How Much Does My Kid Need to Eat?

How Much Does My Kid Need to Eat?

From Day 1, we worry about our kids getting enough to eat — yet with the childhood obesity rate at 17 percent, we also fret that they’ll get too much. What’s the right amount? To cut through the confusion, nutrition experts help ed compile this guide of just how much kids need at each age, plus tips on how to stay on track. Follow their advice — and your child’s weight will be one concern you can cross off your list.

AGES 1-3 Feeling Finicky

Daily Calorie Needs 1,200 – 1,400

Remember that baby of yours who happily ate chicken, squash, and most anything else that landed on his high-chair tray? He’s been replaced — by someone a lot less agreeable at mealtime. After your baby’s first year, growth slows down by about 30 percent, and so may appetite. Infants need to eat about 35 to 50 calories per pound, while toddlers require roughly 35 to 40 calories per pound, according to guidelines from the Institute of Medicine. How do you know if you’re hitting that target?


AGES 1-3 Sample Menu

Serve meals with 1/2 cup of low-fat milk; switch to water if your child is still thirsty. Have water or 100% fruit or vegetable juice at snacktime. Don’t exceed 6 ounces of juice daily.


Oatmeal (1/2 cup mixed with 1 tsp. brown sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon)

1/2 banana sliced


Bean-and-cheese quesadilla (1 6″ whole-wheat tortilla with 1 tbs. fat-free refried beans and sprinkled with 2 tbs. shredded cheese)

1/4 cup chunky salsa for dipping


1 oz. grilled chicken

1/2 cup roasted sweet potatoes

1/2 cup steamed broccoli (toss with 1/4 tsp. olive oil and 2 tsp. Parmesan cheese)


1/2 cup low-fat flavored yogurt with 1 whole-grain waffle cut into strips 1/2 apple, sliced, with a piece of string cheese

Healthy eating for 4- to 6-year-olds

AGES 4-6 Branching Out

Daily Calorie Needs 1,500-1,750

While you were able to keep tabs on what your toddler ate, kids this age consume about 40 percent or more of their calories away from you, usually having snacks and lunch at school or on after-school playdates. “Keep snack portions on the small side, and boost the amount of food by about one third at the main meals,” suggests Sarah Krieger, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in St. Petersburg, Florida. Other tips:

boy eating cereal

  • Make a lunch date. Some schools allow parents to drop by and have lunch with their child once in while, or at least volunteer in the lunchroom. “Most kids this age are slow eaters, and end up throwing out a lot of their lunch,” says Liz Weiss, R.D., coauthor of No Whine With Dinner. “So don’t count on your child getting all the calories in her lunch box. Adjust her lunch size accordingly, and plan for a bigger breakfast or dinner.”
  • Watch out for emotional eating. If your child is constantly asking for snacks, he may be eating out of boredom or even anxiety. Use a “hunger scale” with your kids: 0 is totally empty, 10 is totally full, and 5 is neither hungry nor full. “If he’s above a 5 and asking for food, he’s probably eating for emotional reasons,” says Susan M. Kosharek, R.D., author of If Your Child Is Overweight: A Guide for Parents. He’s old enough to understand emotions, so help give words to his feelings by asking, “Are you angry? Are you worried?” Then help him problem-solve or distract him from the situation without using food.
  • Serve family style. Allow your child to serve herself — without any prompting or pressuring from you — and she’ll likely take a portion that’s just the right size. “Some parents unknowingly over-feed by giving adult-size portions, and kids get used to eating those larger amounts,” says Castle. Go to to find out the serving sizes for kids at every age.

AGES 4-6 Sample Menu

Serve meals with 3/4 cup of low-fat milk; switch to water if your child is still thirsty. Have water or 100% juice at snacktime. Don’t exceed 6 ounces of juice daily.


1 small whole-wheat bagel spread with 1 tbs. nut or seed butter

1/2 cup fruit salad


1/2 turkey-and-cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread

Yellow pepper strips with 2 tbs. low-fat ranch dressing

1/2 cup sliced strawberries


2 oz. fish (such as cod or tilapia)

1/2 cup cooked brown rice

4 asparagus spears roasted in olive oil


1/4 cup hummus and 10 baby carrots

1 small box raisins

Use this age-by-age guide to find out the amount of food your child should be eating — and how to create healthy habits for a lifetime.