What percentage of a graham cracker do you think helps your child meet his daily nutritional needs? About 60%.

What about chocolate milk? Just over 50%

Cream cheese? 0%

According to the USDA, discretionary calories are extra calories that can be “spent” once your nutritional needs have been met. These are the calories that come from high fat foods, foods with added fats or sugars, and from eating more food than your body needs.  For daily nutritional needs, these calories don’t count.

For children aged 3-7, the USDA recommends that discretionary calories stay between 165 and 170 per day. (Click to see recommendations by age.)

Discretionary calories add up quickly.  Give your child:

  • 1 cup low-fat chocolate milk (160 calories), that is 75 discretionary calories.
  • 1 cup low-fat, fruit-flavored yoghurt (240 calories depending upon brand/flavor), that’s 100 discretionary calories.

Total Discretionary Calories = 175

Throw in 2 graham crackers (120 calories) which has 50 discretionary calories and you begin to see the problem.

Total Discretionary Calories = 225

  • If Grandma gives your child a chocolate chip cookie (just one can’t hurt, right?) then toss in another 70 discretionary calories.

Now your child is up to 295.

Of course every bite doesn’t need to be nutritious, that’s for sure. But when snack time suffers, so does the whole day. >If you use up your child’s discretionary calories at snack time then there’s no room left for:

  • chicken with skin
  • hamburger that’s not extra lean
  • fried chicken nuggets
  • butter on veggies
  • cream cheese on a bagel

What’s the solution? Stop thinking of meals as your nutrition zone and snacking as extra.  The whole day matters.

Include more fruits and vegetables at snack time and take the pressure off meal time.  It will change your child’s diet. It will also change YOUR life.   Most importantly, it will build the right habit for a lifetime of healthy eating.

(By the way, split a medium order of French fries at dinner, and that’s an additional 325 discretionary calories consumed between the two of you.  It’s sad, but true.)

Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.