Nutrition Guide for Toddlers

Nutrition Guide for Toddlers

Nutrition Through Variety

Babies grow at a lightning pace — 3 inches or so every 3 months. A toddler, in contrast, grows at a much slower rate — only 3-5 inches in an entire year.

While growth slows somewhat, nutrition remains a top priority. It's also a time for parents to shift gears, leaving bottles behind and moving into a new era where kids will eat and drink more independently.

The toddler years are a time of transition, especially between 12-24 months, when they're learning to eat table food and accepting new tastes and textures. Breast milk and formula provided adequate nutrition for your child as an infant, but now it's time for toddlers to start getting what they need through a variety of foods.

How Much Food Do They Need?

Depending on their age, size, and activity level, toddlers need about 1,000-1,400 calories a day. Refer to the chart below to get an idea of how much your child should be eating and what kinds of foods would satisfy the requirements.

Use the chart as a guide, but trust your own judgment and a toddler's cues to tell if he or she is satisfied and getting adequate nutrition. Nutrition is all about averages so don't panic if you don't hit every mark every day — just strive to provide a wide variety of nutrients in your child's diet.

The amounts provided are based on the MyPlate food guide for the average 2- and 3-year-old. For kids between 12 and 24 months, the 2-year-old recommendations can serve as a guide, but during this year toddler diets are still in transition.

Talk with your doctor about specifics for your child. And younger toddlers may not be eating this much — at least at first. When a range of amounts is given, the higher amount applies to kids who are older, bigger, or more active and need more calories.

Food Group Daily Amount for 2-Year-Olds Daily Amount for 3-Year-Olds Help With Servings
Grains 3 ounces, half from whole-grain sources 4-5 ounces, half from whole-grain sources One ounce equals: 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal.
Vegetables 1 cup 1½ cups Use measuring cups to check amounts. Serve veggies that are soft, cut in small pieces, and well cooked to prevent choking.
Fruits 1 cup 1 cup Use measuring cups to check amounts. An 8- to 9-inch banana equals 1 cup.
Milk 2 cups 2 cups One cup equals: 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces of natural cheese, or 2 ounces of processed cheese.
Meat & Beans 2 ounces 3-4 ounces One ounce equals: 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish, ¼ cup cooked dry beans, or 1 egg.

Milk Matters

An important part of a toddler's diet, milk provides calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones. Toddlers should have 700 milligrams of calcium and 600 IU (International units) vitamin D (which aids in calcium absorption) a day.

The calcium requirement is met if your child gets the recommended two servings of dairy foods every day, but this amount provides less than half of the vitamin D requirement. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends vitamin D supplementation of 400 IU per day if a child is drinking less than one liter (about 4 cups) of milk a day.

In general, kids ages 12 to 24 months should drink whole milk to help provide the dietary fats they need for normal growth and brain development. If overweight or obesity is a concern, or if there is a family history of obesity, high cholesterol, of heart disease talk to your doctor to see if reduced fat (2%) milk may be given. After age 2, most kids can switch to low-fat (1%) or non-fat milk. Your doctor will help you decide which kind of milk to serve your toddler.

Some kids may initially reject cow's milk because it doesn't taste like the familiar breast milk or formula. If your child is at least 12 months and having this difficulty, mix whole milk with some formula or breast milk. Gradually adjust the mixture over time so it becomes 100% cow's milk.

Some kids don't like milk or are unable to drink or eat dairy products. Explore other calcium sources, such as calcium-fortified soy beverages, calcium-fortified juices, fortified breads and cereals, cooked dried beans, and dark green vegetables like broccoli, bok choy, and kale.

Meeting Iron Requirements

Toddlers should have 7 milligrams of iron each day. After 12 months of age, they're at risk for iron deficiency because they no longer drink iron-fortified formula and may not be eating iron-fortified infant cereal or enough other iron-containing foods to make up the difference.

Cow's milk is low in iron. Drinking a lot of cow's milk also can put a child at risk of developing iron deficiency. Toddlers who drink a lot of cow's milk may be less hungry and less likely to eat iron-rich foods. Milk decreases the absorption of iron and can also irritate the lining of the intestine, causing small amounts of bleeding and the gradual loss of iron in the stool.

Iron deficiency can affect growth and may lead to learning and behavioral problems. And it can progress to anemia (a decreased number of red blood cells in the body). Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron and red blood cells, the body's tissues and organs get less oxygen and don't function as well.

To help prevent iron deficiency:

  • Limit your child's milk intake to about 16-24 ounces a day.
  • Serve more iron-rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, enriched grains, beans, tofu).
  • When serving iron-rich meals, include foods that contain vitamin C (tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, and strawberries), which improve the body's iron absorption.
  • Continue serving iron-fortified cereal until your child is 18-24 months of age.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned that your child isn't eating a balanced diet. Many toddlers are checked for iron-deficiency anemia, but never give your child a vitamin or mineral supplement without first discussing it with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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