Calories are a unit of energy. The amount of calories you need each day depends on your height, weight and how active you are. A good basic guideline for healthy, active children (3 to 8 years old) is between 80 and 90 calories per kilogram of body weight. Remember, 1 pound is equal to 2.2 kilograms.
What does this work out to be in actual numbers? Let’s take Axel, for example. He is a typical, active 4 ½-year-old in pre-kindergarten. He weighs 38 pounds (17 kilograms). So his baseline calorie needs are between 1,380 and 1,555 calories a day to maintain healthy growth and development. If Axel starts playing one hour of soccer each day, his calorie needs will increase. A good rule of thumb is to multiply his base needs by 1.25. In other words, Axel’s new baseline as an active soccer player is up to 1,943 calories per day (1,555 x 1.25 = 1,943).
People who eat more than their body needs will gain weight. People who eat less than their body needs will lose weight. But, unless your child has a known feeding issue, please don’t work yourself into a tizzy worrying, measuring and perseverating over every calorie your child eats.
This only models anxiety around eating. And, as mentioned earlier, kids are quite adept at self-regulating. Their bodies will go through periods of slow and steady growth, followed by
periods of rapid growth and development. As such, their intake can change dramatically
“overnight” after being stable for months. Just be sure to keep an eye on your child’s growth chart (the tool your pediatrician uses to track your child’s height and weight over time).
Most children will stay within close range of their height and weight percentiles throughout childhood. If you notice drastic changes in your child’s weight, talk to your pediatrician or dietitian (privately). We never talk about weight in front of our children.
Summary of generally accepted caloric needs for children
Age 3 months to 3 years: 90-100 calories per kilogram per day
Age 3 years to 8 years: 80-90 calories per kilogram per day
Age 8 years to 12 years: 60-80 calories per kilogram per day
Age 12 years to 16 years: 45-60 calories per kilogram per day
Note that these calculations assume a typical, active child.
A significantly more active child needs more calories.
Fat is a macronutrient that we all need to grow. Fat protects our organs and provides energy (9 calories per gram) for growth and development. On your food label, you may see fat classified as saturated or unsaturated (and further broken down as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). The research on fat gets complicated quickly, but the important thing to remember about fat is that a little is good, but too much is associated with weight gain, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The healthiest fats are unsaturated, so we strive to include more of those than saturated fats in our diet.
Unsaturated fats, also known as the “good fats” found in nuts, avocados, extra virgin olive oil
and fish, keep our heart healthy when eaten in moderation.
Saturated Fat is the type of dietary fat that is solid at room temperature. Foods like butter,
palm and coconut oils, cheese, cream and red meat have high amounts of saturated fat.
Too much can be bad for our heart and cholesterol levels. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), which aim to help Americans 2 years and older follow healthy eating patterns, recommends that no more than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fats.
Trans fat is an industrial fat (listed as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil on the ingredient list of a food label) that used to be common in processed foods like packaged baked goods, snacks, non-dairy creamer and margarine. Thanks to nutrition research, we now know that trans fat is harmful to our heart and it is prohibited in most countries around the world. When reviewing the nutritional information in this book you will not find any trans fat; instead, whenever possible, the recipes use heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
Carbohydrates are another of the three classes of macronutrients. Carbohydrates or “carbs,” come in simple forms, such as sugars and complex forms, such as starches and fiber. The body breaks these down into glucose, a simple sugar that the body can use to feed its cells. Carbs provide the body with energy (4 calories per gram) and are the preferred fuel of our brain. Food sources of carbohydrates include bread, pasta, cereals and grains; starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, peas and pumpkin; as well as fruits and vegetables. You may hear about complex carbs, which are or contain whole grains—these tend to be more nutritious.
Sugar is the building block of all carbohydrates. Sugar compounds lend sweetness to our food. The simplest sugars are called monosaccharides. Examples of monosaccharides include glucose (dextrose), fructose (levulose) and galactose. Monosaccharides are the building blocks of disaccharides, such as sucrose and lactose (di- means two) and polysaccharides or complex carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch). The grams of sugar listed on a food label include both natural sugar from fruit or milk and added sugars. The total carbohydrate on a food label includes sugar. A healthy eating pattern does, in fact, include some sugar. Try to get most of your sugar from natural sources like fruit or milk, and limit added sugars. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), recommend that no more than 10% of your daily calories come from added sugars. So, while I recommend limiting sweets, don’t let that stop you from enjoying (sparingly) the ones I’ve included in this book!
Fiber is also classified as a carbohydrate. It’s the substance mainly found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains that our body cannot digest—it passes through our stomach, intestines, colon and then out of our body. Fiber or “roughage” helps keep our tummies happy and our bowel movements regular. It lowers cholesterol and promotes a healthy gut.
Fiber works hand in hand with water and is classified by whether or not it can dissolve in water. Soluble fiber, found mostly in fruits and vegetables, easily dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance when water is added to it. This helps soften stool in the body. Insoluble fiber, found mainly in cereals and whole grains, does not dissolve in water, but it can trap water to increase stool bulk to make it easier to go! The requirement for fiber varies with age.
Including fiber-rich foods in your child’s diet can ramp up your child’s fiber intake. Careful, though! You should increase the amount of fibrous foods in your child’s diet gradually over time to avoid uncomfortable gas and bloating
Protein is the third macronutrient; it is present in every cell of the body. While the body can use protein for energy (4 calories per gram), its primary purpose is to maintain and repair cells, and as enzymes and hormones. Foods rich in protein include eggs, fish, poultry, beef and pork, as well as plant sources like quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds. Other animal sources include milk, cheese and Greek yogurt. Protein-containing foods also tend to be rich in essential vitamins and minerals. For example, foods in the protein food group supply varying amounts of zinc, magnesium, B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12) and vitamin E. Many also provide iron.
As with most nutrients, more is not better. Let protein represent about 10% to 30% of your child’s daily calories and use whole food sources to meet your protein requirement as opposed to shakes
Overall, children should get enough protein every day if they eat 2 servings of dairy, such as milk, yogurt or cheese and one or 2 servings of lean protein, such as lean beef, pork, poultry, fish or eggs.
Sodium is a mineral found in varying amounts in most of the foods we eat. Salt is the primary source of sodium in the diet. It is used as a preservative and flavor enhancer. The body only needs a small amount of this electrolyte to maintain the balance of water in and around the cells and for normal muscle and nerve function. Processed foods contain more sodium than whole, natural foods, which is why shifting to homemade foods can help maintain a healthy diet. Since many foods contain sodium, try not to use more than you need in meal preparation and don’t shake extra on your food at the dinner table. Food can be tasty without salt—tempt your taste buds by including plenty of herbs and spices like cinnamon, cumin, ginger, garlic, basil and chives in your meals. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) recommend limiting sodium to 2,300 milligrams (or about one teaspoon) per day—that goes for children and adults.