Healthy diet for toddlers
Your baby has hit the toddler stage and all that non-stop toddling uses up bags of energy. So, for a varied, balanced, diet, here are a few toddler meal ideas on how to give them all the nutrition they need.
At a glance
Let them explore – trying new foods, textures and flavours is fun and good for them.
Watch out for salt. It’s bad for little kidneys. 1-3 year olds shouldn’t have more than 2g a day.
Toddler multivitamins contain the right level of vits A, C & D, crucial for growing little people.
Avoid too many wholegrains. It bulks out their tiny tummies, leaving less room for other good stuff.
Toddler food portions
Now they’re ‘all grown up’ your toddler can eat the same food as the rest of the family – just in mini portions.
Variety is key. They’ll need nutrients from each food group. A mix of meat (or meat alternatives like tofu), dairy, fruit, vegetables, and carbohydrates every day. That’s a lot to keep track of so there’s a few pointers below. A weekly meal planner can really help too.
Milk and dairy for toddlers – two to three portions a day
Two to three servings of whole milk and full-fat dairy for toddlers is recommended each day. Cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk, cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais all count. They’re a good source of energy and protein, with plenty of vitamins and minerals:
- Calcium and vitamin D for those growing teeth and bones.
- Vitamin A to help the body’s immune system fight off colds.
- Riboflavin keeps your toddler’s eyes, skin and nervous system healthy.
- Vitamin B is a great source of vitamins B12, B2 and B6. They play a big part in the body’s energy supply. Go B’s.
- Magnesium for turning all that yummy food into energy.
- Potassium which controls the balance of fluid in the body and the correct functioning of the heart.
Little tip: If your little one doesn’t like drinking milk, try sneaking it into mashed potato, pureed vegetables or porridge. Fool your fussy eater with other clever tricks here.
Fruit and vegetables for toddlers – five portions a day
Everyone knows that fruit and vegetables for toddlers are an essential part of a healthy diet and should be part of every mealtime. Toddlers are already beginning to work out their tastes for the future so the sooner you get them to enjoy their veggies the better.
- Fruit & veg provide vitamins A and C, fibre and some B vitamins.
- An apple a day. Or could it be a pear? Different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so variety is not just important but vital.
- Make life easier. Sometimes you’re so busy you just need to grab something quick for baby. Frozen, juiced, canned or dried fruit and veg can be your life saver.
Little tip: Some tots will make a yukky face at the sight of a vegetable, so try offering small amounts to get them used to it. You can also try hiding them in their favourite meals – pureed vegetables in a pasta sauce is a brilliant trick. Growing your own – with your toddler’s help – can also be a fun way to get them to try new things.
Protein for toddlers – two to three portions a day
Protein for toddlers is important, they need one or two portions of protein each day and vegetarians need an extra one, to ensure they have enough amino acids in their diet. Meat, fish, eggs and vegetarian alternatives, like pulses, are good sources of protein and other nutrients, for example:
- Iron, which helps with cognitive development.
- Zinc, providing magnesium and B vitamins.
- Vegetarian? Your baby could take vitamin C to help their iron absorption.
Not keen on feeding baby too much red meat? You could mix it up with other proteins or iron-rich foods, like fortified breakfast cereal, dark green vegetables, bread, dried apricots, figs and prunes.
Little tip: Your toddler might find chewy pieces of meat a little hard to swallow, so maybe add tiny pieces of chicken or meat to yummy favourites like macaroni cheese or pasta sauce
Fish for toddlers – two portions a week
Fish is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Try putting oily fish such as salmon, sardines or tuna on the menu at least once a week. Here’s why:
- Vitamins and minerals. Fish contains zinc, magnesium and B vitamins which are essential for healthy development.
- Heart food. Oily fish are particularly high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that support a healthy heart.
Do remember that you can give boys up to 4 portions of oily fish a week, but girls no more than twice a week.
Not all fish is good for baby. Avoid shark, swordfish and marlin as these are high in mercury and can affect the development of their delicate nervous system.
Little tip: If your toddler isn’t much of a fish fan yet, try toning it down. A fish pie topped with mash potato, or maybe tinned tuna with tomato pasta?
Starch and carbohydrates for toddlers – four portions a day
Bread, cereal, potatoes and pasta: most kids love them and they’re a good source of energy and fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals.
It’s good to serve toddler-sized portions of carbs at every meal and as a snack now and then. Wholegrain carbs, not so much. Brown rice for example, is good for them but can bulk up their little tums, leaving no room for other goodness. Best to save it for the occasional meal
Some fat is good for toddlers
During toddlerhood, high fat foods are not only ok, but encouraged. As growing little people, they need the concentrated energy and other nutrients provided by full fat whole milk, yoghurt, and cheese. Here’s why:
- Unique vitamins. Some vitamins such as A and D are only found in fats.
- Absorbing goodness. Fat in the diet helps the body absorb certain nutrients found in vegetables like lycopene and beta-carotene.
- Fatty acids. It also provides essential fatty acids that the body can't make itself.
But not all fats are created equal. The unsaturated fats from vegetable sources, like cooking oil, are better than the saturated fats found in meat. Here’s a few easy ways to keep saturated fat low in your diet:
- Keep it lean. Buy leaner cuts of meat.
- Fewer ‘frydays’. Grill or bake foods instead.
- A few drops. Use as little cooking oil as possible.
- Go easy on the crisps. Limit fried foods, pastry and commercially prepared cakes and biscuits to special occasions.
Little Tip: Low fat can often mean high sugar, not to mention other artificial flavourings. Low fat foods may not have enough of the good calories your growing toddler needs, so it’s probably best to steer clear.
Healthy snacks for toddlers – Two to three per day
Toddlers only have small tummies, so regular snacks between meals prevents them from getting overly hungry or going too long before eating. A recommended daily routine includes two to three healthy snacks for toddlers per day. Fit them in around meals and nap times.
Little mouths love sweet treats but these are more likely to cause tooth decay and may lack important vitamins and minerals. So limit sugar-containing foods and drinks between meals. And swap unhealthy snacks for more nutritious ones, like fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, natural yoghurts, fruit puree lollies, and cheese.
Drinks for toddlers – six to eight drinks per day
Growing up is thirsty work – literally. Toddlers should have six to eight drinks per day, each of about 100-120ml. Give them more if they’re being extra active or it’s a hot day. The best drinks are water and unflavoured milk, which are kinder to teeth than sugary drinks. Here’s a few of the wonders of water:
- Fluid balance. Water keeps all the body’s fluids nicely balanced.
- Packs a punch. Water gives little muscles energy to explore their world.
- Kind to kidneys. The kidneys balance the body’s fluids, which they can’t do without water.
- Clear waste. Water helps remove waste from your blood in the form of urine and helps with normal bowel function.
Everyone knows natural, not-from-concentrate, fruit juices like orange juice, are a good source of vitamin C. But did you know they also contain high levels of natural sugars and acids which can cause tooth decay? Squash or cordial also contains added sugar and very few nutrients. Too many juice-based or flavoured drinks can be filling, leaving less room for healthy food choices.
Little Tip: Diluting juice and squash, or cordial – one part to 10 with water, will make them less sugary but should be limited to meal times to help protect teeth from dental erosion.
Supplements for toddlers
Growing children sometimes don’t get enough vitamins A, C and D, particularly if they’re fussy and don’t have a varied diet. It’s recommended that children from six months to five years take vitamin drops. Here’s why:
- Vitamin A helps strengthen your toddler’s immune system and helps maintain healthy skin.
- Vitamin C helps your toddler’s body absorb iron and helps with the normal function of the immune system.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from the foods we eat — which is great when your toddler’s bones are growing quickly in the early years.
Too much of some vitamins can be harmful, so try to keep to the recommended dose. If you live in the UK and qualify for Healthy Start on the NHS, you’re entitled to free vitamin drops.
Fortified foods like cereals and Growing-Up Milks can also help to provide the extra vitamins needed at this age.
Sugar for toddlers
There are two types of sugar: natural sugars found in whole fruits, vegetables and milk; and the added sugar in fizzy drinks and biscuits. The natural sugars provide energy, but the foods they’re in also provide other important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Food with lots of added sugar provides energy but often has fewer nutrients, so it’s best to use as an occasional treat rather than an everyday snack.
Sugary foods and drinks can cause tooth decay, particularly if eaten between meals. So, if you’re giving them a sweet treat it’s best to do it with their meals. The more they chew, the more saliva they produce, which helps neutralise the acids that could harm their teeth.
Fluorides in water can help prevent tooth decay. It’s best to use a cup, beaker or a straw for drinks rather than a bottle. Lastly, cleaning your toddler’s teeth before bed is a very important habit to get into.