Calories (AKA energy) help your body to function the way it is supposed to by giving your brain, muscles, lungs, heart, and other organs the energy they need! Teens are growing, moving, and learning at a rapid pace. It is important that they get enough calories to support healthy growth.
Teenage boys need an average of 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day. Teenage girls need an average of 2,000 to 2,200 calories. Calorie needs vary by the individual based on gender, age, activity level, size, and other factors.
To get a better idea of your child’s calorie needs, read on to understand more about what calories are, what foods to get those calories from, and how to feed your teen!
How Much Should a Teen Eat In a Day?
The charts below provide an estimate for your teen’s calorie needs. These calorie estimations are from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Factors like, age, sex, and activity level affect how many calories your teen will need.
Daily Calorie Needs for Teens
Food is fuel for the body. If you don’t put enough gas in your car, it will not be able to keep going! The same goes for your body. Putting enough fuel in your body is essential for you to be able to do all of the things you want to do.
It is important to remember that the numbers in the charts above are just estimates. Calorie needs vary day-to-day based on activity level. If your teen spends 2 hours playing outside one day and then watches TV all afternoon the next day, his or her energy needs on those days will be different.
Help your teenager understand that on days they are more active, they need more calories to help their body keep up with energy needs.
Should Teens Count Calories?
Counting calories can quickly become an obsessive behavior, with the possibility of it leading to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. When teens focus too much on counting calories, they often stop listening to their body and giving it what it actually needs and start restricting foods and creating food rules.
Instead, teens should be taught to trust their body. Your body is smart and it knows what it needs. We don’t always do a good job of listening to it.
As a parent, it is wise to have a general idea of how many calories your child needs, but don’t be worried if that fluctuates some day-to-day. You can do your part by having different foods available and encouraging your teen to regularly check in with their body and nourish it.
If you are concerned about your child’s calorie intake, talk with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can help encourage proper eating habits with your teen that don’t lead to shaming or poor body image.
Should Teens Count Macros?
The macronutrients, or macros are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Counting macros is a “trendy” thing to do right now. However, just like counting calories, counting macros can also become obsessive.
Understanding the macronutrients and the role they play in the body can be helpful, but counting every gram of carbs, protein, and fat is often excessive and overly time-consuming. Simply focusing on eating regular, balanced meals and snacks throughout the day is more beneficial and a more sustainable way of eating.
Understanding food and how it works for the body will be valuable knowledge that your teen can use throughout their entire life.
Healthy Eating Habits for Teens
Teenagers are in a period of growth and development and need nutrients to support that. Since food is made up of more than just calories, it is important to consider what else makes up the food you are eating.
Vitamins and minerals are substances that help your body turn the food you eat into energy. They also play a big role in many other chemical reactions happening in your body. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals.
Fiber helps you feel satisfied after a meal and keeps the digestive system working properly. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the best food sources of fiber.
What Should a Teenager Eat in a Day?
Daily Food Group Recommendations for Teenagers
Below are the recommended daily servings from each food group. This is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so this may need to be adjusted slightly up or down if your teen requires a different amount of calories.
- 2.5 cups fruit: Choose mostly whole fruits when available (canned and frozen can also be a great choice)
- 2 cups vegetables: Choose a variety of types and colors (canned and frozen can also be a great choice)
- 6 ounces grains: Aim for half being whole grains
- 3 cups dairy: High in calcium (an important nutrient for bone health)
- 5.5 ounces protein: Choose a variety of plant and animal proteins
- 27 grams oils: Can be found in liquid form or in foods such as nuts and nut butters
How Many Meals and Snacks Should Teenagers Eat?
The most important thing to remember is that teens should not go long periods of time without eating – they should be eating at least every 4-6 hours during the day. However, they should also be honoring their hunger cues and eat when their body tells them it needs fuel. This also helps create a positive relationship with food.
Your teen is much more likely to overeat if they go too long without eating. It is much harder to recognize your satisfaction point when you are absolutely ravenous. Teach your teen to act on subtle hunger pangs before they completely run out of fuel.
Balanced, healthy snacks should be encouraged as a way to keep energy levels consistent throughout the day. Snacks also help to regulate blood sugars and stabilize mood. Plus, nobody likes a “hangry” teenager.
What Makes up a Good Meal or Snack?
When planning meals and snacks for your teenagers, aim for 3-4 food groups at meals and 1-2 food groups at snacks. Try to get a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at each eating occasion.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy.
Good sources of carbohydrates include:
- Milk and yogurt
- Sports drinks
Protein is the building block of the body. Protein also helps you feel more satisfied when eating. Fats are usually found in many protein foods.
High protein foods include:
- Meats (sausage, beef, pork, etc.)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds
- Nut butters
- Protein powder
- Protein drinks
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Oats and quinoa
Like protein, fats also help increase satisfaction when eating. In addition, fats are essential for absorbing certain vitamins.
Other examples of fatty foods include:
- Oil (Olive, canola, avocado, sesame, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds
Sample Meal Plan for Healthy Teens
This meal plan shows general ideas for pairing foods together to get a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. It includes many food groups and variety at meals and snacks. Portion sizes will differ based on the calorie needs of your child.
Breakfast: Eggs, bacon, english muffin, strawberries, chocolate milk
Morning snack: Nuts and wheat thins
Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cucumbers, apple
Afternoon snack: Beef jerky and crackers
Dinner: Beef stroganoff and broccoli
Evening Snack: Greek yogurt and bell pepper strips
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How Can Parents Encourage Teens to Make Healthy Food Choices?
Teenagers are learning to be independent eaters and often are just starting to take more control over their food choices. The teenage years are such a crucial time to develop healthy habits for lifelong health. Here are a few things you can do as a parent to help your child make healthy food choices:
- Do not put rules or hard restrictions on food. This makes certain foods feel out of reach and can often lead to an increased desire to eat those “forbidden foods.”
- Don’t refer to foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, talk about the benefits of all foods and how they can work together to give your body the nutrients it needs. Less healthy foods can be called “sometimes” foods.
- Never make your teen feel shameful for the foods he or she is eating. Help them recognize the foods that make them feel the best.
- Teach teens how to be mindful eaters. Turn off the TV, put phones away, sit down together at the table when possible, and make eating a pleasant experience.
- Model good eating patterns that your teen will want to follow. It is not your job to force your teen to eat healthy foods, but the example they have at home will make a big difference!
Getting calories from nutrient-dense foods is essential for your teen’s overall health. Teaching your teenager to balance meals and snacks, eat regularly, and listen to their body are the best ways to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need to be healthy and happy.
What if a Teen Doesn’t Get Enough Calories or Eat Enough? If a teenager doesn’t eat enough their body will eventually go into “starvation” mode and will use alternate pathways for energy including breaking down lean body mass. Not eating enough for a growing teenager can also cause damage to organs (including brain and heart), decrease growth, and cause irritability, fatigue, and a risk of depression and anxiety and other health problems. It’s important to get enough to eat as well as enough nutrients for a crucial time of growth and development.
Is 2,000 Calories Enough for a Teenager? 2,000 calories a day is enough for sedentary and moderately active teen girls and sedentary teen boys, but it is not enough for any other active teenager. Teenagers require a lot of calories for growth and development, plus physical activity adds the need for even more calories to support a healthy body. Eating enough is crucial in the teen years.
Is 1,200 Calories a Day Enough for a Teenage Girl? No teenager should eat less than 1,200 calories per day. The teen years are when nutrient needs will never be higher due to growth, development, and activity. Teenage girls typically need 1,800-2,400 calories per day depending on age, size, and activity level. See above chart for needs.
Can a Kid Lose 10 Pounds in a Week? It can be extremely healthy and dangerous for an adolescent to lose more than 1 to 2 pounds in a week. Check in with a doctor if your teen has lost more weight than that. The rate of weight loss that is the most sustainable long term is no more than 1-2 pounds per week.
How Many Calories Should a 14 Year Old Eat for Weight Loss? A 14 year old should eat about 500 fewer calories per day in order to lose weight at a safe, healthy, and sustainable rate, but only under the guidance of a doctor and registered dietitian. A 14 year old male needs about 2,000 calories per day to lose weight and a 14 year old female needs about 1,500 calories per day to lose weight.
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Need Want Help From a Registered Dietitian?
Check out my newest ebook- Nutrition Game Plan for Teenage Athletes for meal plans, a sample schedule, supplement tips, calorie recommendations, and more.
Ellis E. How Many Calories Does My Teen Need? Eatright.org. Published October 4, 2019.
Ellis E. How Much Protein Should I Eat? Eatright.org. Published December 15, 2020.
Gordon B. Choose Healthy Fats. Eatright.org. Published August 6, 2019.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Dietaryguidelines.gov. Published December 29, 2020.
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