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Toddler Nutrition

What Should You Feed a Toddler?

Toddler Nutrition (ages 1-3 years)

The toddler phase is often challenging when it comes to feeding. Several developmental changes occur at this time.

  1. Toddlers are striving for independence and control
  2. Growth rate slows and with it comes a decrease in appetite.

It is important for parents to provide structure and set limits for the toddler to set the foundation for mealtime success in the future. A toddler can want control at meal times. As a caregiver, you are responsible for the type of food your child is offered and where and when it is presented. The child is then responsible for what and how much food he or she eats. This is called “You provide, Kids decide”.

Provide a safe, quiet, pleasant, and distraction-free environment (no television or phones). Eat meals as a family as often as possible, and talk to your child about their day. Do not draw attention to which foods your child chooses, or how much they eat. This will help to avoid struggles and control issues at mealtimes.

The following are suggestions to help encourage your child’s success at mealtimes.

Prior to Meals

  • Help toddlers wash their hands before meals and snacks.
  • Involve the child in food shopping and food preparation. The toddler may wash vegetables, wipe the table, or tear lettuce.
  • Serve meals and snacks (or 6 small meals) at consistent times of the day, with enough time for the child to become hungry between feedings. Toddlers feel most comfortable with routines.
  • Plan a few minutes of quiet time before each meal. A tired or excited child may not be interested in eating.
  • Seat the child at a table for both meals and snacks and discourage eating while walking or playing. Make sure the seat is at the proper height for the child's feet to be supported and comfortable. The table should be at the level of the child’s waist

At Mealtimes

  • Use child-sized plates, cups and utensils.
  • Ignore spills and dropped food until after meal time. Toddlers often make a mess while eating and learning about food.
  • Model healthful eating habits. Remember, most toddlers follow their caregiver's examples. Teaching healthy eating habits can be demonstrated as part of the family mealtime.
  • Encourage your child to try at least one bite of a new food. It may take several introductions of the food before the child will pick it up and try it. It is best not to trick, bribe, or force a child into trying a new food.
  • Present desserts and sweets as the usual last course of the mealtime. Do not use desserts and sweets as a reward for finishing a meal.
  • Check temperature of food before serving to make sure it is not too hot
  • Continue encouraging finger feeding by serving foods such as soft meat, steamed vegetables, bread, and cheese, or in strips directly off a tray or large plate.
  • Provide a mix of favorite foods, along with a small amount of new or previously disliked foods. If the toddler refuses a food, reintroduce it after several days or weeks, because a childs preference and appetite often changes. Toddlers sometimes do not like foods to be combined or arranged together and will disassemble sandwiches.
  • When your child stops eating or begins to play with food, this is usually a sign that they are finished eating.

General Feeding Tips

  • A toddler’s appetite is rarely the same day-to-day, and can vary greatly daily or every few days. It is best to look at what they eat over the course of a week.
  • Avoid ‘sugary’ beverages including soda, juice, lemonade and Kool-Aid®.
  • To prevent a child from filling up on fluids, provide fluids (especially milk) towards the end of the meal.
  • Always supervise the child during meals and snacks. Eating in the car is not recommended due to the risk of choking.

To Help Prevent Choking

  • Slowly add more difficult-to-chew foods.
  • Avoid foods that are hard to chew and / or swallow such as nuts, raw carrots, gum drops, jelly beans, hard candy and large amounts of peanut butter.
  • Modify high-risk foods: cut hot dogs and link sausage in quarters, cut grapes in quarters and cook carrots until soft.
  • A child who is choking may not be able to make noise or attract attention. Always supervise your child when he/she is eating.
  • Keep your child seated while eating.

Healthy Food Choices

Myplate is a guideline to help you and your child eat a healthy diet. Myplate (www.choosemyplate.gov) can help you and your child eat a variety of foods.

Last Updated 03/2022

Reviewed By Kaitlyn Thomas, RD

Visiting Cincinnati Childrens.

Cincinnati Children’s has primary care services at locations throughout Greater Cincinnati.