Teaching Toddlers Good Food Habits

Toddlers don't need to gain much weight from age 1 to 3, and therefore don't need to eat very much. Your toddler may become a picky eater, and you may worry that he or she is not eating enough. Remember, this is a normal, healthy response to your child's decreased energy needs.

However, toddlers continue to learn many new things during mealtimes: how to hold utensils and cups and feed themselves, the taste and texture of new foods and how to decide when they are hungry or full.

As the parent, you are only responsible for deciding which foods to offer your child. Your child should be allowed to decide what to eat, how much — and even whether or not to eat. Mealtimes should be enjoyable for everyone. Do not force a child to eat or to try a food he or she is refusing.

Introducing New Foods

  • Take advantage of the fact that 1-year-olds enjoy putting everything in their mouths. Use this year to offer many new, varied foods. By age 2, most children are reluctant to try new foods.
  • Serve foods with a variety of colors, textures, flavors and temperatures. This helps provide good nutrition.
  • When introducing a new food, offer only a small amount the first time.
  • Do not give your toddler foods that are too hard, tough or sticky.
  • Be careful when adding seasonings. It is rarely necessary to add salt.
  • Avoid sweets such as candies and cookies, as they may dull the appetite for more nutritious food.

Making Mealtimes Pleasant

  • Provide a pleasant mealtime atmosphere. Try to avoid disciplining your child during meals.
  • Use plastic or other non-breakable dishes and utensils.
  • Adjust the seat so your toddler can easily reach his or her plate.
  • Expect your toddler to be messy. You can place a plastic sheet underneath the table to help with clean-up.
  • Limit distractions at mealtime, and turn off the TV.

Developing Healthy Attitudes

  • Don't force your child to eat food he or she truly dislikes.
  • Offer small amounts of food at a time. Large amounts of food on the plate may discourage your toddler from trying new foods.
  • Don't offer rewards for eating. Toddlers should eat because they enjoy it and are hungry.
  • Don't discuss your family's food likes and dislikes in front of your toddler. Let children decide for themselves what they like.
  • Encourage your toddler to eat meals with the family.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods and demonstrate good table manners — toddlers learn by imitating parents.
  • Allow your toddler to feed him or herself as much as possible.
  • Encourage outdoor activities. Your child will have a better appetite, and will also use calcium better to make stronger bones.

Nutrition

Calories

Children regulate their food intake and eat the amount of calories they need, if the parent offers healthy foods. You do not need to count calories to know your child is eating properly.

Toddlers can get the nutrients and calories they need from a vegetarian diet, but it requires careful attention to the types of foods you provide, and it's usually best to supplement with a vitamin. Please talk to your child's doctor if you choose to feed your toddler a vegan diet. Dairy products and eggs can help provide needed protein and calcium.

Fat

Children's brains continue to grow during the second and third years of life. Since fat helps nerves develop, do not limit the amount of fat in your child's diet. After age 3, it is appropriate to limit your child's fat intake.

Iron

Toddlers often become iron deficient and anemic. Iron is extremely important for brain development, and toddlers who are iron deficient may have more difficulty learning.

The best sources of iron are found in red meat, and this form of iron is more easily absorbed by the body. Iron-fortified infant cereal is also a great iron source. If you can, add infant cereal to your toddler's foods — for instance, mixing the cereal into yogurt — for as long as possible. Small amounts of iron are also found in eggs, spinach, fortified breads, beans and sardines.

Calcium

Dairy products (cheese, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt) and eggs are the best sources of calcium. Calcium-fortified orange juice, broccoli, sardines and tofu also contain calcium. Your child needs about 500 mg of calcium a day.

Juice and Milk

Your child should not drink more than 4 ounces of juice a day. During the second year of life, toddlers don't need to drink milk. However, they do need some of the nutrients that milk provides, including protein, calcium and fat. These nutrients can be obtained from other foods.

Toddlers who drink milk should drink whole milk. Try to limit your child to about 12 to 16 ounces a day, so he or she will be hungry for other, more nutritious foods. At age 2, your child can switch to low-fat milk. Nursing toddlers don't need additional milk.

Vitamin Supplements

Toddlers' diets are nearly always lacking in iron, calcium, zinc and vitamins. Consider giving your child a chewable multivitamin with iron as soon as he or she can chew one. Other sources of these vitamins and minerals include toddler formulas, Carnation Instant Breakfast and liquid vitamins. Please talk with your child's pediatrician about choosing a supplement for your child.

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.