During the early years and those ‘terrible twos’, it’s vitally important to get nutrition right; what they eat now impacts health, growth and development both in the short-term and even later in life. Beyond nutrition, the right balance of foods can help them get into the habit of consuming a healthy, varied diet to enjoy with the rest of the family.
What's a balanced diet for toddlers?
For adults there are clear guidelines offered by the NHS Eatwell Guide about what makes up a balanced diet. These are: include at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, aim for wholegrain cereals, eat some protein and dairy foods, have a portion of oily fish each week, limit fatty and sugary foods and drink enough to stay hydrated.
For toddlers, whilst it’s sensible to include some of the principles of healthy eating, it’s also important to make sure they get all of the nutrients they need in manageable packages – so, that means not having too many bulky high-fibre foods too often, as well as including foods that contain healthy fats. By having a balanced diet as a family, children learn to enjoy a variety of foods and everyone can benefit.
How much should my toddler eat?
As a guide, toddlers need three meals and about two to three snacks, as well as six to eight drinks, every day. Children are good at going with their appetites; some days they won't eat so much and other days they catch up and it seems they have hollow legs. As their tummies are still small, make sure you give ‘me-sized’ portions (this generally means a portion about the size of their cupped hand). Of course they can have extra if they're still hungry. Offering two courses at lunch and dinner time can also be a useful way of getting extra nutrition in. Don’t insist on a clean plate every time, though.
Something like these mini egg & veg muffins make a great snack or a hand-held lunch. They're packed with protein from the eggs plus fibre and other nutrients from the courgette, carrots, peas and a sprinkling of crumbly feta.
You may also be interested in our guide to children's appetite and advice for grown-ups on how to eat a balanced diet.
What do healthy meals look like?
A healthy, balanced diet is made up of foods from the four main food groups. This doesn’t have to be achieved at every meal, but it’s good to include something from each group at breakfast, lunch and dinner time, with others delivered in snack form. The four main food groups are:
Include at least five toddler-sized portions per day e.g. bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes. These provide energy as well as B vitamins and calcium. Higher fibre starchy foods, such as wholegrain cereals and brown rice can also provide extra nutrients, but these should be introduced gradually – they can make the diet very bulky. Try this hearty and healthy recipe for microwave courgette and pea risotto with prawns as a good source of starch.
Fruits and vegetables
Include about five hand-sized portions of fruit and veg a day. These could be fresh, dried, frozen, canned or in juice form (but do limit juices as they're sugary), trying to include as many different colours as possible to ensure a good variety. Aim to eat a ‘rainbow’, for example these frozen fruity skewers provide a great source of vitamin C and make a colourfully enticing, playful snack or dessert for kids.
Include about three servings per day of dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt and milk. Full-fat varieties are best for toddlers, but from two onwards, semi-skimmed milk can be introduced. Skimmed milk isn’t suitable for the under-fives.
Include about two portions of protein per day of meat, fish, eggs, nuts or pulses (e.g. beans and lentils, or foods made from pulses like tofu, dhal and soya chunks/mince). These foods provide protein and minerals including zinc and iron. It’s useful to include oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, mackerel and fresh tuna) once or twice a week. Learn more about high protein foods.
Supplementing their diet
Make sure your toddler stays hydrated, especially in hot weather and when they're very active. Six to eight drinks per day (approximately 1 litre) is about right. It's best to give water as their main drink and one or two cups of milk. Squash, juice and pop are all acidic and can cause tooth decay, so find out more about how to protect your children's teeth. Toddlers should be consuming drinks (including milk) from a cup, or free-flowing beaker, not from a bottle.
Don’t forget that, to boost their diet, vitamin drops are recommended for children under five. Some people can get Healthy Start vitamins free from their health visitor, but all toddlers should take vitamin D (plus vitamins A, C and E). For more information, see the NHS Healthy Start advice page.
Developing tastes to avoid fussiness
Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, starting with the slightly sweet taste of breastmilk. Despite this, all other tastes can be learned through exposure and repetition. Sometimes it can take up to 10-15 attempts for a food to be accepted! So, if your toddler is fond of saying ‘no’, just try again another day. More importantly, set a good example by eating that food yourself, even if it's not a favourite.
Exposure in other ways is useful. Try growing foods in the garden together, cooking and handling foods, messy food-related play, reading stories and singing songs about healthy foods. Trying new foods together can be fun. Next time you go shopping look for something to try out and make it an adventure. This will encourage dietary variety for both of you.
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