Feeding the Toddler

Parenting in the Early Years

Feeding the Toddler

Along with the average toddler comes a list of common concerns and frustrations centered around feeding.

Parents worry about their children not eating enough, particularly in the meat and vegetable groups. Children are inconsistent in their eating patterns and picky about the food they do eat. In some families, the dinner table becomes a real battleground as parents' expectations clash with their child's eating behaviors.

The Food Guide Pyramid

Many of these concerns can be resolved by understanding the building blocks of a nutritionally adequate diet.

Take a look at the Food Group Portion Chart (pdf) and adjust the portions to your child's age.

Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta (Enriched and Whole Grain) Group

Recommendation: Six servings per day in the amounts recommended from a variety of foods listed in the Food Group Portion Chart.

Many children will eat large amounts from this group. As long as minimum requirements from other food groups are being met, this is acceptable. Whole grains give more nutrients; try to eat some daily. Avoid using sweetened cereals as they rapidly become the favorite and are a source of empty calories.

Fruit Group

Recommendation: Two to four servings per day.

Vegetable Group

Recommendation: Three to five servings per day.

For a child, an adequate portion of fruits or vegetables in one tablespoon for every year of your child's life. A three year old could have 3 tablespoons of fruits or vegetables per serving.

An exception is orange juice. Children should have 1/3 cup daily or the equivalent in another vitamin C source.

Apple juice is not a good vitamin C source unless fortified.

Good sources of Vitamin C include:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Apricots and nectar

Raw vegetables or still-frozen vegetables are sometimes accepted better than cooked vegetables. Vegetables contain a good source of vitamin A and should be offered as well.

Good sources of Vitamin A include:

  • Broccoli
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Mixed vegetables
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pumpkin
  • Purple plums
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes

Juice is mother nature's liquid candy. Children often crave juice but more than four to six ounces a day can often curb the child's appetite for more nutritional foods, can be the source of chronic diarrhea and is a major contributor to the epidemic of overweight children.

Milk, Yogurt and Cheese Group

Recommendation: Three servings per day.

More than three servings is inadvisable since it then replaces other foods in the diet. For children who dislike milk, 1 1/2 ounces of cheese or 8 ounces of yogurt equals 8 ounces or 1 cup of milk. Up until 2 years of age whole milk is advised. After 2, either 1% or skim milk along with low fat dairy is recommended.

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Eggs, Nuts and Dry Bean Group

Recommendation: 2 servings per day.

See the Food Group Portion Chart for daily recommended amounts.

If your child has 2 cups of milk per day, only 1 ounce of meat or equivalent is needed to provide the necessary protein. Offer a good source of protein at each meal. Meat is often a problem for toddlers, due to their difficulty in chewing and swallowing. Casseroles, hearty soups, eggs, fish, hamburger patties, barbecues, peanut butter and legumes are often accepted more readily than plain meats. Hot dogs and lunchmeats are fine if limited to 1 or 2 times a week. High levels of salt, fat and nitrate in these foods are a concern.

Fats and Oils

Margarine, cooking oils, cream cheese and salad dressings are sources of many calories that are often appealing to toddlers and pre-schoolers. Don't avoid using, but don't rely on them too heavily either.

Moderate use of fats and oils provide important calories in a child's diet and promote the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E. A diet high in fats and oils can be difficult for a child to digest and may promote excessive weight gain. A family health history of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer may require reducing their use.


Vegetarianism can be a healthy way of eating if it is based on accurate information. A child who does not eat meat, fish, and/or poultry can generally meet protein requirements by consuming adequate amounts of dairy products, but this may not meet iron requirements.

For the vegetarian child who does not eat either animal or milk products, careful planning is essential. This child needs to have a complete protein source at every meal.

Proteins found in plants are incomplete and do not provide all the amino acids (protein building blocks) the body requires for growth and healing. Mixing vegetable proteins in the right way will provide complete protein sources.

The following are vegetable mixes that, when combined, meet the complete protein need:

  • Legumes (dried peas and beans) and grains
  • Legumes and nuts/seeds
  • Grains and nuts/seeds
  • Any animal protein plus plant protein

The vegetarian child requires the same amount of calories and protein as his non-vegetarian friends, so planning these meals can be challenging. Since vegetarian meals are typically bulky, small stomachs are likely to fill up very quickly. Adding complete proteins (i.e. a glass of milk) to a child's meal will help to balance the diet.

Vegetarian children and their families may find a trip to the registered dietitian's office helpful.


Children generally need to eat more often than adults. Planned nutritious snacks should be limited to a certain time and to the child's place at the table. This helps establish good eating habits for the toddler.

Refusing a meal followed by immediate begging for food is easily controlled. Set the rule that a snack won't be available for an hour or two, rather than having to wait for five or six hours until the next meal. As you work toward controlled eating times, make it clear that all eating must be done at the table in the absence of television, reading and toys. Teach your child that eating is an important activity by itself. This will help promote good nutrition and can help reduce obesity.

Select healthy foods from the basic food groups for snacks. Avoid high calorie, low nutrient drinks and foods like Kool-Aid®, fruit drinks, soda, chips, candies, cakes, sweetened cereals and fruit roll-ups. These actually rob your child twice. They offer very few nutrients, but at the same time satisfy the appetite and prevent eating of more nutritious foods. While children probably will get these occasionally, there is no need to keep them available all the time. Never allowing your child to experience "junk foods" may encourage him to be overly interested when they are available.


Should a child be allowed to eat dessert if he hasn't finished the meal? Of course! Serve something nutritious, like fruit, oatmeal-raisin cookies, custard or ice milk, and offer it matter-of-factly. Using dessert as a reward for eating teaches your child that dessert is the only desirable part of the meal. It also rewards overeating.

Oral Health

The overall quality of the diet, as well as a source of fluoride, is critical for developing healthy teeth and gums. Sugar in frequent contact with the teeth for long periods of time causes tooth decay.

General Philosophy

(Ellen Satter, How To Get Your Kid To Eat...But Not Too Much, Bull Publishing, 1987)

Picky eating patterns, avoiding new foods and whimsical patterns of food acceptance are common in this age group. One week toddlers like a food and the next week they don't! As the rapid growth rate of infancy decreases, so does the need for food. Food intake varies dramatically from day to day, but growth rates usually are more steady and predictable.

As a parent, you are responsible for:

  • Foods that are purchased and brought into the house
  • Foods that are served for meals and snacks
  • Food preparation
  • Times of meals and snacks
  • Where food can be eaten
  • Seeing that your child shows up for meals
  • Seeing that your child behaves at meal times
  • Giving attention to food acceptance or refusal
  • Amount of time spent at the table

Your child is responsible for:

  • The decision to eat or not to eat
  • How much to eat
  • Food likes and dislikes
  • Food eaten outside the home
  • Behaving at the table

Acceptance of a food will be greater when your child is repeatedly exposed to it, but not required to eat it all.

If waste is a concern, emphasize taking small portions with seconds available. Teach your child that there is no particular value in leaving a clean plate.

Don't go to great lengths to prepare special foods for your toddler. Reasonable catering to preferences in menu planning is okay, but short order cooking at every meal encourages pickiness.

If your child is reluctant to come to the table at all, ask him or her to join you for a few minutes. Usually, if expected to sit there anyway, your child will often decide to go ahead and eat. If your child still chooses not to eat, simply acknowledge to your child that he must not be hungry and let him know how long it will be until the next snack or meal will be served.

Don't comfort or reward with food. Use attention or your time instead. Teaching your child that any discomfort or accomplishment calls for food can set your child up for many unnecessary calories in his life.

If allowed to do so, many children will feed themselves with their hands from an early age. Any food is "finger food" if it hangs together long enough to get it from plate to mouth! If a child can feel, mash and smell the food, he is much more likely to accept a variety of foods. Eventually your child will pick up a spoon and begin using it.

Remember, toddlers are becoming more independent and will often balk at being fed by someone else. Don't worry too much about the mechanics of eating. As your child matures, the spills, dropped utensils and general mess will decrease.

Developing wholesome attitudes about eating is more important, at this stage, than the niceties of table manners.

Children are great imitators-if your food habits are good, your child will see this. If you enjoy eating nutritious food, your child will almost certainly follow your example.

Enjoy your toddler. Make meal time a pleasant family time. Relax in the knowledge that you are presenting a nutritious diet and sooner or later your child will begin to eat it.

If you feel you are dealing with a particular toddler eating problem, such as inappropriate growth or weight gain, milk dislike, allergies or marked conflict over food, call your doctor or a registered dietitian for advice.