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Calories or content
Calorie count
Nutritional building blocks

Save 100 calories or more in your child’s lunch
Save 100 calories or more in your child’s lunch

Is your child’s school lunch a high-calorie disaster? Here are three ways to cut calories and up the nutritional ante:

  • Add two tomato slices, two onion slices and ¼ cup of sliced cucumber to your child’s sandwich instead of an extra slice of cheese (¾ ounce) and an extra two slices (1 ounce) of ham. Saved: 154 calories
  • Substitute a 1-ounce bag of chips with ½ cup of diced raw pineapple. Saved: 118 calories
  • Pack a bottle of seltzer or unsweetened sparkling water instead of a 12-ounce can of soda. Saved: 136 calories

Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

With childhood obesity on the rise, it’s no surprise that many parents are paying more attention to their children’s diet. But is it better to count calories or to take note of the ingredients? The answer, in short, is both.

Just like you need vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat to keep your body functioning, so does your child. He or she just needs them in different amounts.

Calorie count

How many calories your child needs depends on age, gender and activity level (experts recommend that children be active for at least an hour a day). His or her pediatrician can tell you exactly how many are needed. Calorie needs can range anywhere from 1,000 calories for 2- and 3-year-old boys and girls to 3,200 calories for a teenage boy.

If you find it hard to get your child to eat the necessary calories in just three meals a day, try scheduling snacks. Veggies with low-fat dip, fruit sorbet, graham crackers, air-popped popcorn and peanut butter on rice cakes are all good options. Snacking is also your opportunity to sneak some extra fruits and veggies into your child’s diet.

A word of caution: While 100-calorie snack packs have become all the rage, many are just smaller portions of junk food, offering little more than heavy sugar, empty calories and no fiber, vitamins, minerals or protein.

Nutritional building blocks

When it comes to a healthy child, there are no secret ingredients—just a few key components:

  • Protein helps build and repair body tissue such as muscles and organs and boosts energy levels. Every day, children need to eat about 0.5 grams of protein for every pound they weigh. So a child who weighs 40 pounds will need 20 grams of protein a day, or about three ounces of cheddar cheese, 2½ cups of low-fat milk or 1¼ cups of dry beans.
  • Pick lean meats, poultry and beans. Eggs and low-fat milk (which also serves up a healthy dose of bone-building calcium) are good for children older than age 1. Peanut butter, nuts and seeds (but just a handful of nuts, as they contain a lot of calories) are good protein sources, too—just don’t give children under age 2 peanut butter or children under age 4 nuts and seeds, as both are choking hazards for these ages. Peanuts can also cause severe or life-threatening allergic reactions in children, so avoid them if your child has an allergy or ask your child’s pediatrician if you’re unsure. Some protein sources, such as beef, also provide much-needed iron.

  • Carbohydrates supply your child’s body with energy to keep things running. Children over age 2 should get 50 percent to 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates—those that take the body longer to break down—leave children feeling fuller longer and supply them with plenty of fiber. Seek out brown rice and whole-grain breads, pasta and cereals (look for the word whole, such as “whole wheat,” on the ingredients list).
  • Some sources of simple carbohydrates, such as whole fruits and vegetables, also offer fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals. In general, the more colorful a fruit or vegetable is, the more nutritious—for example, dark green and orange-colored vegetables such as spinach and sweet potatoes. Children don’t always take to vegetables right away, so some parents puree them and sneak them into other foods. While this can make sure your child is also getting the necessary nutrients, serve vegetables as side dishes, too, so he or she can learn to appreciate them.

  • Fats aren’t all bad. Fat helps bodies grow, serves as an energy source and keeps skin and hair healthy. The key is moderation, and sticking to unsaturated fats, which can be found in olive, canola, safflower, corn and soybean oils; fish, such as salmon and canned light tuna; and nuts like walnuts and almonds. For children over age 2, about 30 percent of daily calorie intake should come from fat or, for example, about 300 calories based on a 1,000-calorie diet.