Toddler Nutrition: A Complete Guide for Parents

Joanna Foley

by | Updated: February 28th, 2023 | Read time: 8 minutes

As a parent, you already have so much on your plate. So, having questions about how to best feed your toddler shouldn’t be adding more stress to your life.

Feeding toddlers can be challenging, but with a few guidelines you can tackle this area of your child’s life with more confidence.

Here you’ll find everything you need to know about the what, when and how of toddler nutrition, along with tips for dealing with picky eating and a sample meal schedule to get you started.

An Overhead Photo Shows a Father and Toddler Preparing a Vegetable-Heavy Dish Together, Representing Toddler Nutrition.

Why Toddler Nutrition Matters So Much

The toddler years, defined as the ages of one to three, are a time of huge transition. Children who were once babies with very little abilities to care for themselves become curious, independent toddlers who have a will of their own.

When it comes to food, toddlers are transitioning from receiving mostly infant formula or breastmilk to getting nearly all of their nutrition from the solid foods you provide for them. This means being exposed to new flavors and textures, learning how to feed themselves, and other new and important skills.

Toddlers are also undergoing a period of rapid growth compared to other times in life. A toddler may grow between 2-3 inches and gain an average of about 5 pounds per year. This growth, along with the brain development that comes with it, gives them an increased need for good quality nutrition. Having a poor diet in these early years can put them at risk for increased illnesses, poor learning abilities and more.

What should toddlers eat?

Good nutrition is the backbone of good health. In toddlerhood, what children eat plays a role in not only fueling their energetic lifestyles, but also fueling their brains to help them learn and think the way that they should. In addition, starting good nutrition practices in the toddler years can help children develop and maintain healthy eating habits for the rest of their lives.

Like adults, toddlers need nutrition from a variety of foods. This means that your toddler can and should eat most of the same foods that you do!

Here are the basics of what they need:

  • Protein: Protein supports all of your toddler’s bodily processes, including their immune system, hormones, bones and more. Focus on lean and nutrient-dense protein sources such as chicken or turkey breast, fish like tuna and salmon, beans, soy products, nuts and unsweetened dairy products like yogurt and milk.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbs come from a wide variety of foods and fuel your toddler’s active lifestyle. A majority of the carbs your toddler eats should come from complex carbohydrates, which are higher in fiber and other important nutrients. Examples of complex carbs include oats, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread and other products made from whole grains.
  • Healthy fats: Fat is essential for normal brain development, and it also helps the body absorb many vitamins. Examples of healthy fats include nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados, olive and avocado oils and eggs.
  • Produce: This includes all fruits and vegetables, such as berries, broccoli, avocados, bananas and carrots. The more colors, the better!

Keep in mind that it’s okay if your toddler doesn’t eat from all of these categories each day. Simply aiming to include at least 2 food groups at each meal and offering a variety of foods throughout each week should allow your toddler to take in plenty of variety of nutrients.

How much should toddlers eat?

Toddlers are notorious for having unexpected shifts in appetite. Some days they may seem to eat hardly anything while other days they may eat more than you’d expect. So rather than worrying about whether your toddler is eating too much or too little, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the big picture.

Toddlers are excellent at self-regulating how much they need to eat, so if they skimp out on one meal or snack, they will likely make up for it later in the day or week. It is a good idea to offer portion sizes that are in line with what your toddler generally eats and adjust accordingly as they age. It is never a good idea to try and force your toddler to eat more or to restrict them if you think they are eating too much.

When should you feed your toddler?

In general, toddlers need at least 3 main meals and about 2 small snacks per day. These eating times should ideally be spaced out to allow for about 2-3 hours between meals and snacks, since that will give them enough time to work up an appetite and be more interested in eating whatever you serve them.

It can be helpful to have a routine of specific meal and snack times. This can help your toddler know what to expect and reduce the likelihood of them just grazing all day long. With that said, each day may look a little different so try not to obsess about exact timing. Instead, think of it as a loose schedule that is easily adaptable.

Sample toddler feeding schedule

Now that you have all of this information, here’s a sample of what it may look like to put it into practice:

7 a.m. breakfast: Plain yogurt topped with berries and chia seeds, mixed with a spoonful of nut or seed butter and an optional small drizzle of honey

9:30 a.m. morning snack: Apple slices with a string cheese or handful of nuts

12 p.m. lunch: Sandwich made on whole grain bread with no-sugar-added peanut butter and reduced sugar jam served with a piece of fruit of choice

3:30 p.m. afternoon snack (after nap): Whole grain crackers dipped in hummus, and/or a fruit pouch such as Gogo squeez organic apple cinnamon

6 p.m. dinner: Whole grain pasta tossed with marinara sauce with shredded zucchini mixed in, topped with parmesan cheese and lean turkey meatballs.

If you’re on-the-go, you can also try giving your toddler a healthy meal in a pouch form, such as Serenity Kids Turkey Bolognese With Bone Broth or Salmon With Butternut Squash and Beets.

Do toddlers need multivitamins?

The official stance from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that healthy children who eat a variety of foods throughout the week do not need to take multivitamins. However, the decision of whether or not to give your child a multivitamin is up to you as the parent. If your child is especially picky, frequently gets sick or has health conditions that may warrant a greater nutrient intake, it may be beneficial to provide them with a multivitamin. If you do, just be sure to choose one that doesn’t contain much added sugar and is free of artificial dyes, flavors and other additives. Nordic Naturals Zero Sugar Kids Multivitamin Gummies is one potential good choice.

Tips for dealing with picky eating

A discussion around toddler nutrition would not be complete without mentioning picky eating. Toddlers are notorious for having limited food preferences. Most parents have likely experienced that what their toddler likes one day might not be the same as the next.

Yet have no fear. With a few tips, some time and a lot of patience and persistence, you can get through your toddler’s picky eating phase. Here are some tips for managing your toddler’s picky eating habits:

  1. Don’t overly cater to their preferences. While you may think that giving them whatever they want is the only way to get them to eat, it can actually make the problem worse by enabling picky eating and making them less likely to try new foods. Try offering at least one food they generally like alongside the rest of whatever is served, and leave the decision of whether to eat it up to them.
  2. Make mealtime a family event. Eating as a family as often as possible allows for more learning and interaction to happen at the table about the foods being eaten. This increases a child’s familiarity and comfort with new foods, especially if the foods are talked about in a neutral way, such as what they look, taste, feel or smell like.
  3. Make food fun. Cooking and preparing food together, letting your toddler pick out foods at the grocery store, and serving food in an exciting way are just a few tips to keep the eating process fun for your child, potentially making them more likely to accept different foods.
  4. Don’t make a big issue of it. Try not to force your child to eat certain foods, since this is likely to backfire and lead to an even greater dislike for that food. Instead, simply acknowledge their choices and move on. While it is your responsibility to offer the foods, your child is the one to determine how much and whether they choose to eat it. This is known as the division of responsibility.
  5. Keep exposing. Studies have shown that young children may need as many as 15 exposures before accepting a new food. This can also apply to re-accepting a food they previously liked, but then decided they didn’t want anymore. So don’t give up! Young children will base their food choices on things they are familiar with, so the more exposure, the better.

You can also read more about picky eating in toddlers in another article on The Upside blog.

There may be a lot that goes into feeding toddlers, but it doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful. Doing your best to acknowledge this transitional phase your child is in and supporting them along the way can make a big impact in their health and relationship with food for many years to come. Never strive for perfection, and know that every effort you make counts!

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