I have been a Registered Dietitian for over eight years. I specialize in counseling adults with major medical issues such as kidney failure, heart disease, and diabetes requiring specific diets. However, my trials and tribulations with feeding my “picky” toddler led me to research toddler nutrition in-depth. My number one concern with my son was: Is he eating enough? Through my research, I hoped to find the answer to this question and put my mind at ease.
In condensed form, here is what I found:
During the first year of life, growth is rapid, and your baby should triple in birthweight. After your little one hits the 1-year mark, his growth will slow, and with that, your toddler’s appetite will decrease. Many parents worry that their toddler isn’t eating enough, but it is normal to have a decrease in appetite as your child enters into his second year of life. (Whew! That settled one of my major concerns!) It’s important that your toddler has 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, but don’t be too concerned if a meal or two are refused every so often. It is also important to note that a toddler’s serving size is about a fourth of what an average adult eats.
There are four basic food groups that you will want to incorporate into your toddler’s diet:
1. Grains and Starchy Vegetables
This group consists of bread, cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes, corn, and peas. When choosing grains, focus on “Whole Grain” products such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, and 100% whole wheat pasta. Whole grain products provide more fiber and nutrients than refined grains such as white bread, white rice, or white pasta. Toddlers should be offered about 6 servings of grains and starchy vegetables per day. One toddler-sized serving is equivalent to ½ slice of bread, 4 tablespoons of rice or pasta, ¼ cup of dry cereal, 1-2 crackers, or 2-3 tablespoons of cooked starchy vegetables.
2. Dairy Products
This group consists of milk, yogurt, and cheese. Until the age of two (unless instructed by a pediatrician), toddlers should drink whole milk. After age 2, toddlers can switch to low-fat or fat-free milk. Parents may need to limit milk consumption to 16 oz to prevent a decrease in appetite and interference with iron absorption. Toddlers should be offered about 2-3 servings of dairy per day. One toddler-sized serving is the equivalent of ½ cup of milk, ½ oz of cheese, or 1/3 cup of yogurt.
3. Fruits and Vegetables
Toddlers should be offered 2 to 3 servings of fruit and 2 to 3 servings of vegetables per day. Focus on variety and offer fruits and vegetables of all of the different colors of the rainbow (think: red, purple, green, orange, etc.). Offer the whole piece of fruit over fruit juices. The whole fruit is more nutrient-dense than juice, providing more fiber and nutrients per calorie than fruit juice does. Some fruit juices have added sugar, so be careful if you choose fruit juice! A toddler serving size of vegetables is 1 tablespoon for each year of age. A toddler serving size of fruits are ½ piece of fresh fruit, ¼ cup of cooked or canned fruit, or ¼ cup fruit juice.
This food group consists of meat, poultry, fish, tofu, and eggs. Iron is important in your toddler’s diet, with meat, poultry, and fish being good sources of iron. Try to offer a variety of protein sources to your child. If your child eats very little meat, it is important to provide alternative sources of iron such as iron-fortified cereal or vegetables high in iron, including spinach, sweet potatoes, peas, broccoli, collards, and kale.