Skip to main content
Medicine LibreTexts

12.5: Nutrition in the Toddler Years

Skills to Develop

  • Summarize nutritional requirements and dietary recommendations for toddlers.
  • Explore the introduction of solid foods into a toddler’s diet.
  • Examine feeding problems that parents and caregivers may face with their toddlers.

By the age of two, children have advanced from infancy and are on their way to becoming school-aged children. Their physical growth and motor development slows compared to the progress they made as infants. However, toddlers experience enormous intellectual, emotional, and social changes. Of course, food and nutrition continue to play an important role in a child’s development. During this stage, the diet completely shifts from breastfeeding or bottle-feeding to solid foods along with healthy juices and other liquids. Parents of toddlers also need to be mindful of certain nutrition-related issues that may crop up during this stage of the human life cycle. For example, fluid requirements relative to body size are higher in toddlers than in adults because children are at greater risk of dehydration. Toddlers should drink about 1.3 liters of fluids per day, ideally liquids that are low in sugar.

The Toddler Years (Ages Two to Three)

During this phase of human development, children are mobile and grow more slowly than infants, but are much more active. The toddler years pose interesting challenges for parents or other caregivers, as children learn how to eat on their own and begin to develop personal preferences. However, with the proper diet and guidance, toddlers can continue to grow and develop at a healthy rate.

Nutritional Requirements

MyPlate may be used as a guide for the toddler’s diet (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers.html). A toddler’s serving sizes should be approximately one-quarter that of an adult’s. One way to estimate serving sizes for young children is one tablespoon for each year of life. For example, a two-year-old child would be served 2 tablespoons of fruits or vegetables at a meal, while a four-year-old would be given 4 tablespoons, or a quarter cup. Here is an example of a toddler-sized meal:

  • 1 ounce of meat or chicken, or 2 to 3 tablespoons of beans
  • One-quarter slice of whole-grain bread
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of cooked vegetable
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of fruit

Energy

The energy requirements for ages two to three are about 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day. In general, a toddler needs to consume about 40 calories for every inch of height. For example, a young child who measures 32 inches should take in an average of 1,300 calories a day. However, the recommended caloric intake varies with each child’s level of activity. Toddlers require small, frequent, nutritious snacks and meals to satisfy energy requirements. The amount of food a toddler needs from each food group depends on daily calorie needs. See Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) for some examples.

Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Serving Sizes for Toddlers
Food Group Daily Serving Examples

Grains

About 3 ounces of grains per day, ideally whole grains

  • 3 slices of bread
  • 1 slice of bread, plus ⅓ cup of cereal, and ¼ cup of cooked whole-grain rice or pasta

Proteins

2 ounces of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or legumes

  • 1 ounce of lean meat or chicken, plus one egg
  • 1 ounce of fish, plus ¼ cup of cooked beans

Fruits

1 cup of fresh, frozen, canned, and/or dried fruits, or 100 percent fruit juice

  • 1 small apple cut into slices
  • 1 cup of sliced or cubed fruit
  • 1 large banana

Vegetables

1 cup of raw and/or cooked vegetables

  • 1 cup of pureed, mashed, or finely chopped vegetables (such as mashed potatoes, chopped broccoli, or tomato sauce)

Dairy Products

2 cups per day

  • 2 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
  • 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk, plus 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk, plus 1 cup of yogurt

Macronutrients

For carbohydrate intake, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) is 45 to 65 percent of daily calories (113 to 163 grams for 1,000 daily calories). Toddlers’ needs increase to support their body and brain development. Brightly-colored unrefined carbohydrates, such as peas, orange slices, tomatoes, and bananas are not only nutrient-dense, they also make a plate look more appetizing and appealing to a young child. The RDA of protein is 5 to 20 percent of daily calories (13 to 50 grams for 1,000 daily calories). The AMDR for fat for toddlers is 30 to 40 percent of daily calories (33 to 44 grams for 1,000 daily calories). Essential fatty acids are vital for the development of the eyes, along with nerve and other types of tissue. However, toddlers should not consume foods with high amounts of trans fats and saturated fats. Instead, young children require the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of healthy oils, such as canola oil, each day.

Micronutrients

As a child grows bigger, the demands for micronutrients increase. These needs for vitamins and minerals can be met with a balanced diet, with a few exceptions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers and children of all ages need 600 international units of vitamin D per day. Vitamin D-fortified milk and cereals can help to meet this need. However, toddlers who do not get enough of this micronutrient should receive a supplement. Pediatricians may also prescribe a fluoride supplement for toddlers who live in areas with fluoride-poor water. Iron deficiency is also a major concern for children between the ages of two and three. You will learn about iron-deficiency anemia later in this section.

Learning How to Handle Food

As children grow older, they enjoy taking care of themselves, which includes self-feeding. During this phase, it is important to offer children foods that they can handle on their own and that help them avoid choking and other hazards. Examples include fresh fruits that have been sliced into pieces, orange or grapefruit sections, peas or potatoes that have been mashed for safety, a cup of yogurt, and whole-grain bread or bagels cut into pieces. Even with careful preparation and training, the learning process can be messy. As a result, parents and other caregivers can help children learn how to feed themselves by providing the following:

  • small utensils that fit a young child’s hand
  • small cups that will not tip over easily
  • plates with edges to prevent food from falling off
  • small servings on a plate
  • high chairs, booster seats, or cushions to reach a table

Feeding Problems in the Toddler Years

During the toddler years, parents may face a number of problems related to food and nutrition. Possible obstacles include difficulty helping a young child overcome a fear of new foods, or fights over messy habits at the dinner table. Even in the face of problems and confrontations, parents and other caregivers must make sure their preschooler has nutritious choices at every meal. For example, even if a child stubbornly resists eating vegetables, parents should continue to provide them. Before long, the child may change their mind, and develop a taste for foods once abhorred. It is important to remember this is the time to establish or reinforce healthy habits.

Nutritionist Ellyn Satter states that feeding is a responsibility that is split between parent and child. According to Satter, parents are responsible for what their infants eat, while infants are responsible for how much they eat. In the toddler years and beyond, parents are responsible for what children eat, when they eat, and where they eat, while children are responsible for how much food they eat and whether they eat. Satter states that the role of a parent or a caregiver in feeding includes the following:

High-Risk Choking Foods

Certain foods are difficult for toddlers to manage and pose a high risk of choking. Big chunks of food should not be given to children under the age of four. Also, globs of peanut butter can stick to a younger child’s palate and choke them. Popcorn and nuts should be avoided as well, because toddlers are not able to grind food and reduce it to a consistency that is safe for swallowing. Certain raw vegetables, such as baby carrots, whole cherry tomatoes, whole green beans, and celery are also serious choking hazards. However, there is no reason that a toddler cannot enjoy well-cooked vegetables cut into bite-size pieces.

Picky Eaters

The parents of toddlers are likely to notice a sharp drop in their child’s appetite. Children at this stage are often picky about what they want to eat. They may turn their heads away after eating just a few bites. Or, they may resist coming to the table at mealtimes. They also can be unpredictable about what they want to consume for specific meals or at particular times of the day. Although it may seem as if toddlers should increase their food intake to match their level of activity, there is a good reason for picky eating. A child’s growth rate slows after infancy, and toddlers ages two and three do not require as much food.

Food Jags

For weeks, toddlers may go on a food jag and eat one or two preferred foods—and nothing else. It is important to understand that preferences will be inconsistent as a toddler develops eating habits. This is one way that young children can assert their individuality and independence. However, parents and caregivers should be concerned if the same food jag persists for several months, instead of several weeks. Options for addressing this problem include rotating acceptable foods while continuing to offer diverse foods, remaining low-key to avoid exacerbating the problem, and discussing the issue with a pediatrician. Also, children should not be forced to eat foods that they do not want. It is important to remember that food jags do not have a long-term effect on a toddler’s health, and are usually temporary situations that will resolve themselves.

Toddler Obesity

Another potential problem during the early childhood years is toddler obesity. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, in the past thirty years, obesity rates have more than doubled for all children, including infants and toddlers.Head Start, US Department of Health and Human Services. “Prevention of Overweight and Obesity in Infants and Toddlers.” 2005. Accessed February 21, 2012. http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family Almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers weigh more than they should considering their length, and slightly more than 20 percent of children ages two to five are overweight or obese.Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. “Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies.” June 23, 2011. http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2011/Early-Childhood -Obesity-Prevention-Policies.aspx Obesity during early childhood tends to linger as a child matures and cause health problems later in life.

There are a number of reasons for this growing problem. One is a lack of time. Parents and other caregivers who are constantly on the go may find it difficult to fit home-cooked meals into a busy schedule and may turn to fast food and other conveniences that are quick and easy, but not nutritionally sound. Another contributing factor is a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a problem particularly in low-income neighborhoods where local stores and markets may not stock fresh produce or may have limited options. Physical inactivity is also a factor, as toddlers who live a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to be overweight or obese. Another contributor is a lack of breastfeeding support. Children who were breastfed as infants show lower rates of obesity than children who were bottle-fed.

To prevent or address toddler obesity parents and caregivers can do the following:

  • Eat at the kitchen table instead of in front of a television to monitor what and how much a child eats.
  • Offer a child healthy portions. The size of a toddler’s fist is an appropriate serving size.
  • Plan time for physical activity, about sixty minutes or more per day. Toddlers should have no more than sixty minutes of sedentary activity, such as watching television, per day.

Early Childhood Caries

Early childhood caries remains a potential problem during the toddler years. The risk of early childhood caries continues as children begin to consume more foods with a high sugar content. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examinaton Survey, children between ages of two and five consume about 200 calories of added sugar per day.US Department of Health and Human Services. “Consumption of Added Sugar among US Children and Adolescents.” NCHS Data Brief, No. 87 (March 2012). Therefore, parents with toddlers should avoid processed foods, such as snacks from vending machines, and sugary beverages, such as soda. Parents also need to instruct a child on brushing their teeth at this time to help a toddler develop healthy habits and avoid tooth decay.

Iron-Deficiency Anemia

An infant who switches to solid foods, but does not eat enough iron-rich foods, can develop iron-deficiency anemia. This condition occurs when an iron-deprived body cannot produce enough hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. The inadequate supply of hemoglobin for new blood cells results in anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia causes a number of problems including weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and irritability. It can also result in intellectual, behavioral, or motor problems. In infants and toddlers, iron-deficiency anemia can occur as young children are weaned from iron-rich foods, such as breast milk and iron-fortified formula. They begin to eat solid foods that may not provide enough of this nutrient. As a result, their iron stores become diminished at a time when this nutrient is critical for brain growth and development.

There are steps that parents and caregivers can take to prevent iron-deficiency anemia, such as adding more iron-rich foods to a child’s diet, including lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, and iron-enriched whole-grain breads and cereals. A toddler’s diet should provide 7 to 10 milligrams of iron daily. Although milk is critical for the bone-building calcium that it provides, intake should not exceed the RDA to avoid displacing foods rich with iron. Children may also be given a daily supplement, using infant vitamin drops with iron or ferrous sulfate drops. If iron-deficiency anemia does occur, treatment includes a dosage of 3 milligrams per kilogram once daily before breakfast, usually in the form of a ferrous sulfate syrup. Consuming vitamin C, such as orange juice, can also help to improve iron absorption.Kazal Jr., L. A., MD. “Prevention of Iron Deficiency in Infants and Toddlers.” American Academy of Family Physicians 66, no. 7 (October 1, 2002): 1217—25. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/1001/p1217.html.

Toddler Diarrhea

As with adults, a variety of conditions or circumstances may give a toddler diarrhea. Possible causes include bacterial or viral infections, food allergies, or lactose intolerance, among other medical conditions. Excessive fruit juice consumption (more than one 6-ounce cup per day) can also lead to diarrhea.American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition 1999–2000. “The Use and Misuse of Fruit Juice in Pediatrics.” Pediatrics 119, no. 2 (February 2007): 405. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-3222. Diarrhea presents a special concern in young children because their small size makes them more vulnerable to dehydration. Parents should contact a pediatrician if a toddler has had diarrhea for more than twenty-four hours, if a child is also vomiting, or if they exhibit signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or tongue, or sunken eyes, cheeks, or abdomen. Preventing or treating dehydration in toddlers includes the replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes (sodium and potassium). Oral rehydration therapy, or giving special fluids by mouth, is the most effective measure.

Developing Habits

Eating habits develop early in life. They are typically formed within the first few years and it is believed that they persist for years, if not for life. So it is important for parents and other caregivers to help children establish healthy habits and avoid problematic ones. Children begin expressing their preferences at an early age. Parents must find a balance between providing a child with an opportunity for self-expression, helping a child develop healthy habits, and making sure that a child meets all of their nutritional needs. Following Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding (see above) can help a child eat the right amount of food, learn mealtime behavior, and grow at a healthy and predictable rate.

Bad habits and poor nutrition have an accrual effect. The foods you consume in your younger years will impact your health as you age, from childhood into the later stages of life. As a result, good nutrition today means optimal health tomorrow. In the next chapter, you will learn about how nutritional needs change from the later childhood years, through adolescence and adulthood, and into old age. The choices that you make at every age accumulate over time and greatly impact your health into the golden years.

Video 12.4: Introducing Your Toddler to New Foods

This video focuses on ways to encourage toddlers to try new foods. (click to see video)

Key Takeaways

By the toddler years, young children are able to self-feed and begin to develop eating habits and preferences. The energy requirements for ages two to three are about 1,000 to 1,400 calories per day, and in general, a toddler needs to consume about 40 calories for every inch of height. Growth slows during the toddler years, but children are more active at this stage and undergo a great deal of intellectual, emotional, and social development. Some food- and nutrition-related problems that can occur during the toddler years include choking, picky eating, food jags, early childhood caries, iron-deficiency anemia, and toddler diarrhea.

Discussion Starter

  1. How do the nutritional needs of a child change from infancy into the toddler years? Discuss the changing needs for energy, macronutrients, and micronutrients as young children mature.