Feeding Your Toddler-What You Need to Know

Published January 13, 2022
By Renae D'Andrea

When it comes to what to feed toddlers, it can feel pretty overwhelming! Between trying to serve them a balanced diet that meets all their needs, and figuring out how to get them to eat it, a lot can fall through the cracks!

Here is a run down of the main things to keep in mind for toddlers between 1-3 years of age. 

The Best Drinks for Your Toddler

Once your child is in their second year of life, their milk will start to lose its significance in their diet. When they're a year or younger, milk (in the form of breast milk or infant formula) is their primary source of nutrients and should be offered before foods.

After a year of age, food becomes primary and milk secondary. That means that starting at a year, we do want to limit milk for our toddlers. It's important to keep milk to 16oz or less, even for older toddlers.

Glass of milk

If you are nursing after your baby is one, it is a little less straightforward. You do not need to offer other milk if you are nursing 3-4 times a day. And you don't necessarily need to limit the amount of milk they drink.

The caveat to that is if they are starting to eat less food and you think that milk is interfering in how much food they want.

Milk for Toddlers

When it comes to the best milk for toddlers, if your baby can tolerate cow's milk, stick to whole milk. Nonfat milk or low-fat milk do not have adequate fat to help support your toddlers brain development.

After 2, you can switch to what the rest of your family drinks. But there is actually no need to switch from whole milk to a lower fat milk.

If your child can't tolerate cow's milk, soy milk or an appropriate alternative milk can be an important thing to add to their diet.

Water and Juice

Other than milk, water should be your drink of choice for your toddler. Fruit Juice is never a needed part of a child's diet. It can be given in small amounts after 1, though, if you wish.

The Types of Food Your Toddler Can Eat

By the time your child is 1 year of age, they can readily be a participant in your family meals if they aren't already.

That means that with a few exceptions, plan to give your toddler the same food that the rest of the family is eating.

Grain bowl with barley, chickpeas, roasted veggies and tahini sauce

There is no need to give them baby food still. Solid foods in a similar form to what other family members eat is the name of the game now.

You may want to cut some foods up into smaller pieces for them to make it easier to eat. But it is okay to let them practice their fine motor skills. It takes time to work on learning how to accurately and cleanly get foods to their mouth!

Choking Hazards to Avoid for Toddlers

Up until the age of 4, there are several foods that you do still need to be aware of as having a high risk of choking for your toddler.

A good example would be things like whole grapes, or cherry tomatoes. Chunks of hard vegetables and chunks of peanut butter and nut butters are some other examples of common foods. For help on how to serve these safely, head to this post on choking hazards for toddlers.

Meals and Snacks with Your Toddler

One of the most important things to keep in mind when feeding your toddler is the need for a feeding schedule. The idea behind a schedule for regular meals and nutritious snacks isn't to be rigid!

Having a schedule helps your child to know when their next meal will be. It allows them to focus on other things, and to know that food comes in predictable intervals.

By setting a schedule up to start with, you will give yourself a great base to build off of.

As your child moves through their toddler years, there is a good chance that they might turn into a bit of a picky eater. Usually picky eating starts because your child's growth slows down after they turn one. They no longer need as much food.

Beyond growth slowing, your toddler is discovering that they are their own person. Food and what they put in their mouth is one of the few things that they can actually control.

Their desire to exert some control can lead to a lot of frustration on your part. One of the best things to do is focus on implementing the division of responsibility

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Using the Division of Responsibility in Feeding

The division of responsibility, and knowing your role in the feeding equation, can help so much at mealtimes.

Allow your child to express their food preferences, and take them into consideration as you plan your main meals and snacks. Focus on introducing them to a variety of foods, including new foods and new flavors, as well as ones they might not have had for awhile.

As you serve meals, keep in mind that they still have little tummies! They usually only need small portions compared to adults. Although some toddlers will have larger appetites as a result of higher activity levels. No matter your child's food intake, whether they eat small amounts or large, do your best to let them be in charge of it.

Your job is to offer the food. It's theirs to decide if they want to eat it, and how much of it they will eat!

Including Nutritious Foods in Your Child's Diet

Everywhere you look it seems like someone is telling you what to include on your child's plate. Dairy foods, whole grains, meat, or maybe no meat, but wait, make sure you have lots of protein foods! It is easy to get overwhelmed and just give up!

I'm a dietitian and all the different recommendations for building plates drive me nuts!

When it comes down to it, I much prefer to keep it simple. You can eat a vegetarian diet with your toddler, focus on dairy products or use alternatives instead. The specifics of how you eat are up to you. Because it is so important that you enjoy the food too!

Pasta salad

No matter what style of food you choose to eat, the are just 3 main things to keep in mind. At every meal, serve an iron-rich food, a high-calorie food, and a fruit or veggie. That's it.

Iron Deficiency and Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency is a big issue across the world, including here in the United States. There are lots of kids, especially under 2, who suffer from it.

One of the best ways to help prevent and reverse iron deficiency is to serve iron-rich foods at every meal.

Iron is arguably the most important nutrient to focus on in your child's diet. All the way from their first bite until at least 2. But as most toddlers don't eat a ton of meat, I recommend being mindful of it all the way through 4 at a minimum.

If you are in the US and are concerned about iron levels, ask your child's pediatrician to test their hemoglobin. This can be done with a simple skin prick test in office in most cases. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that all babies be screened for low hemoglobin levels around the age of 1 in the US, so it is a common test.

Due to the increased risk for iron deficiency in toddlers, I really do recommend putting your focus on iron primarily.

High Calorie Foods

The other main category on your child's plate is high calorie foods. For these, think things like fats and carbohydrates.

Cheese, rice, tortillas, bread. They all fall in this category. But I really don't find the need to split them up. No need to divide them into whole grains and fats on every plate to make sure you have enough.

Pick a meal that you would like to make to eat that you and the other adults might enjoy. Make sure there is an iron-rich food in it. Likely, there will be lots of other foods that naturally go with it or are in the recipe.

But if not, ensure that there is some form of food that will give the meal its bulk and fall in this category.

Then add a fruit or veggie to round out the meal.

And there you have it, a balanced meal. Think of it more as a way to take anything you want to eat and make it balanced and appropriate for your toddler.

For more help with this and creating balanced meals that meet everyone's needs without needing any extra time, grab the toddler course Mastering Mealtimes. I walk you through this formula in depth and show you how you can meal plan for a whole month in 10 minutes!

Vitamin Supplements for Toddlers

Supplements are a lucrative market. And supplement companies are really good at convincing you that your child needs to take something like a multivitamin.

The thing is, most kids do not need a multivitamin! Even if you have a picky toddler on your hands.

Kids are not supposed to eat perfectly balanced meals all the time. Their bodies naturally regulate and accommodate a varied food intake.

That means that if your child lives off of bread and cheese and only the occasional veggie, they can still meet their needs!

If you do feel that your child isn't getting enough of one food group, I recommend talking with a dietitian to assess your child's actual need for a vitamin supplement.

Usually, it is much better to supplement one nutrient instead of using a multivitamin. There's also a good chance that when their diet is evaluated, they're actually getting more of something than you think! 

kid eating cracker on mauve background

The Most Important Thing to Remember About Meals with Your Toddler

The years between 1 and 3 can be a rollercoaster when it comes to your toddler's eating. As you go through the thick of it, keep reminding yourself that it is okay for your child's appetite to change day to day and meal to meal.

It's okay for them not to want to eat a lot of new foods, or to have a varied diet. 

Do your best to continue exposing them to a varied diet without any expectations of them actually eating it, as hard as that can be. This is why you enjoying the meal you make can be so important! It takes off the pressure that your child eats the food.

Know that good nutrition is about so much more than food. Focus on providing a positive experience at mealtimes to help your child feel good about meals and food.

Healthy eating habits can come with time. Prioritizing the experience around meals will mean that you are helping to set them off on the right track, even if they end up in a picky phase for awhile!

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