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Nutrition: Toddler

Helpful feeding information for your toddler

The toddler (ages 1 to 3) phase can often be challenging when it comes to feeding. Several developmental changes occur at this time. Toddlers are striving for independence and control. Their growth rate slows down and with this comes a decrease in appetite. These changes can make mealtime difficult. It is important for parents to provide structure and set limits for the toddler. The following are suggestions to help manage mealtimes so that the toddler gets the nutrition he or she needs:

  • Avoid battles over food and meals.

  • Provide regular meals and snacks.

  • Be flexible with food acceptance as toddlers are often reluctant to try new things. If your toddler refuses a food, don't make a big deal out of it, and try again in a few days or weeks. 

  • Be realistic about food amounts. Portion size should be about one-fourth the size of an adult portion.

  • Limit juice intake; encourage whole fruit instead.

  • Dessert should not be used as a reward. Try serving it with the rest of the food.

  • Make the food easy for your toddler to eat:

    • Cut food into bite-size pieces.

    • Make some foods soft and moist.

    • Serve foods near room temperature.

    • Use ground meat instead of steak or chops.

    • Use a child-size spoon and fork with dull prongs.

    • Seat your child at a comfortable height in a secure chair.

  • Prevent choking by:

    • Slowly adding more difficult-to-chew foods.

    • Avoiding foods that are hard to chew and/or swallow such as nuts, raw carrots, gum drops, jelly beans, and peanut butter (by itself).

    • Modifying high-risk foods: cut hot dogs in quarters, cut grapes in quarters, and cook carrots until soft.

    • Always supervising your child when he or she is eating.

    • Keeping your child seated while eating.

Choose My Plate icon

Healthy food choices

The Choose My Plate icon is a guideline to help you and your child eat a healthy diet. My Plate can help you and your child eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared the food plate to guide parents in selecting foods for children age 2 and older.

The My Plate icon is divided into five food group categories, emphasizing the nutritional intake of the following:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Examples include whole wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of colorful vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (peas and beans), and starchy vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut up, or pureed.

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Focus on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean on protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine—choose more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.

Oils are not a food group, yet some, such as nut oils, contain essential nutrients and can be included in the diet. Animal fats are solid fats and should be avoided.

Exercise and everyday physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan.

Nutrition and activity tips:

  • Try to control when and where food is eaten by your children by providing regular daily meal times with social interaction and demonstration of healthy eating behaviors.

  • Involve children in the selection and preparation of foods and teach them to make healthy choices by helping them select foods based on their nutritional value.

  • For children in general, reported dietary intakes of the following are low enough to be of concern by the USDA: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Select foods with these nutrients when possible.

  • Most Americans need to reduce the amount of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and eating nonprocessed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.

  • Parents are encouraged to provide recommended serving sizes for children.

  • Parents are encouraged to limit children’s video, television watching, and computer use to less than two hours daily and replace the sedentary activities with activities that require more movement.

  • Children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for maintenance of good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.

  • To prevent dehydration, encourage children to drink fluid regularly during physical activity and drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is completed.

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your child’s age, sex, and physical activity level, visit the Online Resources page for the links to the ChooseMyPlate.gov and 2010 Dietary Guidelines sites. Please note that the My Plate plan is designed for people older than age 2 who do not have chronic health conditions.

Always consult your child’s health care provider regarding his or her healthy diet and exercise requirements.

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