Calories, Sugars, and Kids: Keep Your Little One Eating Well with Our Handy Guide

Photo by Tara Romasanta / Stocksy United / 480438
Photo by Tara Romasanta / Stocksy United

Between 2011–2014, 17% of American youth (ages two to 19) were overweight or obese as a result of caloric imbalance—meaning for these kids, more calories were consumed than lost. To put it plainly, a lot of American children eat too much junk food and don’t get enough exercise. (But you probably knew that.)

So how many calories (and what types of foods) should three-, five-, or seven-year-olds consume? It’s actually pretty tough to find the right info, even in the age of Google and Wikipedia. That’s why we did some of the work for you! Our goal? To arm you with just a little more knowledge that you can use while you’re cruising the miles of aisles to get your little one exactly what she needs.

Here’s all you need to know about kids and calories, and the answer to why not all granola bars are created equal.

1. Know the amount of calories your child needs.

Here are the USDA’s calorie recommendations for children who get about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days:

  • Children ages 2–3: 1,000
  • Children ages 4–8: 1,200–1,400
  • Girls 9–13: 1,600
  • Boys: 9–13: 1,800

Kids who, say, play an hour of soccer a day will need more calories to replace those they’ve lost—and conversely, kids who are more sedentary will need less calories.

2. Nutrition labels aren’t formulated for children (unfortunately).

The serving sizes, calories, and “% daily value” figures on labels are based on an adult’s 2,000-calorie diet. But they’re still helpful to look at as a general gauge of a food’s nutritional punch, especially if you know the maximum amount of “empty calories” your child should have in a day. (See #3.)

3. Your goal is to reduce “empty calories.”

Solid fats and sugars add calories to our bodies, but with few or no nutrients. That’s why they’re called “empty.” Here are the USDA guidelines for daily empty calorie intake:

  • Children ages 2–3: 135
  • Children ages 4–8: 120
  • Girls ages 9–13: 120
  • Boys ages 9–13: 160

4. Calories from packaged snack foods can add up—fast!

In a comparison of 24 snack bars, Consumer Reports found that calories ranged from 90 to 270 per serving, depending on the bar. That’s a big range! If your three-year-old eats a 270-calorie bar, that’s more than 25 percent of her daily calories, which doesn’t leave a ton of room in her tummy for fresh fruits and vegetables that will give her more valuable nutrients.

5. Sugar is everywhere.

A single gram of sugar contains 3.87 calories. So let’s say you’re trying to choose between two different granola bars, one with 20 grams of sugar and one with only two grams. 20 grams of sugar equates to 77 calories, which is more than half of a child’s daily allotment of “empty calories.” In contrast, a bar with two grams only gives eight empty calories. See the difference?

6. Know your sugar synonyms.

Even if you can’t remember how many calories are in a gram of sugar, you can read the ingredients list on nutrition labels to help you make good choices. Be sure that added sugars, including corn syrup, are not listed among the first few ingredients. Look out for sneaky sweet ingredients like sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, juice concentrates, and barley malt extract. There’s a lot of other tricky sugar synonyms out there—check ‘em out and don’t be fooled by labels again.

7. Can’t bring yourself to be a calorie counter? Consider this strategy!

If you can’t pronounce an ingredient on the label, don’t eat it—period. Take on this literacy challenge with kids who are old enough to read (and maybe begging for sugary cereals). If you can’t pronounce a word like maltodextrin, you probably don’t need to eat it. (For the curious reader: Maltodextrin is an artificial sugar added to many processed foods.)

8. The produce aisle is a can’t-miss shopping strategy.

It may sound daunting reviewing the ingredients list on everything you purchase—but there’s an easy fix! Just head straight to the produce section, no nutritional ingredients list required. Buy a variety of fruit (and have your child help pick it out to up the chances he’ll eat it of his own volition) and immediately chop it up into a fruit salad. Keep it in a re-sealable container and serve it as snacks for two or three days. Yes, fruit does have sugar, but it also delivers a host of other nutrients and fiber that kids need.

Just can’t go without granola bars? Choose one low in added and artificial sugar, or make your own. Remember that small children need only half the calories recommended for an adult, so half of an adult-size granola bar works great as a snack for little ones!
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