Healthy Eating for Your Toddler
As your child grows from an infant to a toddler, she is developing eating habits and tastes that will stay with her for a long time, so this is a critical time for you to teach her about good nutrition. This handout will help you to understand ways to establish healthy eating patterns for your toddler and give you suggestions for daily meal and snack plans.
A Few General Points
- A typical toddler needs about 1000 calories a day for normal growth. This is not a lot of food, especially since he will usually drink about 400 of those calories as milk, leaving only about 600 calories of solid food per day. Therefore, don’t worry if your toddler does not seem to eat a lot of food each day! If you offer healthy meals and snacks on a regular schedule, he will take in what his body needs.
- Your child should generally be offered 3 meals and 2 snacks each day, typically breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner.
- Your toddler can eat most of the same foods that the rest of your family eats, with some special precautions to reduce the risk of choking. Make sure all foods are soft and cut up into small pieces. Avoid high-risk choking foods such as nuts, popcorn, raw vegetables, whole grapes, hard candies, and hot dogs.
Healthy Mealtime Habits
- Meals and snacks should occur at regular scheduled times each day and your child should not eat or drink between meals/snacks (except for water if thirsty).
- Your child should sit in her high chair or booster chair for all meals and snacks, as much as possible. Of course, we all eat on-the-go occasionally, but it is important to have as many meals and snacks as possible sitting at the dining table.
- Your child should eat with other members of the family as much as possible so she can learn from watching other people eat and also enjoy the social experience of family meals. Try to make meals a time for family conversation and enjoyment. Turn the television off during meals!
- Do not require your child to “clean his plate.” This teaches her to eat even after her stomach is full, which can lead to obesity. Instead, offer a small portion of food to start and, if your child is still hungry, teach her to ask for more. Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters and may seem to go days without eating much of anything! This is okay; your child will eat what her body needs as long as meals and snacks are offered at regular intervals. If your child has a poor meal or snack, resist the temptation to give her a cookie or some other extra snack in between regular meal/snack times. This can lead to “grazing” where a child will eat little bits of snacks all day, but never have a good complete meal. When your child has a poor meal or snack, it is best just to wait to feed her until the next regular meal/snack time.
Drinks, Drinks, Drinks
- If your child uses a bottle, you should wean him off of it as soon possible after his first birthday. Try to have him completely off the bottle by 15-18 months of age at the latest.
- After your child’s first birthday, you may switch him from breastmilk or formula to whole milk and you should offer milk approximately 3 times a day (about 16-24 oz per day). You should also offer your child water twice a day or so.
- Juice is not generally healthy for toddlers (even 100% fruit juice). Either give no juice at all, or if you must, limit it to one serving (4-6 oz) a day. Excessive juice intake can lead to obesity, cavities, and poor appetite for nutritious foods.
- Do not allow your child to walk around with a cup or bottle throughout the day. Drinks should be offered along with meals and, when the meal is over, don’t allow your child to take the cup/bottle with her. If your child is thirsty during the day, offer him a cup of water and take it away after he drinks what he needs.
- Resist sodas and other sugary drinks! They offer no nutritional value and only get your child hooked on sweet drinks.
Meal/Snack Suggestions (pdf)
One of the following:
- Cup of whole milk and fruit plus High-fiber cereal
- whole grain toast or english muffin with small amount cream cheese or jam
- whole grain waffle
- 1 scrambled egg
Note: Look for cereals with 3 or more grams of fiber per serving, for example, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Multi-Grain Cheerios, Oatmeal, Puffins, Quaker Squares, Raisin Bran, Weetabix.
Make sure fruit is soft and cut up into small pieces; fresh fruit is great, but use canned, frozen, or dried fruits when fresh fruits not available.
MORNING AND AFTERNOON SNACKS
One of the following:
- Cup of water plus fruit
- yogurt or yogurt smoothie
- high fiber cereal
- whole grain breakfast bar
- whole grain toast or english muffin with small amount peanut butter or cream cheese
- whole grain crackers plus cheese cubes or slice of American cheese
LUNCH AND DINNER
- Cup of milk plus Whatever the family is having
Try to offer a balanced meal with some of each of the following:
- grains (for example, whole-grain breads, pasta, rice, potato, couscous)
- protein source (for example, meat, fish, beans, soy products)