’s Choose My Plate site.

Protecting Our Children From the Diabetes Epidemic

Every parent wants to protect their children.  Most of us go to great lengths to provide them with a stable home, a good education, and a happy childhood.  We teach them to avoid strangers, to always wear a helmet, and to stop, drop, and roll if there is a fire.  But new research shows that despite our protective instincts and all our efforts, 1 in 4 of our children are in danger and we are not doing what we need to in order to protect them.  This statistic represents the number of adolescents believed to be in danger of developing Type 2 diabetes or who are already diabetic.

We hear a lot about the obesity epidemic on the news and how obesity increases the risk of developing serious health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  But these new findings indicate that diabetes may progress more rapidly in adolescents than it does in adults and that the standard treatments used to treat the disease in adults do not work the same way for adolescents.

For those who are not currently impacted by diabetes, it may seem strange that researchers are only now learning what seem like basic differences between how the disease functions in people of different ages.  What many do not realize is that Type 2 diabetes is something that adolescents never used to get.  Cases of the disease in adolescents were unheard of prior to the 1990’s.  By the end of that decade, however, about 1 in 10 adolescents had the disease or were at risk for developing it.  By 2008, that figure jumped to 23%, increasing the need to understand why the prevalence is increasing so rapidly, what treatment options are most effective, and what we can do to prevent adolescents from developing the disease in the first place.

In many cases, the progression from pre-diabetes to Type 2 Diabetes is preventable.   This is the good news.  Two of the leading risk factors for developing diabetes that we can control are being overweight and not getting enough physical activity.  With 64% of the adults in America classified as overweight or obese, we need to start by looking at the example we are setting for our children.  Eating healthy and being active start at home.  The first step we can take to protect our children is to look at how we, as a family, are living.  Assessing what we are eating, our attitudes about food, and the subtle messages we may be sending related to food are the first step.  Looking at how active we all are, both individually and as a family, is the next step in making the changes that may be needed to safeguard everyone’s health.

November is American Diabetes Month and groups around the country will be working to educate, inform, and raise awareness about the disease.  For parents, teachers, physicians, medical practitioners, and community leaders, this month presents a wealth of opportunities to learn more and to educate others.  The long term health consequences of diabetes paired with the staggering increase in adolescent prevalence within such a short time frame mean that this is a problem we, as a society, need to solve.   They say that it takes a village to raise a child.  In today’s world, it will take the whole village to save that child.


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National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month

What things can you do to help fight obesity in your teens? (image via Flickr)

There is no question that obesity at every age is one of the greatest challenges our country faces.  Obesity rates in almost every state for almost every age group have reached epidemic proportions and finding real, long-term solutions to the problem must be a national priority.  Nowhere, however, is this more important than with our children.  According to reports from the CDC, more than 15% of our children between the ages of 2-19 are obese, three times as many as in 1980.  This health crisis is the reason that President Barack Obama designated September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Why Being Overweight is a Health Risk

The primary concern with childhood obesity is the long term health consequences that being obese can contribute to like heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea.  These health problems can immediately impact a child’s life and can put that child at risk for life-long weight-related health problems.

In addition to the health consequences, obesity in childhood can result in challenges across many other areas of a child’s life.   Obese adolescents are more likely to face social discrimination including bullying, having problems making friends, and being ostracized from peers.  These years are a critical time for developing social skills, healthy self-esteem, and an individual identity.  Obese teens may lack the opportunities to learn the social skills they need to excel in adulthood.

What Parents Can Do to Help

The key to fighting the battle against childhood obesity is helping children and teens develop healthy eating habits and a healthy relationship with food.  This starts at home.   There is no magic pill or secret formula to maintaining a healthy weight.  Calories coming in need to be balanced with calories out, which means that the calories your child is eating and drinking each day cannot be more than they are expending.  When this relationship is out of balance, children gain weight.

It is important to note that children are still growing and need good nutritious food in order to support normal growth and development.   If your child is overweight or obese, you need to work with their medical professional to develop a plan for reducing their weight in a way that doesn’t compromise their development.  In many cases, this means reducing the rate of weight gain rather than losing weight.

Here are some tips that will help parents create the environment for and support the development of healthy eating habits in their home.

1.     Practice What You Preach

If you want your children to have good eating habits, provide them with a good role model.  Children learn what they live and if you deal with stress by zoning out in front of the TV for hours while eating an entire gallon of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, it will be more difficult for them to develop non-food centric stress management strategies.

2.     Be Positive

Degrading, demeaning, or otherwise making your child feel bad about themselves for being overweight is never going to help them become healthier.  In fact, it may even make it harder for them to make positive, lasting changes that will improve their health and their life.  Focus on positive things, praise their progress, and celebrate success.

3.     Get Everyone Moving

Choose activities for family time that are active like biking, walking, hiking, playing sports, swimming, or doing anything together that gets your family moving.

4.     Set Reasonable Expectations

Set your child up for success by making sure everyone’s expectations are reasonable, realistic, and achievable.  Work with your medical professional to set goals that will support a positive sense of progress and small successes.


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Helping your Teen Athlete Eat Healthy

Everyone knows that teenagers often have bigger appetites because of their rapid growth.  Teen athletes, who can burn through as many as 5,000 calories a day, need even more food than their peers.  If they don’t get enough calories it affects their energy level and can impact their athletic performance.  In some cases, insufficient calories may even cause problems with their overall growth.  But it isn’t enough for teen athletes to eat enough calories; it is also important that they are taking in the right mix of nutrients and have a relatively balanced diet.


Parents can help support the nutritional needs of their teen athletes by starting each day with a healthy breakfast.  Have carbohydrate and protein filled choices such as whole grain bagels, peanut butter, eggs, yogurt and oatmeal available for a quick and healthy breakfast at home or on the go.


Everyone needs to eat a balanced diet but for teen athletes this is even more important. Their bodies are still growing which means they need the right mix of nutrients to support that growth while also providing the building blocks to boost performance and repair minor injuries.  According to, a teen athlete’s diet should be 60-65% carbohydrates, 12-15% protein, and 20-30% healthy fats.  Each of these three is equally important to your teen athlete’s development and performance.  Carbohydrates provide the main fuel source for their body, while protein helps build muscle.  Fats like those found in avocados and fish are critical to athletic performance because they provide the fuel for sustained energy.


Teen athlete’s need to pay particular attention to their water intake and be diligent about keeping themselves hydrated.  Drinking water throughout the day as well as before, during, and after physical exertion is the best way to maintain the optimal level of hydration in the body.  When teen athletes become dehydrated, they may feel more tired, have less energy, and be less able to perform as expected on the field.


While there is no set amount of calories that all teen athletes need each day, the requirements are higher for teens that are active in sports or other physical activities.  On average, teen athletes may need 2,000 calories more per day than their less athletic friends.  The actual number is dependent on the person however and varies based on weight, sport, and age.  The best way to determine the right amount of calories for your teen athlete is to work with a registered dietitian.


One of the best ways to help teen athletes get the balanced diet and number of calories they need is to ensure they have healthy, energy boosting snacks available throughout the day.  If your teen has practice directly after school they may be hitting their worst energy slump of the day just as practice is starting.  Depending on what time lunch period is, it may have been 3 or more hours since their last meal and by the time practice is over, they may have gone for seven or more hours without anything substantial to eat.  Pack snacks in their sports bag for before and after practice to ensure they have the energy to power through.   Healthy and energy-boosting snack choices include nuts, dried fruits and fresh fruits and vegetables.

By Rachel Daberkow, MS. RD.