The number of days of data required to accurately estimate usual nutrient intake of children is not well established. This study aims to calculate the variability and the number of days required to estimate usual nutrient intake in children aged 13–32 months. This cross-sectional study, which is part of the BRISA Project in São Luís, Maranhão, Brazil, involved 231 children from April 2011 to January 2013. Socio-economic and demographic data were collected using a questionnaire, and 3 non-consecutive days of food consumption were collected using a 24-h dietary recall (24HDR) survey. Intrapersonal and interpersonal variability and variance ratio (VR) were obtained for each nutrient using the Multiple Source Method® program (version 1.0.1). The number of days (d) needed was calculated using the formula proposed by Black et al. for different correlation coefficients (r) (i.e. 0·7, 0·8 or 0·9). For the vast majority of nutrients, intrapersonal and interpersonal variability values of <1 were observed, with even smaller intrapersonal variabilities, resulting in low VR (<1). More days were needed to estimate intakes of soluble fibre (12), insoluble fibre (11), total fibre (10), vitamin C (9) and PUFA (7), while fewer days were needed for energy, carbohydrate, SFA, Ca, Fe, P and Zn (all had 2 d for r 0·9). However, most nutrients required one, two or three 24HDR for r 0·7, 0·8 or 0·9.