Feeding Your Toddler

Authored by Dr Mary Lowth, 27 Sep 2017

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The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Mary Harding, 27 Sep 2017

How do I feed my child aged over 12 months?

This is the time when your child, with your help, will make the transition from a limited range of baby-specific food to eating healthy adult food, at set mealtimes, with you. Many future habits will begin now, and if you start as you mean to go on then your child will have healthy tastes later. The aims of feeding your toddler are:

  • To help them grow up happy, healthy and well-nourished.
  • To avoid pitfalls such as childhood obesity and tooth decay.
  • To negotiate around food faddiness.
  • To build and develop eating habits that will see them into healthy adulthood.

When you think of it that way, feeding your toddler should be straightforward. We all understand what a healthy adult diet looks like, and feeding your toddler basically involves weaning them from a 'baby' eating pattern towards an adult one. This doesn't need years of an 'interim' child diet made of convenience foods, over-flavoured and processed foods or sweets, as it should be a gradual progression from simply cooked baby food into food that is the same thing that's on your plate, possibly presented in a way that better appeals to your younger child.

By 12 months of age most babies are eating three meals a day, together with healthy snacks like fruit, and pieces of vegetable or toast, and they need somewhere around 1,200 calories a day, depending on their size. They can drink whole cow's milk, although you may choose to continue to use breast milk. Children under two need a lot of fat and vitamins in their diet and should have full-fat dairy products, rather than those with reduced fats. (After 2 years of age they can have semi-skimmed milk, although full-fat milk is still fine. From 5 years old, low-fat and skimmed milk can also be used, as your child can eat and drink much more to make up for the lower fat content of the milk.)

What should my child's eating pattern be aged 12-24 months?

Offer three meals and two or three small, nutritious snacks daily, spacing snacks evenly between meals. Aim broadly to offer a total of:

  • Three to four portions a day of carbohydrates.
  • Three to four servings a day of fruit and vegetables.
  • Two servings a day of protein.
  • Three servings a day of dairy products, including milk.

Offer a drink with meals and snacks. Water is ideal, but milk or diluted fruit juice (10 parts water to 1 part juice) also works well.

Portion size will vary and your baby won't eat the same amount each day. It doesn't matter if they leave out one of the food groups on some days, just keep offering. What matters more is what they are eating on average over the week, and that they are growing, developing and thriving.

Ideas for good snacks are:

  • Fresh fruit - for example, melon (particularly good for sucking when teething).
  • Dried fruit - for example, apricot.
  • Cubes of cheese.
  • Yoghurt.
  • A small sandwich or crispbread.
  • Carrot sticks or breadsticks with hummus.
  • Small falafel.
  • Small bhaji or chapatti.
  • A fruit and milk smoothie (or you can freeze these as ice lollies).
  • Half a toasted bagel.

You should have an eye on the future now and be starting to move your child towards eating what you eat, and towards seeing mealtimes as a social and family event, and good food as a pleasure to be eaten when hungry.

What don't children aged 12-24 months like?

All children like and dislike different things; however, between the ages of 12 and 24 months children need a bit of encouragement to start to enjoy new foods, particularly food that needs a lot of chewing or cutting up, food with strong flavours and food that looks unappetising.

The enjoyment of bitter tastes is unusual in children - adults come to like bitter things but in nature bitterness is often a warning of poison, so nature programmes children to avoid bitter tastes. Children also tend not to like over spicy food.

You can encourage children to try new foods by offering them gradually, one at a time, in small amounts at first, and allowing children to explore them, perhaps as finger foods. Vegetables, often rejected by many children, are best served just-cooked, so that they still have enough texture to hold and dip into things.

What do I feed my toddler aged over 2 years?

Your child can now eat what you eat, often at the times that you eat it, although they will still need snacks between meals. At this point you can still be a huge influence on your child's future eating habits. In a few years your child will decide entirely for themself what they eat, but they will have learned their early tastes with your help.

Feeding your child from the age of 2 years is a natural progression from the 12- to 24-month stage. You should still be offering foods and snacks from the four main food groups:

  • Carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, couscous, and bread.
  • Fruit and vegetables.
  • Foods high in iron and protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, beans and lentils.
  • Dairy products, such as cheese, milk and yoghurt.

How do I encourage social eating habits?

Eating is a sociable, shared activity, and your child is more likely to think about and savour their food at mealtimes if you make time and space for this.

  • Keep to regular mealtimes and snack times, offering three meals and two small, nutritious snacks midway between them.
  • Keep eating social: try to eat with your toddler as often as you can. If your toddler sees you eating healthy food, they are more likely to want to try it. Encourage your toddler not to leave the table until you do, so that they learn to sit in front of food without continuing to eat it when full, and that mealtimes are a social event.
  • Encourage your toddler to be interested in new foods by making positive comments about your own food.
Your toddler will develop preferences and may go through very fussy spells, but try to avoid cooking a completely separate meal from yours. Offer the foods that everyone else is eating when possible but make sure at least one thing on your child's plate is something they like.

What do I do if my toddler becomes fussy?

At around the age of 2 years your toddler will start to say no to things because they realise that they can. This includes foods, and toddlers often become fussy, or just want to eat the same thing over and over again. This is part of a normal phase of development called food neophobia, or fear of new foods. You need to persevere, as your toddler will get past this stage. Keep mealtimes relaxed and calm, and as sociable as possible, and continue to set an example by obviously enjoying other foods in front of your toddler. Avoid mealtime distractions like TV and toys, although eating with toddler friends can really help.

  • Don't turn mealtimes into a war. Nothing terrible will happen to your child if they refuse green vegetables for a while, and normal toddlers do not starve themselves. Think of the food you hate the most yourself - the one you find the most horrible or revolting - and imagine being forced to eat it. This is how your toddler will feel if you try to make them eat what they don't want. You would feel sick if this happened to you. Your toddler is the same and may be sick quite dramatically.
  • Make sure your toddler gets lots of exercise, so they will be hungry, and continue to treat mealtimes as a fun time, not a battle.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Don't tell your toddler off for not eating, but praise them when they do eat, and be thrilled when they try something new.
  • Continue to offer savoury and dessert courses, and new food with familiar food, but don't use one food as a bribe to eat another food. This will make your toddler refuse the unwanted food all the more as they remember there is an alternative.
  • Keep portions small - you can always give more but large portions will look daunting.
  • Take your toddler food shopping, and get them to help you choose. Get they to help with preparation too, as this all adds to the fun.
  • If your toddler hasn't eaten very much but doesn't seem to want more - they may be turning their head away, crying, trying to climb out of their chair or simply keeping their mouth shut, take the plate away, offer a drink and wait until the next mealtime or snack. Like you, they will have hungrier days. Don't plead with them; it won't make them hungrier.
  • Your toddler needs 350-500 ml of milk a day. Don't give them more than this or they may be too full of milk to eat, and try not to give lots just before a meal for the same reason. Try to use cups or beakers now, not bottles.
  • Keep fruit juices to a minimum and dilute them with ten parts water. They are quite sweet otherwise, encouraging a sweet tooth, but their acidity is also bad for baby teeth. Water is better for thirst.
  • If you're really worried about your toddler's eating habits, keep a diary of everything they eat for a week and then discuss it with your health visitor. It may be that vitamin supplements are needed until your toddler comes out of the faddy period - although this isn't usually necessary.

What are the pitfalls and things to avoid?

Bad eating habits are learned, and children learn their eating habits very young. High and increasing levels of childhood obesity and diabetes are being seen: it is the choices that you make for your toddler that will decide whether they have an easy or a hard time of it when trying to eat healthily later on.

Sugars and a sweet tooth

Try not to overdevelop your child's sweet tooth. Children don't naturally need sweets, which don't occur in nature. It is true that children tend to be attracted to sweets, but this is because of packaging, advertising and what they see other children doing, as well as because they are offered them. If children eat more sweet things, and sweeten their food, their taste buds adapt and become accustomed to sugar. Food without it comes to taste bland or sour. This 'sweet tooth' happens to adults too and it can be avoided by limiting sugar intake. There are lots of treats that are less sweet and which can be offered in moderation instead.

Avoid sweets and sweetened or sugary food. Mankind did not evolve to eat these and they are not usually good for us. Offer healthy snacks like fruit, dried fruit, breadsticks and cheese instead.

In the same way, giving children sweet, fizzy drinks can educate their taste buds so that they no longer like the taste of plain water and won't drink it. This is a shame, as drinking water is good for you: we all need to be able to rehydrate without taking in calories sometimes.

If your child already has a sweet tooth it can take several weeks of a lower-sugar diet for the taste buds to adapt back, but this is something you can do slowly. Gradually reduce sugar content in the diet and replace sugar snacks like sweets with slightly less sweet ones like lollies made with fruit juice, less-sweetened desserts like rice pudding and jelly with ice cream, and fruits like dried apricots.

Children's menus

'Children's menus' are often the enemy of common sense. It seems strange to visit a restaurant offering good, fresh, tasty food then allow your child to choose frozen chips and chicken nuggets, which are highly salted and flavoured. They are also nutritionally far less valuable than the adult menu. Ask for a small portion of adult food for them instead. Encourage them to explore it, talk to them about it, and interest them in where it comes from and how it is cooked. If we treat our children like food dustbins, they will not be as healthy as we hope!

Encourage your toddler to choose food from the adult menu in restaurants where possible, and ask for a child-sized portion.

Convenience foods

Accessible, fast and 'tasty' convenience foods often contain high levels of salt, fat, artificial flavouring and flavour enhancements. This can saturate and re-educate your child's taste buds so that - like with a sweet tooth, above - normal healthy foods taste bland and uninteresting. Whilst a convenience food such as a burger may be a good and reasonably economic answer to the occasional need for food 'on the run', as a regular habit this type of food becomes addictive.

This is not healthy food; it is acceptable only as part of a mixed and balanced diet. Alone, it tends to be low in fibre and fresh fruit and vegetables. The high fat content can lead to overconsumption of calories, and the high sugar and salt content can easily exceed the recommended daily limits.

Using convenience foods can also lead to food laziness, when children never really learn to enjoy cutting up or chewing their food, because foods like nuggets, chips and fish fingers are very soft and can be eaten with such minimal effort.

Try instead to cook things yourself. It doesn't have to be long-winded or complicated. If you are pushed for time look at the many websites offering advice on cheap, healthy, easy-to-prepare meals. Scrambled eggs, steamed vegetables and toast, or pasta with cheese and tomato, make very healthy, inexpensive last-minute suppers.

Try to keep convenience foods and ready meals to a minimum.

Grazing

If mealtimes aren't treated as special, because snacks are always available, children can become grazers who don't bother with mealtimes because there's always another tasty snack round the corner. This can hugely reduce the chance of your child having a healthy balanced diet.

Don't encourage your child to graze, as they won't eat properly at mealtimes if you do.

Food as a reward

If food (particularly sugary or salty 'tasty' foods with less nutritional value) is seen as something you have not only when you're hungry but also when you're sad, or as a reward for good behaviour, your child may learn to eat when they are not hungry. This is a very common issue in the Western world, and a problem that persists into our adult lives.

Food is something we need to meet our energy and growing requirements. It is enjoyable, and good food is a pleasure to eat - but if we separate that from hunger then we are at risk of eating too much.

Avoid using food as a reward, which encourages children to learn to eat because they are sad, happy, tired, successful or bored rather than just because they are hungry.

Tooth decay

Our teeth need recovery time between episodes of eating and this takes around half an hour. If we eat constantly - for example, sucking or chewing sweets constantly between meals - the teeth never get that rest, and tooth and gum disease become much more likely.

The constant need to be chewing and eating is also more likely to lead to overconsumption of calories.

Give your child's teeth a rest between meals. Give them water to drink and encourage and teach them to clean their teeth properly in the morning and at bed-time.

Overeating

Most obesity in the Western world comes from people who eat only 100-200 calories more than they burn off, every day. This is a habit which begins in childhood, when we learn to keep eating after we have had enough.

It is better not to persuade children to clear their plate if they say they are full. We do not need to find a little space for something extra, and doing so gets your child used to ignoring the feeling of fullness. It's fine to ask your child to eat one more vegetable if they have space, but if they are full then this should be done at the next meal.

Don't force toddlers to finish their plate if they are full. Nobody learns to like good food by being forced to eat it.

When can my child eat nuts?

Whole nuts should not be given to children under 5 years, as there is a choking risk. Chopped nuts can be given. If you have a family history of nut allergy then you should be cautious about this, and speak with your doctor first. Whilst particular, specific allergies are not usually inherited, the tendency to be allergic is inherited.

Some research now suggests that the earlier your child is exposed to peanut products, the less likely they will be to develop an allergy, so if you don't have a family history of peanut allergy then peanut butter can be tried, at first in small quantities, from 1 year old.

Are there any foods I shouldn't give my toddler?

There are a few foods which you should not give to younger children. These include:

  • Raw or partially cooked shellfish and undercooked eggs which are not British Lion stamped, as they can cause salmonella food poisoning. If eggs are not stamped then they should be cooked until the yolk and white are solid - this is then fine.
  • Whole nuts, which should not be given to children under 5 years of age.
  • Added sweeteners, which encourage a sweet tooth.
  • Fizzy drinks, which damage your toddler's teeth, and can stop toddlers from being prepared to drink water.
  • Caffeine, which isn't good for your toddler.
  • Large fish that live for many years, such as swordfish and marlin, which may contain high levels of mercury and should not be given to children.

Can I put my toddler on a vegetarian diet?

As parents we make choices for our children all the time, and some of those choices are based on our own moral and religious beliefs and observances. As long as the diet that you offer your child is healthy and balanced then deciding to raise your child as a vegetarian is fine. You may, though, have to think a little harder about how to meet his or her needs as, unlike you, your child has to grow and develop as well as simply eat enough to maintain their body weight.

  • A child on a vegetarian diet will need to get their protein and iron from two or three portions of vegetable proteins or nuts every day.
  • A vegetarian diet can be low in iron and energy and high in fibre, filling your child up before they have had enough calories. Giving them smaller, more frequent main meals or more snacks can help.
  • Try to include in their diet:
    • Fortified breakfast cereal.
    • Dark green vegetables.
    • Bread.
    • Beans and lentils.
    • Dried fruit, such as apricots, figs and prunes.
    • Fruit and vegetables - should be included at every meal, as their vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron.
    • Enough calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
  • All children aged 6 months to 5 years who are having less than 500 ml a day of infant formula should also have vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day.

Can I put my toddler on a vegan diet?

You can, although you will need good dietary awareness and will need to take even more care when giving children a vegan diet, as the variety of foods your child can have will be more restricted. Like a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet can be bulky and high in fibre, so that children get full up before they've taken in enough calories. They may need extra supplements, and it may be sensible to discuss this with a dietician.

  • Give vegan children high-calorie foods, such as hummus, bananas and smooth nut and seed butters (such as tahini and cashew or peanut butter).
  • Don't give only wholegrain and wholemeal starches to children under 5 years old, as they're high in fibre, and they may already be on a very high-fibre diet.
  • Pulses and food made from pulses and nuts are a good source of protein. Always use smooth versions for babies and children aged under 5 years. Breast-feeding until your child is 2 or more will help ensure they get enough protein.
  • Ask your GP for advice before using soya-based formula, but this can be introduced from the age of 6 months. Fortified soya drinks often have added calcium. Some foods are also fortified with calcium.
  • Vitamin B12 is a particular concern for vegans. Fortified breakfast cereals and some yeast extracts contain vitamin B12. Your child may also need a supplement.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found in some vegetable oils, such as linseed, flaxseed, walnut and rapeseed oils. However, these are chemically different from the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and may not offer the same protection against heart disease as those found in oily fish. You should consider using a supplement.

My toddler is gaining weight too fast, so should I put them on a weight-reducing diet?

You should not put your child on a diet aimed at making them lose weight. This is likely to restrict their growth and is not advisable without specialist advice.

The advice of a doctor or dietician may be needed if your child seems to be gaining weight too fast. This is needed both to rule out any medical cause for the weight gain and to balance your child's diet so that, if they are overweight, their weight gain slows or stops whilst they 'grow into their weight'. This is a delicate thing to do in children who need energy to grow, develop and learn, but it is entirely possible.

If you are going to talk to your doctor about this, prepare by thinking about what your child currently eats, and what physical activity they take part in. Be open-minded and ready to listen - it may be that the whole family's eating habits need to change in order to solve the problem.

My child is a faddy eater - what do I do?

Many children go through spells of being very fussy eaters. They do remain extremely good at getting the nutrients they need from their food, but this can still be a worry.

You can't force your toddler to eat. Trying to do so is likely to cause upset and stress around mealtimes and foods, making things even worse.

Continue to follow the advice in this leaflet, offering a variety of good healthy foods to your child, eating together and avoiding the temptation to fill them up with 'bad' foods like sweets if they indicate that this is all they are prepared to eat. If you do this they have you over a barrel, as they will know that holding out will bring the easy-reward foods that they want. Why would you eat broccoli if the alternative is chocolate ice cream? Children don't understand that they need to be healthy to have energy and therefore fun, and small children don't care if they are overweight.

If you are worried that your child's faddiness is affecting their health (for example, a poor diet could make them anaemic or constipated, lead to gum disease, or slow their growth) then you should make an appointment with your doctor. Bring any records you have of your child's growth and development to the appointment. Faddiness is not easy or quick to solve, but the important things are keeping your child healthy, and trying not to turn mealtimes into a battle of wills that your toddler wins because you are worried about them.

How do I help my older child eat healthily?

Expanding your child's diet in a healthy way is an adventure which you embark on with them. To begin with you will make all the choices, and whilst they are toddlers your influence will still be huge. This is when you have the best chance to help them develop the healthy tastes they need later. It can be tempting just to give them what they most want, but we can all see the increasing problem of childhood obesity and early-onset adult-type diabetes all around us. These problems begin early in childhood and parents are still able to shape children's tastes and expectations around food.

As children get older you will be less able to persuade them to change their eating habits. They will have other influences on them, will eat at school as well as at home and may have the ability to buy and consume food you don't know about. They may develop their own ideas about diet.

None of this means that you have no influence anymore. By continuing to offer good food, and trying to share the experience of healthy, social eating with your child, you can continue to 'drip feed' sensible advice around food. Eating together as a family and involving them in the choice and preparation of the food you eat together, can help them develop sensible eating habits.

Unless we help our children choose wisely, it's hard to eat sensibly in a world where it's quick and cheap and instantly 'rewarding' to eat unhealthily. Understanding and appreciation of good food and its relationship to healthy living can break this cycle. The child who enjoys and chooses good, healthy food is better placed to lead a long and healthy life.

What if my child eats something they shouldn't?

Children often put things in their mouths that they shouldn't. These can broadly be divided into:

  • Things that are unlikely to cause harm, even though you would prefer your child not eat to them (for example, grass, worms, wax crayons).
  • Things that are poisonous (which can include plants, mushrooms and seeds from the garden, domestic products and chemicals, medicines including vitamins and iron, alcoholic drinks).
  • Things that may sting or cause an allergic reaction.
  • Things that may cause injury, burning or obstruction.

Sometimes you don't know what your child has swallowed. In this case go with the 'worst case scenario' (that is, behave as though they did swallow what you feared) and take action. If in doubt, call 999/112/911 for advice. Seek medical advice urgently if your child has swallowed:

  • Batteries (button and disc batteries) and magnets, which are broken open by the acid in your child's stomach and then release toxic substances.
  • Objects stuck in the throat (gullet), which will make your child cough and choke, will hurt and most usually need to be removed.
  • Inhaled objects, which will make your child cough or wheeze and which may affect breathing.
  • Stinging insects, which may sting the mouth, tongue and throat (if this does not occur and they reach the stomach they will quickly be killed by stomach acids).
  • Anything poisonous, including adult medicines and vitamin supplements of any sort. Many common garden and wild hedgerow plants are poisonous, including deadly nightshade, rhododendron, yew, laburnum, hydrangea, lily of the valley, foxglove flowers, mistletoe berries and lupin seeds.
  • Anything sharp.
  • Anything that seems to be stuck in the throat.
  • Anything that seems to have caused sickness (vomiting) or tummy pain.
  • Something unknown or uncertain if your child is distressed, choking, or having difficulty breathing.

See also separate leaflet called Dealing with Poisoning.

As parent of a small child, look up the emergency management of choking in children, so that you know what to do to try to dislodge an object stuck in the throat if you are ever in this situation.

Further reading and references

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