My Toddler Won’t Eat: Toddler Nutrition 101
fter my son’s first birthday we started to really push the transition to solid foods, and I did not know what to expect. At 18 months he was eating only one or two meals day and refusing most meats and vegetables. He was still drinking about 24-30 ounces of whole milk per day. As a Registered Dietitian I was comforted knowing that he was getting an acceptable amount of protein via his milk intake, but worried that he wasn’t acquiring a taste for nutrient and fiber packed vegetables or protein rich meat, poultry, and fish. I started experimenting with new foods and soon realized that getting my little guy to eat a balanced diet was going to be tricky. Now, at 22 months, he requests pizza or quesadillas for every meal. I have been forced to get creative. Recipes such as cauliflower crust pizza, chicken and sweet potato quesadillas, and turkey-pumpkin chili wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla have been a big hit at our house. I soon realized that my son will eat whatever it is that I am cooking for dinner that evening as long as I present it to him in pizza or quesadilla form! Go figure!
I have been a Registered Dietitian for over eight years with a main focus on counseling adults with major medical issues such as kidney failure, heart disease, and diabetes that require very specific diets. However, my trials and tribulations with feeding my “picky” toddler led me to do some in depth research on toddler nutrition. My number one concern with my son was: Is he eating enough? Through my research, I was hoping 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 very 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 is important to offer your toddler 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, but don’t be too concerned if a meal or two are refused every once and a while. 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 breads, cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes, corn, and peas. When choosing grains focus on choosing “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.
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 and parents may need to try to limit milk consumption to 16 oz to prevent a decrease in appetite and interference with the absorption of iron. 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.