Nourishing your toddler: A Guide to healthy eating
Is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Center for Digestive Health Care / GI Care for Kids, whose books on nutrition for parents led him to start Nutrition4Kids with his co-founders.
Hacks to help your toddler eat better
Feeding toddlers can be both rewarding and challenging. As they grow and explore the world, their dietary needs and preferences evolve. Providing proper nutrition during this critical stage of development is essential for their physical and cognitive growth. To do that successfully, we'll help you understand the fundamentals of feeding your toddler: what to offer, portion sizes, mealtime strategies, and dealing with picky eaters—offering even more information if you want, by linking to some of our other articles and videos.
The Toddler diet: What to offer
Toddlers need a well-balanced diet to support their growth and energy requirements. Here are some key components to include in their daily meals:
- Fruits and vegetables: Aim to provide a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. They are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. Try different textures, from sliced apples to steamed broccoli, to appeal to your toddler's preferences.
- Proteins: Protein is crucial for muscle and tissue development. Offer lean sources of protein like chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, tofu, beans, and legumes. Peanut butter and eggs are also good protein sources, if your toddler is not allergic to them.
- Dairy or dairy alternatives: Toddlers need calcium and vitamin D for strong bones and teeth. Offer dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk. If your child is lactose intolerant or you prefer plant-based options, choose fortified non-dairy alternatives like almond or soy milk.
- Grains: Whole grains provide important nutrients and fiber. Serve whole-grain bread, pasta, brown rice, and cereals to ensure your toddler gets enough energy for their active lifestyle. There are plenty of choices, even for kids who have to avoid gluten.
- Healthy fats: Fats are essential for brain development. Include sources of healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil in your toddler's diet.
- Water: Encourage your toddler to drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. Limit sugary beverages like soda and juice, which can lead to tooth decay and excessive calorie intake, contributing to increased weight gain.
Portion sizes for toddlers
Toddlers have small tummies but high energy needs. It's essential to offer appropriately sized portions to meet their nutritional requirements. Here's a general guideline for portion sizes:
- Vegetables and Fruits: 1 to 2 tablespoons per year of age, for a total of 5 fistfuls each day
- Protein: 1 ounce (about the size of a matchbox) per year of age.
- Grains: ¼ to ½ cup per year of age.
- Dairy: ½ to 1 cup per year of age.
- Healthy Fats: A few teaspoons or small servings throughout the day.
Remember that these are rough estimates, and individual needs can vary. Pay attention to your toddler's cues of hunger and fullness. It's better to offer smaller portions and let them ask for more if they are still hungry.
Mealtime with a toddler can be an adventure filled with exploration and independence. Here are some strategies to make it a positive experience for both you and your child:
- Set a routine: Establish regular meal and snack times to create a predictable eating schedule. Stop snacks and fluids an hour before meals, so they'll be hungry when they sit down, Toddlers thrive on routines and knowing what to expect.
- Family meals: Whenever possible, have family meals together. Children learn by example, and sitting together at the table encourages healthy eating habits.
- Serve age-appropriate portions: Use child-sized plates and utensils to make eating more manageable for your toddler. Avoid large portions that might overwhelm them. The USDA has a convenient way of thinking about serving size and balance, called My Plate, where half the plate is devoted to fruits and vegetables, the other half filled with protein and grains.
- Offer choices: Allow your toddler to make choices within healthy options. For example, "Do you want apple slices or a banana?" This gives them a sense of control and can make mealtime more enjoyable. Be careful not to ask a yes / no question, like "Do you want apple slices?" without another option—it's too easy to just say "no."
- Stay calm and patient: Toddlers can be picky eaters and may refuse certain foods or meals. Stay patient and avoid making mealtime a battle. Encourage them to try new foods without pressure. Many toddlers will only eat 2 meals a day, especially if they fill up on snacks—so buy only healthy snacks.
- Minimize distractions: Turn off the TV and other electronic devices during meals to help your child focus on eating.
- Lead by example: Model healthy eating behaviors by enjoying a variety of foods and eating your vegetables. Your toddler is more likely to follow your lead.
- Positive praise: Offer praise for trying new foods or eating well, but avoid using food as a reward.
Picky Eaters and how to deal with them
Many toddlers go through phases of picky eating. It's a normal part of their development as they assert their independence and explore new tastes. Here are some tips for dealing with picky eaters:
- Offer a variety: Continue to offer a variety of foods, even if your toddler rejects them initially. Their tastes may change over time.
- Try, try again: Don't give up on foods your toddler has rejected. It can take multiple exposures (as many as 15) for them to accept new flavors.
- Get creative: Experiment with different cooking methods and preparations to make foods more appealing. For example, try steamed vegetables with a sprinkle of cheese or blend fruits into a smoothie.
- Involve your child: Let your toddler help with meal preparation. They may be more interested in trying foods they've had a hand in making.
- Keep it positive: Avoid negative comments about disliked foods. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of healthy eating.
- Be patient: Understand that picky eating is a phase that many toddlers go through. With time and patience, they will likely become more adventurous eaters.
- Be proactive: If your child is only eating 2 or 3 foods, speak with your pediatrician. I may be a normal phase, but it could be an early sign of ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder or autism. Also watch for signs of difficulty swallowing which could indicate the presence of EoE (Eosinophilic Esophagitis) or another feeding disorder.
In some cases, your toddler may need nutritional supplements to meet their dietary requirements fully. Consult with your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child's growth or nutrition. They may recommend supplements such as vitamin D, iron, or fluoride to address specific needs. Or they may recommend a consultation with a pediatric dietitian or gastroenterologist. They may also suggest a dietary consult to assure toddlers on plant-based diets get all the nutrients they need.
Feeding your toddler is a journey of exploration and development. It's a time when they start to develop lifelong eating habits, so it's essential to provide them with a balanced diet and a positive mealtime environment. By offering a variety of nutritious foods, respecting your child's preferences, and setting a good example, you can help your toddler grow into a healthy, happy eater. Remember that each child is unique, and patience and flexibility are key as you navigate this exciting phase of their growth.
Sources and Resources
US Department of Agriculture
Nutrition4Kids Videos on Grocery Shopping
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