The Basics

Energy (measured in calories or kilojoules) and nutrients come from the foods and drinks we consume. The average woman needs around 2000 calories (kcal) or 8400 kilojoules (kJ) a day (around 2500 kcal / 10 500 kJ for men) to maintain a healthy weight. These figures are averages - some people will need more than this and others will need less. The amount required varies by age, body size and level of physical activity, for example those that are very active may need more calories whereas less active individuals may need fewer calories.

Our daily intake of calories and nutrients is split over the meals and snacks we have throughout the day. The UK government suggests that one way to spread calorie intake over the day could be to consume 20% of total calorie intake at breakfast, 30% at lunch, 30% at dinner and 20% for snacks. The calories we consume from drinks is also included in this allowance.

Why 20:30:30:20?

The reason behind this recommendation is that in general, we eat a greater range and amount of foods at lunch and the evening meal compared with breakfast and snacks, so these meals tend to provide more calories. By eating a varied, balanced diet containing foods from the four main food groups in the eatwell plate, click here for more information. we can get all the nutrients we need to stay healthy. The diet should include plenty of foods from the starchy carbohydrate and fruit and vegetable groups and moderate amounts from the milk and dairy and non-dairy sources of protein groups.

Table 1 shows what the 20:30:30:20 breakdown of total calories would look like over a day for both men and women. Most of the calorie intake should come from foods and drinks eaten at meal times (80%) and snacks and other drinks should only make up a fifth of total calorie intake.

Table 1. Suggested breakdown of calorie intake over a day for males and females

  Breakfast in kcal (kJ) Lunch in kcal (kJ) Dinner in kcal (kJ) Snacks in kcal (kJ) Total in kcal (kJ)
Female 400 (1700) 600(2500) 600 (2500) 400 (1700) 2000 (8400)
Male 500 (2100) 750 (3150) 750 (3150) 500 (2100) 2500 (10500)


When planning meals and snacks for the week, it is a good idea to write a meal planner or menu with spaces for snacks too. This will help to create a shopping list of exactly what is needed, avoiding the temptation to buy too much! Keep in mind the government’s eight healthy eating tips and the information presented in the eatwell plate to achieve a healthy, varied diet. See our meal planner to get started.



It is important to pick a healthy eating pattern that best suits your lifestyle and is achievable, enjoyable and practical to follow in the long term. Snacks can contribute around 20% of total calorie intake and could be split over two occasions, e.g. a mid-morning snack and an afternoon or evening snack. Alternatively, instead of having two snacks, you could use the remaining calories to have an indulgent dessert at the weekend, or when enjoying a meal out. If you have more than the suggested amount of calories at breakfast, lunch or dinner, snacks could be left out that day or the following day, to make sure your total daily calorie intake is not too high overall.

It is a good idea to be mindful of what you have eaten during the day, so that the snacks you choose complement meals. For example, if you didn’t include any milk or dairy foods in your breakfast and lunch, try some reduced fat cheddar and crackers, or some unsweetened natural yogurt with fruit, for an afternoon snack. Alternatively, if your lunch didn’t include much fruit or vegetables, some vegetable sticks with dip or a banana is a good choice of snack to help reach your 5-A-DAY. Where possible, try not to consume foods and drinks high in sugar between meals (including alcoholic beverages, sugar sweetened soft drinks and fruit juice), as this can increase risk of tooth decay, especially in those with poor dental hygiene. Snacks from the food group high in fat and/or sugar, such as crisps, cakes, chocolates and sugar sweetened beverages should be included only as an occasional treat, not every day. Alcoholic beverages also contain calories so these need to be taken into account when adding up your total calorie intake. It is important to keep alcohol consumption within the recommended limits (no more than 14 units per week for both men and women).


It’s important to stay hydrated and most people need around 8-10 glasses of fluid per day. But remember that some drinks contribute towards your calorie intake for the day, so think about this when planning your meals and snacks. Remember the 20:30:30:20 recommendation includes drinks too, so if you are choosing your lunch based on 600 kcal (2500 kJ), a can of sugar sweetened fizzy drink, for example, might contribute around 100 - 200 kcal (450 - 900 kJ). Plain water is the best drink, but all drinks will help to keep you hydrated. Tea, coffee and lower fat milk can help contribute towards the recommended amount. A 150 ml glass of fruit juice counts as a one of your 5-A-DAY, but keep this to a maximum of one a day because it can be damaging for your teeth. If choosing a soft drink, go for lower sugar or sugar-free versions. You can read more about healthy hydration here.