What foods are discretionary calories?

Discretionary calories refer to the extra calories that are left over after you’ve met your recommended intakes for nutrients. They represent the calories you can choose to “spend” on foods or drinks that may not be as nutritious but can help satisfy cravings or fit into your overall eating pattern.

What are discretionary calories?

Discretionary calories are the calories left over in your day after you’ve eaten the recommended amounts of nutrient-dense foods from the core food groups. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy. The remaining calories can be used on extras or “treats.”

For example, based on a 2000 calorie diet, you might aim for:

  • 2 cups of fruit
  • 2.5 cups of vegetables
  • 6 oz of grains
  • 5.5 oz of protein
  • 3 cups of dairy

This would leave about 270 discretionary calories to use as you wish. The exact amount of discretionary calories depends on your individual calorie needs.

Why are discretionary calories recommended?

The concept of discretionary calories provides flexibility in meal planning. It acknowledges that most people will want to enjoy treats, snacks, and favorite foods sometimes. Rather than completely restricting these items, discretionary calories build them into your overall calorie budget.

This balanced approach may help promote long-term healthy eating habits. Severely limiting all indulgences can lead to feelings of deprivation. Having a small daily “allowance” for fun foods you crave may prevent overeating or bingeing on off-limit items.

How many discretionary calories should I aim for?

As a general guide, most people should aim to limit discretionary calories to around 10% of their total daily calorie needs. For a 2000 calorie diet, this would equal about 200 discretionary calories per day.

However, this is just a suggestion. Some nutrition experts recommend saving most or all discretionary calories for an occasional treat rather than daily splurges. Pay attention to your hunger/fullness cues and energy needs to determine the best approach for you.

What foods are considered discretionary calories?

Typically, discretionary calories come from foods and beverages that are higher in calories, added sugars, saturated fat, and/or sodium. Some examples include:

  • Cakes, cookies, donuts, pastries
  • Chips, pretzels, crackers
  • Pizza, burgers, hot dogs
  • Sugary cereal, granola bars
  • Soda, sweet tea, sports drinks
  • Candy, chocolate, ice cream
  • Alcoholic beverages

It’s important to note that no foods are strictly “off limits” with discretionary calories. You can technically fit any food or drink into your diet by accounting for it in your calorie and nutrient targets. However, it’s best to emphasize mostly healthy choices overall.

Should I avoid discretionary calories completely?

Most experts don’t recommend completely avoiding all discretionary calories or treats. Depriving yourself may backfire and lead to overeating or bingeing later on. It’s understandable if you prefer to save discretionary calories for special occasions rather than including them daily.

However, having a small buffer for extras can prevent feeling restricted and promote a healthy relationship with food. Aim to keep discretionary calories reasonable – such as a small handful of chips, a square of chocolate, half a donut, etc.

Healthy ways to use discretionary calories

Discretionary calories don’t have to come from candy, baked goods, and junk food. There are plenty of nutritious ways to use your extra calories for the day. Some options include:

  • A tablespoon of healthy oil for cooking
  • A small handful of nuts or seeds
  • A few squares of dark chocolate
  • An extra serving of whole grains like quinoa or brown rice
  • Additional servings of fruits and vegetables
  • A glass of low-fat milk or yogurt
  • A serving of beans, lentils, or tofu
  • An extra egg or ounce of lean meat/poultry/fish

You can also “spend” some discretionary calories boosting the nutrition in favorite recipes. For example, add extra veggies to pasta sauce, sprinkle flax or chia seeds on oatmeal, or mix berries into pancake batter. Finding creative ways to add nutrition can satisfy cravings for favorite foods while optimizing your daily calories.

Tips for managing discretionary calories

Here are some tips to keep discretionary calories reasonable as part of a healthy diet:

  • Plan for 1-2 small “treats” per day rather than large splurges. This may help prevent going overboard.
  • Savor discretionary foods mindfully and slowly. Don’t eat directly from packages.
  • Use the smallest dishes possible for treats to control portions.
  • Limit higher calorie additions like cheese, bacon, salad dressing, etc.
  • Substitute veggie sides for fries or chips at restaurants.
  • Dilute sugary drinks with sparkling water or opt for smaller sizes.
  • Choose baked chips, low-fat frozen yogurt, or other lighter options when possible.
  • Allow yourself a daily indulgence but skip seconds and leftovers.

Examples of 100, 200, and 300 calorie treat ideas

To visualize how discretionary calories can fit into your diet, here are some examples of popular “treat” foods and snacks around 100, 200, and 300 calories:

100 calories

  • 1 regular size Hershey’s chocolate bar (43g)
  • 10 reduced fat Wheat Thins crackers
  • 1 fun size bag of M&Ms (45g)
  • 1 snack size bag of potato chips (28g)
  • 2 tbsp hummus with 5 whole grain crackers

200 calories

  • 1 small bag of microwave popcorn (3 cups popped)
  • 1 slice medium cheese or pepperoni pizza
  • 1 scoop (1/2 cup) ice cream
  • 1/4 cup trail mix with chocolate chips
  • 1 small doughnut or muffin (2 oz)

300 calories

  • 10 potato chips with 2 tbsp guacamole
  • 1 cup light vanilla frozen yogurt with 1 tbsp chocolate syrup
  • 4 ounces wine or 12 ounces light beer
  • 1/2 cup macaroni and cheese prepared from a box
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn with 1 tbsp melted butter

As you can see, even small amounts of higher calorie foods can make a dent in your discretionary calorie allowance. This is why experts recommend focusing treats on flavor and quality rather than large quantities.

Discretionary calories on various calorie levels

The number of discretionary calories you can allow will depend on your total daily calorie needs for weight management. Here’s a look at estimated discretionary calories at different calorie levels:

Daily Calorie Goal Discretionary Calories
1200 calories 80-120 calories
1500 calories 100-150 calories
1800 calories 120-180 calories
2000 calories 140-200 calories
2300 calories 160-230 calories
2500 calories 180-250 calories

As you can see, the more calories you require each day, the more room you have for discretionary calories while still eating balanced nutrition. However, most experts recommend limiting discretionary calories to around 10% of total calories, regardless of your calorie needs.

Should I have the same discretionary calories daily?

You don’t have to allot the same discretionary calories every single day. You may prefer to “save up” discretionary calories for a bigger splurge a few times per week. Or you might rotate higher and lower discretionary calorie days.

The key is staying mindful of portions and not going significantly over your allotment on a regular basis. Think of your discretionary calorie allowance like a weekly budget rather than a daily requirement.

Are discretionary calories required?

No, discretionary calories aren’t an essential part of your diet. If you prefer, you can plan your meals and snacks to stay entirely within your recommended intakes for core foods and beverages.

However, completely avoiding treats and extras may not be realistic or sustainable for most people. Having some wiggle room for discretionary calories can help support overall balanced eating.

Healthy eating without discretionary calories

If you choose to skip discretionary calories altogether, focus on maximizing nutrition from wholesome, minimally processed core foods:

  • Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, legumes, nuts, seeds.
  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, vinegars, mustards, citrus.
  • Stay hydrated with water, unsweetened coffee/tea, sparkling water.
  • Satisfy sweets cravings with fruit, small amounts of dark chocolate, etc.
  • Practice mindful eating and eat slowly without distractions.
  • Build treats into your eating plan a few times per month instead of daily.

With careful meal planning, it’s definitely possible to eat delicious food and avoid empty discretionary calories. But for many people, allowing some small daily indulgences is more realistic for maintaining long-term healthy habits.

Examples of discretionary calorie meals

Here are some sample meal and snack ideas showing how discretionary calories can be incorporated into a balanced diet:


  • Oatmeal made with milk, berries, flaxseed, cinnamon, and 1 tbsp maple syrup (50 discretionary calories)
  • 2 scrambled eggs, 1 oz cheese, 1 slice whole wheat toast with 1 tsp jam (50 discretionary calories)
  • Greek yogurt, banana, 1⁄4 cup granola (80 discretionary calories)


  • Tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce, tomato, mustard, 1 oz chips (110 discretionary calories)
  • Veggie and bean burrito bowl with 1 oz shredded cheese and 1 tbsp sour cream (90 discretionary calories)
  • Soup and salad with 2 whole grain crackers and 1 tbsp salad dressing (60 discretionary calories)


  • Chicken stir fry with veggies over brown rice with 1⁄2 cup ice cream for dessert (120 discretionary calories)
  • Veggie pizza with light cheese, salad with 2 tbsp dressing, and 1 cup berries (150 discretionary calories)
  • Tacos with corn tortillas, veggies, salsa, 1 oz cheese and 1 oz avocado (80 discretionary calories)


  • Apple with 1 tbsp peanut butter (50 discretionary calories)
  • Light yogurt with 1⁄4 cup granola (65 discretionary calories)
  • 1 oz dark chocolate with 1⁄2 cup berries (110 discretionary calories)

These examples demonstrate how a small amount of discretionary calories can be built into varied, nutritious meals. Keep portions of treats small by using the smallest dishes possible and avoid going back for seconds.

Healthy swaps for discretionary calories

You don’t have to rely on candy and baked goods to use up discretionary calories. Here are some healthy food swaps to try:

Instead of: Try:
Candy Fresh or dried fruit
Ice cream Greek yogurt
Potato chips Edamame, popcorn
Cookes/cake Small square of dark chocolate
Fried foods Veggies with hummus
Sugary drinks Sparkling water
White bread Whole grain bread
Chips and dip Veggies and guacamole

Making healthy swaps can help satisfy cravings while optimizing nutrition. Prioritize treats that offer some nutritional benefit like fruit, nuts, seeds, yogurt, etc. Read labels and choose products made with wholesome ingredients when possible.

Should children have discretionary calories?

For children, discretionary calories should make up no more than 10–15% of total calories. Some general guidelines based on calorie needs:

  • Ages 2-3: About 100-170 discretionary calories
  • Ages 4-8: About 120-210 discretionary calories
  • Ages 9-13: About 140-245 discretionary calories
  • Ages 14-18: About 160-270 discretionary calories

However, most experts recommend children get the majority of their calories from wholesome foods and limit empty calorie items. Focus treats on special occasions, holidays, etc. rather than daily indulgences.

Healthy treat ideas for kids

Here are some healthier ways kids can use discretionary calories:

  • Fresh fruit popsicles
  • Banana “ice cream” made from frozen bananas
  • Trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, mini chocolate chips
  • Apple slices with nut butter
  • Yogurt parfaits or smoothies with granola
  • Frozen yogurt drops or fruit
  • Veggies with ranch dip

Limit sugary packaged snacks, candy, baked goods and focus on wholesome foods for optimal nutrition.


Discretionary calories provide wiggle room for treats and extras within your daily calorie allotment. Foods like sweets, salty snacks, pizza, etc. can fit into a healthy diet in moderation when balanced with ample fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and dairy.

Aim to keep discretionary calories reasonable by choosing small portion size treats, sharing or splitting desserts, and making healthy swaps when possible. Allowing some flexibility for fun foods can prevent feeling deprived and promote sustainable, balanced eating habits.

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