How to Track Your Child's Nutrition With a Food Diary

kids filling plates at salad bar

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A food diary can be a useful way to keep track of the foods your kids are eating. There are many possible reasons to use a food diary with kids, such as to make sure that they are getting enough fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals from all of the different food groups. Your child's pediatrician or dietitian may also instruct you to use a food diary to monitor various health issues or conditions.

However, it's important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend calorie tracking or manipulation of food intake for the purposes of weight loss for kids or teens. This can lead to disordered eating and other mental health concerns like low self-esteem.

So, avoid using a food diary to focus on dieting or body weight. The focus should be on attaining a healthy lifestyle and positive eating habits.

Healthy Ways to Use Food Diaries for Kids

A pediatrician or dietitian may advise a parent to record their child's food intake in a variety of situations, says Amy Reed, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Reed says a food diary can be used to track:

  • Daily intake for weight gain or loss
  • Food allergies
  • Food reactions
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Food variety for picky eaters

Food diaries may be used to "determine if the child is getting inadequate or excess nutrients, such as calories, protein, or other vitamins and minerals," says Reed. This tool may collect information for medical tests or research as well.

Child athletes may also use food diaries to make sure they are consuming an optimal balance of nutrients and calories to support their physical needs. Additionally, says Reed, hydration may be monitored, often in relation to headaches.

The most effective way to use a food diary, says Reed, is "in partnership with a health care provider." Once it is completed, the medical professional will complete an analysis of the food diary to share with the family and then make a nutritional plan as needed.

You can use pencil and paper to keep your food diary, or use a computer or app. "In today’s digital world, many food diaries are kept digitally on a phone app," says Reed. However, note that many food intake tracking apps are not recommended for kids under 18, particularly due to the advertising that they may be exposed to that is geared toward adults, explains Reed.

How Much Food Do Kids Need?

Recording what your kids eat and drink in a food diary can help you understand how much food they are consuming each day. However, while it's fine to use this tool to generally gauge how much (and which foods) your child is eating, avoid explicitly monitoring each and every calorie.

You can get a sense of how much food your child should be eating by looking at the general calorie consumption guidelines suggested by the United States Department of Agriculture. This resource offers recommendations based on a child's age and sex.

Recommended Daily Calorie Intake for Children
Age Daily calories
2 to 3 1,000 calories
4 to 8 (girls) 1,200 calories
4 to 8 (boys) 1,400 calories 
9 to 13 (girls) 1,600 calories
9 to 13 (boys)  1,800 calories
14 to 18 (girls) 1,800 calories
14 to 18 (boys) 2,200 calories

Be aware that the above calorie intakes are only a general guideline. Your child's caloric needs may vary greatly depending on their body type, development, height, weight, activity level, genetics, and other factors.

Use a Food Log to Track Nutrients

Many kids struggle with eating a nutritionally balanced, healthy diet. Childhood obesity is also a serious health concern. Lots of kids don't get enough physical activity, but they also may not be aware of where extra calories are coming from that may contribute to weight gain.

A food diary of your child's meals can help you figure out what's going on. Is your child eating oversized portions? Is a snack turning into an extra meal? Or are they consuming a lot of highly caloric drinks or sweets? Are they eating enough fiber or protein to keep them full?

Food Groups

A food diary can help you make sure your kids are eating a diet made up of a variety of nutrient-dense foods from each food group:

  • Fruits
  • Grains, with a preference for whole grains
  • Meat and beans for protein, especially lean or low-fat meats and including poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts
  • Milk and dairy, especially low-fat dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, and other foods that are good sources of calcium and vitamin D
  • Vegetables

How many servings they eat from each food group is going to depend on your child's age and caloric needs, but in general, you should aim to have them eat foods from each food group each day.

Vitamins and Minerals

You can use the food diary to record and be on the lookout for foods that are good sources of fiber, iron, calcium, potassium, and any other nutrients that you are concerned that your kids don't get enough of.

If your kids are missing out on anything because they are picky eaters or don't eat a nutritionally dense diet, then a multivitamin might be a good idea. But speak to your pediatrician or dietitian to be sure.

How to Make and Use a Food Diary

Start by deciding which elements of your child's diet you want to monitor. Perhaps this means listing foods eaten, an estimate of serving sizes, and your child's description of their hunger level pre- and post-meal. Also, include any comments (such as "don't like it" or "yummy") or observations (such as potential allergic reactions or feeling tired) that they or you have.

In addition to tracking what foods are eaten (and the amounts), record the time of day. Patterns may emerge that can be instructive. For example, maybe your child insists they're not hungry for breakfast, but then they feel irritable later, and/or eat a lot of chips or cookies before lunch. Or they may be eating a lot of sugar early in the afternoon and then experiencing an energy crash in the evening.

Asking your child to tune into their hunger and satiation cues (which you can also record in the food diary) can promote healthier eating habits. Recording their feelings also enables you to link what they are eating with how it's making them feel. This step is especially important if you are investigating possible allergies, reactions, or other food-related impacts on physical or mental health, such as on mood, energy level, or concentration.

"If a parent notices a certain food may cause a rash or stomach aches, it is recommended that they reach out to their healthcare provider for assistance," says Reed. This step is especially important if not eating the food in question would involve eliminating nutritious foods (such as dairy) from your child's diet.

Usually, parents will be the ones filling out the diary, however, older kids (tweens and teens) may prefer to take on this role. "It is a good idea for parents to be either keeping the food diary or overseeing it until kids are at least 13 years of age," advises Reed.

Helpful Abbreviations

You may want to use shorthand to streamline your food diary reporting duties.

Abbreviations for meals:

  • B = Breakfast
  • sAM = Morning snack
  • L = Lunch
  • sPM = Afternoon snack
  • D = Dinner
  • sBT = Bedtime snack

Abbreviations for food groups:

  • D = Milk/dairy
  • F = Fruits
  • G = Grains
  • M = Meats/beans
  • V = Vegetables

Personalization

Your child's food diary can be customized to monitor whatever food issues you (and their doctor or nutritionist) want to evaluate. You can also use one simply to get a better macro picture of their nutrient intake.

"If the child is young, the family may want to have a visual chart that helps them track something specific. A child can use a sticker to mark how many cups of water they drank or how many fruits and vegetables they have eaten," recommends Reed. "Older children may like to write the information into a diary that the parent can review."

If you have any dietary or eating habit concerns, or questions about designing the optimal food diary for your child's specific needs, contact their doctor or a dietitian.

As you write up what they are eating (and in discussions with your child), avoid labeling food as good or bad. Instead, think of them as nutrient-dense foods (proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats) and nutrient-void or treat options (candy, cookies, ice cream, or juice). There should be room in any diet for all foods.

When Not to Use a Food Diary

For some, warns Reed, a food diary can trigger disordered eating. "If a parent is concerned about their child having disordered eating, then keeping a food diary would not be recommended," Reed says. Additionally, note that research shows that the use of food tracking apps can result in negative feelings and behaviors, which can include body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

A Word From Verywell

Using a food diary with your child can be a great way take a closer look at what they're really eating. Be sure, however, to use this tool in a positive way, as it can be easy (despite good intentions) for food monitoring to feel punitive or shaming. Aim to celebrate listening to hunger cues and eating nutritionally dense foods, but also leave room for sweet treats and other favorite foods in moderation.

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6 Sources
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