Feeding toddlers a healthy balanced diet

Toddlerhood is a great time to establish healthy eating habits with your little one! After 12 months your toddler can now eat most of the same foods as the rest of the family, just in smaller amounts and without the seasoning.

At this stage your toddler is probably keen to self-feed with their fingers and wanting to use a spoon to feed themselves. They can hold a cup with two hands to drink water, and will be starting to chew food well and biting through a variety of textures. Some foods will still need to have the texture modified by cooking until soft and cutting up into a safer size.

Toddlers need a variety of nutritious foods, with 3 small meals a day and snacks in-between - they will now be getting more of their nourishment from food. Full cream cow’s milk can now be introduced as a milk drink. Offer cow’s milk or breast milk after food or between meals. 

What types of food should I offer?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend offering your toddler a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day. They also provide a guide to the recommended number of servings per day of each food group for toddlers aged 1-2 years. This is a standard serve, but as toddlers have small tummies, they will consume the suggested serves in smaller amounts and spread throughout the day, rather than in one eating occasion. Don’t get too worried about exactly how many serves your toddler eats, but remember, variety is the key!

  • Vegetables and legumes/beans – fresh, frozen, and canned (with no added sugar and no/low in salt) are all great options. Choose a rainbow of different coloured vegetables to get a variety of nutrients and flavours. Recommended number of servings each day:
    • 2-3 serves of vegetables e.g. a standard serve is ½ cup of cooked vegetables (75g)
  • Fruit – fresh, frozen, and canned (with no added sugar). Recommended number of servings each day:
    • ½ serve of fruit e.g. a standard serve is 1 cup of diced fruit (150g)
  • Grain (cereal) foods e.g. breads, oats (porridge), rice, noodles and pasta. Recommended number of servings per day:
    • 4 serves of grain foods e.g. a standard serve is ½ cup of rice or 1 slice of bread
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives. Recommended number of servings per day:
    • 1-1.5 serves of milk e.g. a standard serve is 2 slices of cheese
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans. Recommended number of servings per day:
    • 1 serve of protein foods e.g. a standard serve is 65g cooked lean meat.

By eating a variety of foods every day, your toddler is more likely to get the essential nutrients they need to grow, develop and establish healthy taste preferences.

Offer a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables every day, which provide different vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. The fruit and vegetable servings in your toddler’s day might look like: ½ cup canned peaches (on cereal), ½ banana, 1 small mashed potato, 1 steamed broccoli floret, ½ chopped tomato (on crispbread) and a snack of cooked carrot sticks with hummus. You can be creative and add veges to your existing recipes e.g. chopped veges to an omelette, or use grated vege to thicken casseroles. If you little one is being fussy with fruit or vegetables, repeatedly offering small servings is the key, so they become more familiar and this helps with accepting new foods.

Toddlers get plenty of natural dietary fibre from fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals in their diet. It’s recommended that you offer your toddler a variety of grain foods such as bread, pasta, rice, porridge, wheat biscuits and crackers. Toddlers don’t need very high fibre foods likes bran cereals and heavy grain breads as these can be too bulky and filling for little tummies.

Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes provide important nutrients like protein and iron for growth. Iron is essential for healthy growth and development and if your toddler is low in iron they become tired, prone to infections and may even have difficulty in learning. Offer your toddler a variety of foods containing iron every day. You could try beef or chicken casserole, soft flaked fish, sliced tofu, mashed egg sandwiches, hummus with cooked vegetable sticks or mini falafels.  

It’s important not to add sugar, salt, soy sauce, butter, cream or margarine to your toddler’s food. This helps them develop healthy taste preferences for the natural flavours of foods without added seasoning. Toddler food might taste bland to an adult’s palate, but the food has an appealing taste to your little one. Unhealthy foods, drinks and takeaways which are high in fat, salt and sugar are also not good for toddlers, and if they replace nutritious foods in their diet, it can lead to long term health problems like obesity and tooth decay.

Drinks

Toddlers need plenty to drink, especially on hot days and when they are active. The recommended drinks are breast milk, cow’s milk and water. Offer milk and water after or between meals so they don’t get too full for their food.

Pasteurised full cream cow’s milk can be given to your toddler as a drink from 12 months of age. Cow’s milk is an important source of nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12 and riboflavin, but not a good source of iron. You can offer up to 500mL of plain cow’s milk a day in a cup. It’s not recommended to give your little one more than this, as they can fill up on milk and have less interest in eating a varied diet and miss out on other nutrients from food. Breastfed toddlers may need less cow’s milk, depending on how often they are breastfeeding.

Toddlers need a little more fat in their diet than adults to meet their energy needs, so choose full-fat dairy products until they are over 2 years old. You can gradually introduce reduced fat milks once your little one is over 2 years old.

Texture

At this stage your toddler will be eating finger foods and spoon foods with a variety of textures including minced, grated, chopped and soft chunky food.

Always offer foods in a texture that is safe and appropriate for your toddlers chewing and biting abilities.  Small hard, round, sticky or stringy foods need to have the texture altered by cooking and chopping to reduce the choking risk. You will need to avoid giving some small hard foods, such as whole nuts and large seeds and raw pieces of carrot, celery and apple to children under three years of age.

Always make sure your toddler is supervised and sitting down while eating. As they become more mobile it can be more challenging to keep them seated correctly while eating. Reinforce why it is important and to reduce the risk of choking on food.

At around 2-3 years of age children might go through a phase of stuffing their mouth full of food, which can increase the choking risk. You might need to teach your toddler to put less in their mouth and offer smaller and less food at a time.

How much food?

Relative to their small body size and tummies, toddlers have greater needs for some nutrients than adults, this is because they are growing and developing rapidly. The best way to ensure your toddler gets the nutrients they need is by offering a variety of nutritious foods at regular meal and snack times over the day.

Their appetite may change from day to day, toddlers will eat more during a growth spurt, and their appetites will drop back somewhat afterwards. 

There’s a simple way to know if your little one is getting enough food: let them decide! Toddlers are better at judging their fullness levels than we are. The vast majority of healthy toddlers will eat just what they need. Let your toddler feed themselves in response to their hunger and be there to guide them - but not force them to eat.  While you might find serving size guidelines on packaging, remember they’re not set in stone and are just a guide.

If you can, eat as a family at the dinner table. Your child will enjoy being part of family mealtimes and can learn from copying you which can help with forming good eating habits.

The key thing to remember is that a healthy toddler won’t starve themselves – if they need to eat, they will! Remember, as long as your toddler appears happy, and they’re a good weight, you’re on the right track. If you do become concerned about their weight and eating habits, make sure you consult with a health professional.

 

References:

National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.

 

The materials published on this website are of a general nature and have been provided for informational purposes only. Always consult your medical practitioner or a qualified health provider for any further advice in relation to the topics discussed.

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