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Optimizing Nutrition for Toddlers

Since his very first feeding, you’ve probably paid plenty of attention to what your child eats. Remember, in making dietary decisions early in your youngster’s life, your primary focus should be on good nutrition rather than the number of calories he’s consuming. Instead of trying to limit the amount of dietary fat on your toddler’s plate, introduce him to healthy eating habits and well-balanced meals and snacks, rather than approaches aimed specifically at losing weight.

So what should your toddler be eating? At 1 year of age, he should be consuming a wide variety of foods. As he moves through the second year of life, he should be eating 3 meals daily, along with 1 to 2 snacks, prepared and served at regular times. You should also discourage grazing (this means your child has access to and grabs food all day long).

In planning and preparing food for your toddler, make sure he’s getting a balance of fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that can promote growth and include foods from the major food groups each day, including

  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs
  • Dairy products such as milk and cheese
  • Cereal grains, rice, potatoes, breads, pasta
  • Vegetables and fruits

By choosing health-promoting foods, you can establish good nutritional habits in your child that will last for the rest of his life. However, one recent study found that about 65% to 70% of 1 to 2-year-olds ate dessert, ice cream, and/or candy once a day, and 30% to 50% drank sweetened beverages every day. By contrast, the same study indicated that less than 10% of these young children ate a dark green vegetable each day; more often, their vegetable intake consisted of potatoes and french fries. Make sure that you and the other adults in the family agree on a healthy nutritional lifestyle for your toddler and the entire family, including one that puts a limit on sweets.

You can also find useful information at the US Department of Agriculture online MyPyramid (formerly known as the Food Guide Pyramid). Even if you veer away from American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines or MyPyramid recommendations from time to time, don’t become discouraged. On occasion, you’ll run into unexpected disruptions that keep you from making a trip to the supermarket or spending time preparing meals in the kitchen. Everyone becomes sidetracked from time to time, so don’t expect perfection. Even so, never lose sight of your objective, and stay headed in the right direction. Your goal should be to provide your child with a healthy, varied diet as regularly as possible, with choices from each food group. An occasional slipup—perhaps when, by necessity, the family is eating on the run—isn’t going to undermine your toddler’s good health.
Now, what about portion sizes? They should be appropriate for your child’s age. For a toddler, a serving size should be approximately one fourth of the portion appropriate for an adult. A serving of vegetables for a toddler would be about 1 to 2 tablespoons. For meat, a serving might be about the size of their palm.